In Flander’s Field


In recognition of Veteran’s Day, I am reposting this from last year.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

This poem was written by John McCrae. I learned it in school as a child and remember it every Veteran’s Day. My sincere gratitude to all our veterans, living and dead, for the sacrifices they made so we could enjoy freedom.

Pilgrim Homes, Food and Farms


On 28 December 1620, house plots were assigned to family groups–each family was responsible for building their own house. Once warmer weather set in, their progress was impeded by a request from Captain Miles Standish to build a fort at the top of the hill to house the cannon and arms, followed by a request to erect a 6-9’ palisade around the settlement. This latter was a half-mile in length. Later, everyone was engaged in planting the corn crop and taking care of the new shoots as they came up. This took men away from working on their own houses. By December of 1621, seven houses had been built with four of them for common use.

This is an aerial view of Plimoth-Patuxet, the village as it was circa 1622-23.

Remember, the colonists were not skilled carpenters and lacked tools, so their first houses were fairly crude, just protection from wilds animals and the elements.

They had one door, one window, dirt floors, fireplace, and a wooden chimney (also a fire hazard). In the 1600s and into the 1700s, the typical fireplace was a walk-in, a wide open recess, with only a semblance of a mantel or no mantel at all.

The houses were lined inside with daub and wattle but had no insulation, so they were hot in the summer and cold in the winter. And smoky. They were crowded, sometimes with six or more people.  The windows usually had shutters and were covered over with oiled paper in the winter.

Daub and wattle has been used for at least 6000 years. It is a woven lattice of wooden strips or twigs  called wattle, which is filled in with daub, a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw.

The women planted gardens as soon as possible beside or behind their houses, using seeds they brought with them from England. Some of the seeds did not do well, but onions, garlic, and vegetables like parsley, lettuce, spinach, carrots, and turnips did well.  Later they learned to cultivate squash and pumpkin. Separatists initially tried, but failed, to grow rye, barley, and wheat, so corn was their main crop. The Separatists drank water until they learned to use corn to make beer. Hops were first introduced from Europe by the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629.

They didn’t have any livestock. Only chickens and maybe a pig or goat came on the Mayflower. The chickens ran free in the settlement and were fed worms because grain could not be spared for them. So the first two years were made more difficult.

Three Red Devon milking cows came only in 1623 – so no milk, no butter, no cheese unless there was a goat or two – but this was not recorded.  The cows came on the Anne and were named Great Black Cow, Lesser Black Cow, and Great White-Backed Cow. That same year, 1623, it was reported that six goats, fifty pigs and many chickens populated the colony.

Remember these early colonists were farmers. They did not like to fish and fish was not on the menu often.  Not that they could fish – the fish hooks sent with them were too large for the type of fish in the harbor!

During the first two years, all of the crop growing was done communally. But not everyone contributed equally, so in 1623, men were then assigned an acre each family for their own farming, with any surplus food contributed to the common supply.  As the colony grew, more land was needed for farming and in 1628, the Plymouth court distributed land, about   20 acres per share, to the colonists. Livestock was also apportioned.

The apportionment of larger farms meant the colonists moved further and further away from the settlement. In time, this led to the establishment of new towns. All of the plots assigned had at least some either ocean or riverfront. That was because there were no roads and the Pilgrims had to return to the settlement for Sunday services. They came by boat. And some maintained their original house in the settlement where they lived in the winter.  By 1624, there were 32 houses in the Plimoth settlement.

All this is the background to my book, The Last Pilgrim.

A Brutal First Winter and Spring, but the Plimoth Colonists Persevere, with Help


The building of the first homes proceeded at a glacial pace – a pun because of the frequent storms with sleet, rain, or snow. Early on, a map was made of where each house would be built. Each ‘family’ was responsible for the construction of their home.

Think of the women, trapped below decks on the Mayflower. They lived in cold and dank since there could’ve been no fires, and they were confined to caring for an increasing number of sick passengers in this dark and fetid environment. Most of the children stayed aboard as well, except for older boys who could help the men with chopping down trees, dressing the trunks, and helping to drag them to the building site.

By the time spring rolled around, half of the passengers and half the crew had succumbed to disease, most commonly scurvy and pneumonia.  The Mayflower could not return to England until 1621 because of the decimation of its crew and the bad weather. Food supplies brought on the Mayflower kept dwindling, although fish, clams, greens, venison, rabbit, and other meat would have been available.

