Conditions were poor for the Pilgrims during the first few years at Plymouth Bay Colony. Crop yields were poor, and many went hungry. The Governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, wrote that the old English tradition of farming in common – where the harvest was pooled and rationed –
“was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imploymet that would have been to their benefite and comforte.”
It seems that the younger, healthier, and able-bodied colonists resented not receiving a share of the harvest proportional to their labors and often sat idle. Others were unwilling to work, citing their weak physical condition.
After three years of near starvation, Bradford decided to abandon farming in common in the spring of 1623 to set aside a plot of land for each family as their own private property to supply themselves with corn. The result was a bountiful harvest. Governor Bradford wrote that:
“This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means ye Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into ye feild, and tooke their little-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.”
The colonists embraced the idea of enjoying the fruits of their individual labor, and became more productive. Years of abundance followed. Eventually the colony produced enough corn to spare and trade for furs and other comforts. The fledging economy was so successful that 24 years later, in 1647, Bradford wrote that:
“Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day”. The bountiful harvest in the fall of 1623 prompted them to “sett aparte a day of thanksgiving.”
We still have reason to celebrate the economic principles of that first Thanksgiving of nearly 400 years ago. The productive and efficient U.S. economy has absorbed some hits this year, but has posted solid growth, driving income gains and a rise in the stock and bond markets, and improving the financial well-being of Americans – definitely something to be thankful for.
Jeff Kleintop, CFA
Senior Vice President
Chief Market Strategist
Linsco Private Ledger