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James Purefoy as the buckle-hatted Puritan Solomon Kane in 'Solomon Kane' (Pic: Optimum)
James Purefoy as the buckle-hatted Puritan Solomon Kane in 'Solomon Kane' (Pic: Optimum)
James Purefoy as the buckle-hatted Puritan Solomon Kane in ‘Solomon Kane’ (Pic: Optimum)

As we look towards Thanksgiving, here are a few interesting facts about those plucky English settlers who established the second major settlement in North America, and what customs, traditions and other cultural baggage they brought with them into the new world.

They really didn’t like Christmas
Puritanism was a movement that sought to reform the Church of England, and among other things, end the historical interdependence between the state and the church and the abolishment of idolatry. This was a viewpoint that ignited slowly across the 1600s, becoming highly popular in the years leading up to the English Civil War, as Parliament questioned the idea of a royal prerogative, handed down by God. Having won the war and executed Charles I, the Puritans set about banning plays, canceling Christmas and generally earning their dour historical reputations. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 did rather put a kink in their plans, however.

Although by then the residents of New England—a mixture of Separatists, Puritans and Protestants who set off from Plymouth (England) in 1620—were well settled into their new lives and saw no reason to abandon their principles. They didn’t restore Christmas until 1681, although it didn’t really catch on in Boston until the mid 1800s.

They believed in fairies
The Pilgrims belonged to a religious order that came out of the newly-established Church of England and was created during a period in which science was often indistinguishable from magic and therefore hokum. Coming from England, their cultural identities were hugely informed by folklore and ancient tradition. So while they had strong religious beliefs that informed their every decision, they also believed in the supernatural (including fairies), as every beneficiary of that cultural tradition did at the time.

If they liked it then they should have put a thimble on it
Jewelry isn’t a very Puritan thing, even for weddings. So a far more practical object to symbolize a young couple becoming engaged was the offer of a thimble from prospective groom to his blushing would-be bride. And that thimble would be put to good use in the creation of clothes and textiles for the young couples new home, and then the bottom could be cut off and filed down, leaving behind a ring (but no thimble).

They were kind to scholars…
In 1636, the Massachusetts Bay Colony founded the first institute of higher education in what is now the United States. It was named after the College’s first benefactor, a minister from Charlestown called John Harvard who had left it his library and half of his estate in his will. There’s a statue of John Harvard outside University Hall in Harvard Yard, Harvard, to this day.

…but rotten to adulterers.
Mary Latham was eighteen years old and heartbroken. The young man she fixed her eye on had turned her down, so she resolved to take the first offer of marriage that came along. This she did, marrying a much older and richer man, and embarking on a life of drinking, partying and consorting with men.

The year her actions were uncovered—one of her lovers was an English professor called James Britton, who attributed an illness he suffered after the event to the wrath of God—was the same year that Massachusetts passed a law calling for the death penalty in cases of adultery. They were both executed, with a penitent Mary calling out to “all young maids to be obedient to their parents, and to take heed of evil company.”

…and positively medieval to Quakers.
Considering Quakers to be heretics, the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law in 1658 that prevented them from entering Boston. Should a Quaker man be found, one of his ears would be cut off. Should he come back, the second one would go. And if that wasn’t enough of a deterrent, the third visit would result in a red-hot poker through the tongue. The Quaker women would just be whipped, jailed and (in extreme cases) hanged. It took an intercession from England to demand that these laws be rescinded; Boston Puritans were ordered to protect all Christians (except Catholics).

They liked a drink
Reliably clean water is a relatively modern innovation, leaving travelers of the past little choice but to take something boiled, brewed and refined with them on long journeys. Consequently the Mayflower was loaded with more beer than water, and the very first Thanksgiving meal was served with beer, brandy, wine and gin. As the colony progressed, tavern owners developed a social standing that was higher than that of local clergymen, although public celebrations and drunkenness could result in heavy fines.

None of their hats had buckles on
The classic Pilgrim Hat is a black and slightly conical affair, tall-crowned and narrow of brim, as worn by many men and women across Europe from the 1590s until the mid 1600s. It’s called a capotain, but at no point did it feature a buckle across the hat band. That was an invention of the 1800s, and hardly in keeping with Puritan sensibilities at all.

Life was so hard, the children preferred to be abducted by Native Americans
It sounds like a bizarre claim, but it was an observed phenomenon that children who had been abducted and brought up by Native Americans refused to return to their hard life amid the early settlers. Whereas Native American children who had been raised in the European settlements went back to their previous lives very willingly indeed. Granted, the Puritan existence was one of toil and hardship, and the Native American societies were freer, offering equality for men and women and a less stringent work ethic.

In 1707, Eunice Williams, abducted at age 7 by the Kahnawake Mohawks, wore Native American clothing and learned their language, and when her father eventually found her, as he noted, “She is obstinately resolved to live and dye here, and will not so much as give me one pleasant look.”

Naming a child was an act of spiritual prediction,
This isn’t related to the previous thing, but because Puritan communities felt that common names were tainted with the experiences of the wicked world, they named their children according to the morals they wished to raise them to uphold. Consequently some children were blessed with names like Praise-God, Fear-God and If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned (all from the same family, with the wonderful surname Barebone).

Or how about Job-raked-out-of-the-ashes, Fly-fornication, Handmaid, Reformation, Obedience or Sorry-for-sin? All genuine first names from Puritan families.

Mind you, just because some people opted to use extreme faith as the inspiration for their children’s names, that doesn’t mean everyone did. Other genuine Puritan names include: Wrestling, Fly-debate, Has-descendents, Thanks, Joy-in-sorrow, Experience, Anger, Abuse-not, Dust, Humiliation and Continent. Oh, and Freegift.

Freegift though! Boy or girl, I bet all their meals were happy.

See more:
The Brits and Cross-Dressing: A History
British Daredevils: A Brief History
Five Things You May Not Know About Guy Fawkes
5 Vintage British Things That Made a Comeback

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By Fraser McAlpine