The women, as caregivers, were particularly hard-hit: only five adult women survived to the coming of spring. Thus the working backbone of the potential colony, the women who cared for the sick, prepared food, washed clothes and so much else were few in numbers and all of the older girls would have been conscripted to work with them, side by side.

When the first house was built, the men who had become ill were moved there, and other men cared for them, apparently with kindness and love. But then it burned down and had to be rebuilt. How discouraged the colonists must have been, but they had a deep and abiding faith in their God which

somehow saw them through. 

Early on, the plan for the settlement was made. Here is the map of where each family’s house would be, from Bradford. Byu spring, the term ‘family’ was loosely defined. With only five wives left, a family might consist of a group of unattached men, although some were assigned to houses along with the orphaned children.


It was during this time that the colonists made first contact with the Natives of the area, when Samoset, an Abenaki sagamore, came into settlement and greeted them in English, saying “welcome”.  Through Samoset, the colonists met Tisquantum (Squanto), the last of the Patuxets on whose land they were building. He served as the translator in the first meeting between the colonists and Massoit (which means sachem), the chief of the Wampanoags. More on this later. That contact meant everything to the survival of the colony because of what Squanto and the Wampanoags taught the settlers many things – how to plant corn, native plants to eat (pumpkins and squash and berries), where to find eels (which the English loved).

So how did the Pilgrims build their homes? Not log cabins, as many think. The Pilgrims had never seen a log cabin. They built what they knew with the few tools they had with them – post and beam houses.






Initially, the men only had axes to cut and shape beams and planks for their houses. Imagine how hard that was to do with just axes. Eventually, they had a saw pit for sawing the planks.


The roofs were thatch made from natural reeds and grasses from the nearby salt marshes and often caught fire. So a bucket of water stood by the door to each house. Seven of the 32 houses existing in the winter of 1624 were burned to the ground with everything in them.


What did the houses look like inside? What did the colonists eat? Coming up….



The Pilgrims Reach the New World – Now What?


As I mentioned in my last post, land was first sighted from the Mayflower on November 20, 1620, after a voyage of 66 days. Captain Jones determined it was Cape Cod and turned south to reach the land for which the Separatists had a patent – land which was located north of the Hudson River but was considered part of Virginia.

After a few hours of sailing south, the Mayflower ran into turbulent shoals, so turbulent that Captain Joines had to consider whether continuing in that direction was wise. The ship was in poor shape and probably would not withstand the battering of the turbulence. There were now more than a few people aboard who were sick, and food and beer supplies (the water had long been fouled) were dwindling.

He decided he had no choice but to turn north and sail around the arm of Cape Cod, coming to harborage in Cape Cod Bay early in the morning of the day after. Jones knew exactly where he was. After all, Cape Cod and what would become New England had been visited or exported by several men earlier in the century: Bartholomew Gosnold (1602); Martin Pring(1603); Samuel de Champlain (1605); George Waymouth (1605); Henry Hudson (16090 and John Smith (1614).

                                              This is John Smith’s map

One very important event occurred while the Mayflower was anchored in Cape Cod Bay – the creation and signing of the Mayflower compact on November 11, 1620. The decision to settle outside the bounds of the Virginia Company patent caused some “mutinous speeches” by some of the passengers. The Mayflower Compact was an attempt to establish a temporary, legally binding form of self-government until such time as the Company could get formal permission from the Council of New England. This self-government was not tied to any religion and was based on English and Mosaic law. The Mayflower Compact was regarded as law until 1686 and is significant because it is one of the first examples of a colony self-governing itself. Many consider it to be the beginning of American democracy.


While anchoring in the bay, a party went ashore to see if they could find a source of fresh water (they did) and to explore the coast for a possible settlement. The land around the Cape shore was too sandy for growing crops, so over the next weeks, groups of men explored north along the coast – first in the ship’s boat and then in the reconstructed shallop – looking for a likely site for their settlement.

                               Cape Cod Skaket Beach Sunset by Bill Wakeley

A storm blew nearly destroyed the shallop on their third trip and blew them ashore on what is now known as Clark’s Island, just outside of Plymouth Harbor.

This is Samuel de Champlain’s fairly accurate map of the area, showing the three sites considered for their settlement.

The first was Clark’s Island itself, rejected because although it was defensible, it had no source of water and limited trees for wood. The second was along a river entering the bay at its north end, rejected because it would be an arduous task to get wood there for building.

