Every Thanksgiving someone trots out the "Pilgrims were communists" meme. The story goes like this, when they arrived in North America they shared everything so they were communists, and they starved. Then they embraced capitalism and prospered. Don’t bother telling them that Karl Marx wasn’t born until 1818, and Adam Smith wouldn’t show up to tell us about capitalism for another hundred years. But there is an element of truth to the fable. In a practice they called The Common Course and Condition, they did share everything when they arrived in 1620. What is left out of the narrative is that they arrived in November (i.e. Winter). Not just any Winter, 1620 & 1621 were in a period climatologists call “The Little Ice Age.” The Pilgrims’ first winter in North America was brutal. They had no choice but to share. All they had to live on was the meager rations they brought from England and the corn they stole from the Native Americans. Their harvest in 1621 was successful enough that they celebrated with a feast we call Thanksgiving. After the feast, an inventory was done and they realized they had greatly overestimated the harvest. They had to cut food rations to get through the winter of 1621-1622. Here's is where it gets complicated. By the first Thanksgiving, half of the colonists had died in the "Great Sickness". Only four women survived to see Thanksgiving. Right after Thanksgiving 1621, the ship Fortune arrives with 35 new colonists (only three were women). At this point there are seven women doing laundry for about eighty-five colonists. The seven women complained about doing laundry for all the bachelors. It was at this point that individual plots were assigned, and everyone started to make their own way. They shared when they had to in order to survive, and they “went capitalist” when they were settled in as experienced farmers and had a full planting/harvesting season ahead of them. In the end, it had as much to do with laundry as it did with economics.
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