The Englishman Samuel Johnson said people more often need to be reminded than informed. The Thanksgiving holiday comes to mind. The hagiography masks the harsh conditions that led to the Puritans giving thanks.
In 1620, James I granted a charter to the grand council of Plymouth, for governing New England. That fall, one-hundred-and-three Pilgrims, with roughly another thirty crew boarded the aging sailing vessel Mayflower for the New World. Sailing against the North Atlantic’s prevailing Westerlies, the voyage from England to America took over two months. It was brutal. Upon arrival on November 21, the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact.
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.
Then they went ashore. The landing party laid out the village of Plymouth and made contact with the Wampanoag Indians. They also met Manasoit, who introduced them to Squanto. Within a month, six Pilgrims had died. In January 1621, eight more Pilgrims died and fire destroyed the roof of the common house. The next month, seventeen more Pilgrims died. There were only five men able to care for the sick. The dead were buried at night so the Indians wouldn’t discover the horrific losses.
In March 1621, thirteen more Pilgrims died, bringing the total to forty-seven dead. Thirteen out of eighteen wives had now passed away. Only three families remained unbroken.
In April 1621, Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant maize, beans, and squash. In May, the first wedding took place (widower Edward Winslow and the widow, Susanna White). In October, the Pilgrims enjoyed their first good harvest. Governor Bradford declared a public Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims shared a great harvest feast with the Native Americans in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It is described in a firsthand account presumably written by a leader of the colony, Edward Winslow, as it appears in Mourt’s Relation:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
From this we know that the feast went on for three days. It included ninety Native Americans and had plentiful food. But plentitude was not the chief reason for the Pilgrims’ gratitude. They believed God was good in plenty and in poverty, in sickness and in health. Their gratitude was grounded in a good God, regardless of harsh conditions and terrible losses. It’s a story worth remembering this Thanksgiving holiday.
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