The third (note the star) was at the southern end of the bay, marked by a huge granite rock, which would become known as Plymouth Rock. This site had a free-running brook (still there today), a high hill on which the colonists’ cannons could be placed, and best of all, cleared land. The land had been cleared by the Patuxet tribe, all of whom died of disease brought by previous explorers during a time called the Great Dying (1617-1619). This was the site chosen.

Two rather fanciful paintings of the landing of passengers from the Mayflower. The women would not have been allowed to leave the ship.

The colonists began building in December with a common house, which burned down and had to be replaced. For the rest of the winter and into the spring, the colonists remained living on the ship. There were still no fires for warmth or cooking allowed below deck. In the frigid, fetid environment, sicknesses, which began during the voyage, became prevalent, taking lives on a regular basis. Mary Norris Allerton, Mary Allerton Cushman’s mother, died in February not long after giving birth to a stillborn boy.

Fewer healthy men were left to build homes, so the building was slow. Bad weather also hindered their efforts. It had been assumed winter weather would be similar to England’s since this site was on the same latitude, so the colonists were not prepared for the brutality of the winter in the New World.



      Artists’ interpretations

Come back to Plymouth with me when the Pilgrims’ first spring arrived.  How many survived?


Come Take The Voyage On the Mayflower with the Pilgrims


What was it like to sail on the Mayflower in 1620? No picnic.

The Mayflower actually sailed three times, the first two times with a smaller sister ship called the Speedwell. Each time the Speedwell began to take on water, the second time 300 miles from England. So the Mayflower returned to port with the Speedwell twice, before the decision was made to proceed with just the Mayflower.

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall (1882)

The later Governor of the Plimoth Colony, William Bradford, wrote that “overmasting” strained the ship’s hull but attributed the main cause of her leaking to actions on the part of the crew. Bradford later assumed that Speedwell master Reynolds’s “cunning and deceit” (in causing what may have been man-made leaks in the ship) had been motivated by a fear of starving to death in America.

In any event, the Speedwell was deemed unseaworthy and abandoned. Eleven people from the Speedwell joined the others on the Mayflower. Twenty of the Speedwell’s passengers, including Robert Cushman, who would be Mary Allerton’s father-in-law, remained in London. Isaac Allerton and his family were among the passengers on the Speedwell who transferred to the Mayflower.

Thus one hundred and two passengers sailed on the Mayflower for the third and final time, leaving Plymouth on September 6, 1620.

Why was sailing that late in September risky? The North Atlantic is stormy in the autumn – think of hurricane season. Many ships in the 1600s were damaged or shipwrecked by storms. Passengers sometimes fell overboard and drowned. Also, the winds blew from west to east, so the Mayflower was beating against the wind, tacking back and forth. Also, ships could be attacked and taken

A harrowing scene of the the Mayflower at Sea, by Mike Haywood provided by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.

over by pirates. So the ship sailed on a northern path across the Atlantic to avoid the storms.

Now, imagine yourself living below deck in a dark, dank room 58’ by 28’ or 1624 square feet, with 101 other people. The ceiling (the main deck of the ship) is so low you have to stoop over to walk. That’s sixteen square feet per person, shared with chickens, maybe a pig, a disassembled 33-foot long boat called the shallop, and everyone’s worldly goods except for food stores, which were in the hold.

There was no fire allowed below deck, so food was eaten cold. People partitioned off their tiny allotted spaces with curtains or furniture, and they slept on the deck. Most of the passengers wore the same clothes for the entire trip. If they were lucky they had one or two changes of clothes. Some had none.






Crew galley for hot food                                                   Below deck

Imagine the noise of 101 other passengers: talking, coughing, snoring, groaning. Imagine the smells from dank clothing, moldy food, sweat, and later, scurvy, and the smell of vomit from seasickness. And don’t forget the pails that served as chamber pots. You would also have other ‘passengers’ traveling with you – fleas and lice. This is my vision of hell.

What would you have to eat?

Hard biscuits (hardtack), beer, salted (dried) beef, salted ling or cod fish, qats, peas and some ground wheat, butter and sweet oil, mustard seed, aqua vitae, pickled food, dried fruit, and cheese.

Much of this food grew moldy from the dank. The water for the children grew rancid and the children had to drink beer.  Hardtack is hard. It is made months ahead from flour, salt, and water and I made some for my critique group. The only way they could eat it was to dunk it in coffee, but it is tasteless. Onboard the Mayflower it became infested with maggots, and the sailors taught the passengers to dunk their hardtack in beer and wait until the maggots floated to the top. Actually, I think those maggots might have been more nourishing.


Remember, the passengers had to bring enough food to last until the women could plant and harvest a garden and the men could hunt or fish. And they had already eaten some of it during the previous two sailing with the Speedwell.

Heavy storms drenched everyone and everything above and below decks, as water poured in through the hatches and gunports. So clothing and bedding and food got wet. Then one of the storms cracked one of the massive wooden beams supporting the frame of the ship. There was a spare beam aboard, but no way to hold it in place so it could be nailed in.

Luckily, the Pilgrims remembered a “great screw” they had in the hold and it was used to hold the beam in place. This was a jackscrew and was assumed to be what the colonists would use to hold the beams of their house in place when they were building. But another thought is that it was designed for a printing press. The Pilgrims had printed and disseminated many religious tracts when they were in Holland and also in England.

It wasn’t long before both passengers and crew suffered from scurvy, what we now know as a deficiency of vitamin C. Scurvy is a nasty disease with symptoms such as severe brittleness and massive decaying of the teeth and tooth loss, foul breath, ocular irritation, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, poor wound healing, and general weakness. A cure was not known, but the Mayflower passengers did not suffer from scurvy after their first years in the New World because of a healthy diet. Also, they may have learned from the Native Americans that pine needle tea is loaded with vitamin C.

One baby was born during the journey. Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth to her first son, appropriately named Oceanus, on Mayflower. Another baby boy, Peregrine White, was born to Susanna White after Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod.Mary Allerton’s mother was also pregnant.

Land was first sighted on November 20, 1620, after a voyage of 66 days. Captain Jones determined it was Cape Cod, based on maps made by previous explorers. He turned the Mayflower south to reach the land for which the Pilgrims had been granted a patent – a part of ‘Virginia’ which was located north of the Hudson River.

This is an extant map from 1657, from the Library of Congress. You can clearly see Cape Cod.

But the Mayflower never got there, and I will tell you why in the next post.

PS. These posts are the background to my book, The Last Pilgrim, the Story of Mary Allerton Cushman, which I hope you will find interesting with this background information.



In response to a request from Barb Taub, I am reposting this article from 2015. 

I raised the insects for the Silence of the Lambs. How that happened is sort of interesting…    

I got a phone call one day in my lab from a colleague at the USDA in Maryland, where there was an active entomology group. The first thing I heard was “How would you like to get involved in a movie?”

Being the attention hog that I am, I replied, “Tell me more.”

“Well, it’s a horror movie.”

“A horror movie? I don’t think so. They’re so shlocky.”     Jodie Foster

“Even one with Jodie Foster starring?”


“How about Anthony Hopkins?”

“Okay, sign me up. What do I have to do?”

Manduca sexta

Manduca sexta

He explained to me that they needed Death’s Head Moths for the movie.

Deaths Head Moth

Deaths Head Moth

I wasn’t raising these moths, and besides, they were indigenous to Europe and Asia, and there was no question of the government allowing me to import them. However, the adult of moth I did work with, Manduca sexta (otherwise known as the tobacco hornworm), did look a great deal like the adult Death’s Head.

Soon after that, I received a call from the “insect wrangler” for the movie, who told me roughly how many of each stage they would need (larva, pupa and adult) and when. He also asked me a lot about how to get them to “act” – move around, be still, fly.

Here are my moths

Here are my moths

So I got to work. We bought a trunk to transport them in and separated it into three compartments for the three stages, equipped with lights and a self-contained fan. I beefed up my colony to fit their time line, and bit actors from the movie came twice to collect the trunk and the insects. The trunk flew back to Pittsburg first class. I don’t know about the actor.

The second time an actor visited, I pumped him about the movie. He told me the scene in which the policemen come into the room where Dr. Hannibal Lector is caged, only to find him gone but a dead detective mounted on the cage, was not

Lt. Boyle (Charles Napier) ends up as Hannibal's homage to surrealist painter Francis Bacon

Lt. Boyle (Charles Napier) ends up as Hannibal’s homage to surrealist painter Francis Bacon

rehearsed. In order to get a real reaction from the actors, they did one take. He said it was indeed horrifying. I also learned the pupa extracted from the young woman’s throat in the morgue scene was actually a Tootsie Roll.

The scene in the basement with all of my lovely Manduca flying or crawling around was wonderful, at least to my eye. The adults were made to look like a Death’s Head moths with the addition of clear false fingernails, painted with the skull, glued to their thoraces.

I didn’t see the picture when it was first released. As I said, I am not a fan of horror and dislike being scared to death. I did see it when it was released as a video. From the comfort of my living room, I realized it was a darned good movie.

One thing I should have done, though, is visit the set. I could have, although I would have had to pay my way. Opportunity missed…

Introducing Geoff Le Pard’s New Book, The Art of Spirit Capture


Today I’m interviewing Geoff Le Pard (shown here with his dog Dog), who has a new book out called The Art of Spirit Capture. Geoff, occasionally called His Geoffleship, has a wonderfully funny and entertaining blog, TanGental (, which is how I first got to know him. We met, finally, at a Blogger’s Bash in London a good many years ago, when he sported a pink beard.

Before writing, Geoff was a lawyer, ending up at the London Olympics. He started writing to entertain in 2006 and hasn’t left his keyboard since. When he’s not churning out novels he writes some maudlin self-indulgent poetry, short fiction and blogs.  He writes in a range of genres so there is something for everyone. He also cooks with passion if not precision.

Geoff has written ten books, not counting The Art of Spirit Capture, which are as eclectic as the workings of his mind.

Just check these out to confirm my opinion:

My Father and Other Liars, a thriller set in the near future

Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, a coming of age story, the first in the Harry Spittle saga

The Last will of Sven Anderson is the secondi n the saga

 Booms and Busts,  the third. Not surprisingly, Harry Spittle is a lawyer, as Geoff was in his former life.

Life in a Grain of Sand, a 30 story anthology covering many genres

Salisbury Square, a dark thriller set in present day London

Buster & Moo about two couples and a dog whose ownership passes from one to the other

Life in a Flash, a set of super short fiction, flash and micro fiction

Apprenticed To My Mother, a descriptioin of the period in Geoff’s life  after his father died when he thought he was to play the role of dutiful son

Life in a Conversation, an anthology of short and super short fiction that explores connections through humour, speech and everything besides


A sort of long introduction, so let’s get on to his latest, The Art of Spirit Capture. Here’s the blurb.

Jason Hales is at his lowest ebb: his brother is in a coma; his long-term partner has left him; he’s been sacked, and Christmas is around the corner to remind him how bad his life has become.
After receiving an unexpected call telling him he’s a beneficiary of his Great Aunt Heather’s estate, he visits the town he vaguely recalls from his childhood, where his great aunt lived. Wanting to find out more, he’s soon sucked into local politics revolving around his great uncle’s extraordinary glass ornaments, his ‘Captures’, and their future.
While trying to piece his life back together, he’ll have to confront a number of questions: What actually are these Captures, and what is the mystery of the old wartime huts where his uncle fashioned them? Why is his surly neighbor so antagonistic? Can he trust anyone, especially the local doctor Owen Marsh and Charlotte Taylor, once a childhood adversary, but now the lawyer dealing with the estate? His worries pile up, with his ex in trouble, his flat rendered uninhabitable and his brother’s condition worsening. Will Christmas bring him any joy?
Set in the Sussex countryside, this is a modern novel with mystery, romance, and magic at its core, as well as a smattering of hope, redemption, and good cooking.


We agreed to have lunch together at Suffolk Barns in the real Mendlesham, on which he based his fictitious community for his book. A wonderfully renovated 400-year-old, dog-friendly barn, it is known for its barbecue.  He brought Dog with him, who stayed under the table but was rewarded for his good behavior with the occasional scrap of meat. The interview was remarkably short because of our devouring of the meal.

NG (between bites): How did you come to create the community for your new book?

GLP: Boy, do I struggle with settings. When I came to writing the novel I wanted to contrast my main protagonist, Jason’s London centric life with the rural isolation of where the spirit captures were made. I decided there was a better chance of creating a fictitious community in its relative isolation in this area – but based on Mendlesham, which sits a few miles to the east of the A23, where farmland becomes rolling in the lee of the South Downs. It was at the center of the affluent wool and wheat farms that surrounded the town for most of its history. The town comprises a mix of styles from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which still lends it a rustic charm. It has remained a secluded idyll, in part because of the booming growth of nearby Lewes. All I will say is the town itself is as much a character in the book as the people.

NG: Your books are an eclectic bunch. Why do you write in different genres?

GLP: I like to have something for everyone. Hopefully, I’ve accomplished that.

NG: Where do you get the inspiration for your different books?

GLP: As you know from my blog, I like to take long walks, sometimes with Dog. Here he bent under the table, patted Dog’s head and gave him a piece of meat.  I’ve shared some of those walks on my blog, and things I see along the way can inspire me or give me an idea. I also take in a variety of sporting events. You never know what you might see. Tea or coffee?

NG: Coffee!


So there you have it, an intro to Geoff’s new book, The Art of Spirit Capture.

You can find the book on Amazon:

along with his other books.

What Research? Years for The Last Pilgrim


I am often asked how long it took me to write The Last Pilgrim. Counting the abortive attempts with first-person and third-person voice, then trying to figure out how to get a four-year-old’s voice (I didn’t – I used her father’s voice for the first part of the book), it took about seven years. Off and on, until I found my groove.

A lot of that time was spent on research, but I was lucky in that I had a timeline and a background for Mary Allerton’s life: the history of the Plimoth Colony.


Here are some of the various areas I had to research:

1. The Mayflower voyage and the first 2-3 years – of which there is a lot written, mainly by Bradford and an outstanding book by Nathaniel Philbrick

2. House construction – more on that later

3. Clothing – how did they make wool and linen cloth?

4. Food and food preparation

5. Native populations and their interaction with the Pilgrims – the Pilgrims made the first treaty with a Native American tribe, one which lasted 50 years

6. Farming – the Pilgrims were farmers, after all

7. Trade and trade goods – lumber, corn, sassafras, whale oil, dried fish, and furs

8. Child-rearing – did you know the Pilgrims thought children were born with a sinful nature?

9. Weather (hurricanes and earthquakes) – both Cat 5 hurricane and an earthquake hit the colony, so you have to read the book to find out about it.

10. The law and the courts

11. Indentured servants – often mistreated

12. Seventeenth-century birthing practices – I found a book written by a 17th-century midwife13. Movement and genealogy of various families

14. Livestock – there weren’t any for several years

15. Gardens – what did the Pilgrim women grow in their gardens?

16. Medical practices

                                             A dental pelican for extracting teeth.

17. Lives of other First Comers – the Bradfords, Billingtons, Winslows, Warrens, Standishes, Fullers, Aldens and more

18. Family life and customs – the Pilgrims had some amazingly modern childrearing practices

19. Religion – were the Pilgrims really Puritans?

20. Pottery and utensils – wooden, then redware, and later Dutch ware

21. Social norms

22. Witchcraft – Were there any witches in the Plimoth Colony? You have to read the book!

23. British rule – the colonies were subject to the winds and whims of the English monarchy

24. Cloth making (wool and linen)

25. Candle making –tallow, bayberry, and beeswax

26. Pipes – a collection of pipes were available for smoking at taverns; the tavern owner would break off the stem after a use, but the stems often broke on their own (the pipes were clay), so they grew shorter and shorter as they were used.

27. Beer making- the women did it, of course

And a few others…

I merrily researched from about 50 books and thousands of online sources, some of which I came to recognize as fanciful tales. I might start the day looking at herbs and end up reading about dishware!

Next time: The voyage begins

How I Chose Mary Allerton Cushman as The Last Pilgrim


I promised I would reveal all about how I chose Mary Allerton Cushman as the subject for my novel The Last Pilgrim. Actually, the decision was not terribly difficult.

I happened to read that Mary Allerton Cushman was the oldest survivor of the First Comers, as those who had arrived on the Mayflower were called. That meant that she lived through the entire duration of the Plimoth Colony, which was subsumed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.

There are not many facts about her.

She was the daughter of Isaac and Mary Norris Allerton, born in 1614.

Isaac Allerton was the assistant to John Carver, the Separatists’ first governor, then to William Bradford.

Mary Allerton married Thomas Cushman in 1635.

Thomas Cushman became the Elder of the Separatist church after Elder Brewster died and someone who was central to the colony.

Mary and Thomas had eight children who survived to adulthood. She died in 1699 at the age of 83.

Those who died during the first winter and spring were buried on Cole’s Hill, which faces Plymouth Rock, They were buried without markers and grass sown over the graves so that the Native American tribes in the area would not know how many of their numbers had died. At the southern end of the hill stands a granite sarcophagus erected by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants in 1921. It contains skeletal remains accidentally disinterred from the hill in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The first rediscovery of Pilgrim remains occurred in 1735 following a heavy rain, which washed many of the bones down the hill and into the harbor. Remains found nearby during the digging of sewer lines in 1855 and 1883 were sent to Boston to determine if they were Europeans or Native. Pronounced European by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., four skeletons were returned to Plymouth and placed in a lead-lined casket in the top of the old Hammatt Billings canopy over Plymouth Rock in 1867. The casket was retrieved when the old canopy was torn down, and it was interred in the present memorial, erected by the Society of Mayflower Descendants on May 24, 1921.

The sarcophagus on   Cole’s Hill

                                                                Cole’s Hill

Mary and Thomas were buried on Burial Hill, the hill at the top of First (later Leyden) Street. The exact date as to when this ground became used as a cemetery is not known. There are no written records of the earliest burials. The earliest grave markers were made of wood, and none exist today. The site was used as a fort from 1621 until 1676. The earliest engraved headstone marks the grave of Edward Gray, who died in 1681. There are only 7 headstones that precede 1700.

                                                Burial Hill (originally Fort Hill)

Thus the exact site where Mary and Thomas were buried is not known. However, there is a 25 foot granite column, erected by Cushman descendants in 1858 that honors Robert Cushman and his sons, with a small mention of Mary on one of the plaques.

                                                   Cushman Memorial


                                          Isaac Allerton ——Mary Norris

                                           (1586-1639)          ( 1587-1621)


            Bartholomew           Remember         Mary   —- Thomas Cushman (m. 1635)

            (1613-1638)          (1615-1656?)       (1616-1699)    (1607-1691)


        Thomas     Mary     Sarah       Isaac       Elkanah      Lydia        Fear       Eleazar

         (b. 1637)   (b ?)    (b.1641)    (b.1648)   (b.1651)   (b.1652)   (b.1653)   (b.1656)

These bare facts about Mary told me that she would have been central to the development of the colony, which would form the backstory of my book. And I noted that she had survived eight childbirths, no doubt due to the skill of the colony’s midwife, Bridget Fuller. Only two of her children, Mary and Fear, predeceased her.

But with so little information, I could create Mary as I saw her, which is a gift to a writer.


A few words about other candidates for my main character:

Bridget Fuller: Bridget Fuller was the wife of the physician Samuel Fuller, who had basically taught himself medicine prior to the voyage to the New World. Shew arrived on the Anne in 1623, already with a reputation as a midwife and teacher. She figures prominently in my book.

Priscilla Mullins: Priscilla was 18 when she embarked with her family on the Mayflower. The entire family except for Priscilla died the first winter. In 1622 0r 1623, she married to John Alden, the Mayflower‘s cooper, who had decided to remain at Plymouth rather than return to England with the ship. John and Priscilla lived in Plymouth until the late 1630s, when they moved north to found the neighboring town of Duxbury. John and Priscilla had ten or eleven children, most of whom lived to adulthood and married. In my book, Priscilla and Mary share a life-long friendship.

Elisabeth Warren: Elizabeth Warren was the one Pilgrim woman who broke through the patriarchal conventions of 17th-century society. Nothing is known of her English background, apart from her marriage to Richard Warren, who sailed on the Mayflower without her. Warren was reunited with his wife and five daughters when the Anne arrived in 1623 but died in 1628, leaving Elizabeth a widow with 7 children (five young women, ranging from early teens to probably early twenties, and two small boys under the age of 5). She never remarried.

Her name appears regularly in the records of Plymouth Colony during the long period of her widowhood, first as paying the taxes owed by all heads of household and then as executor of her husband’s estate. She also became one of the ‘purchasers’ of the colony’s debts to the Merchant Adventurers who had financed the colony, since her husband had agreed to do this before his death. In 1635, Elizabeth Warren appears in the Records of Plymouth Colony as a totally independent agent, the only Pilgrim woman to be such.

When she died in 1673, this remarkable woman received the unprecedented but wellearned tribute of a eulogy in the Records of Plymouth Colony:

Mistress Elizabeth Warren, an aged widow, aged above 90 years, deceased
on the second of October, 1673. Who, having lived a godly life, came to her
grave as a shock of corn fully ripe.

While Elizabeth Warren would have been a good central character, her life did not span the life of the colony, and while she was a remarkable woman, she would not have been in a central position in Plymouth. She is mentioned several times in my book, however.

In my next post, I will tell you about some of the research I did for the book.