The History of Thanksgiving

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9

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The Pilgrims faced persecution, hunger, hostile tribes, and death during their voyage to the new world. They held on to their lasting beliefs to form Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The Pilgrims were Separatists, which were English men and women who wished to religiously “separate” themselves from the Church of England. Richard Clifton, a parson in Babworth, England, and a prominent member of the Separatist movement was fired for his “unorthodox” beliefs but continued to preach in Scrooby at the home of William Brewster illegally. William Brewster was a preacher in Scrooby. William Bradford, who would go on to become governor of Plymouth Colony,  was born in Osterfield, England. His parents passed when he was very young.

When he was 12, he visited the Separatist Church of Scrooby, which was led by William Brewster and by the age of 17, he was a full-time member. The pilgrims were prosecuted for their beliefs. In 1607, the same year Jamestown, Virginia was established, the Pilgrims packed their belongings and fled to Holland, which is now the modern-day Netherlands. Sadly, the Pilgrims couldn’t hold jobs because of the language barrier, and they feared their children were leaving the faith. They soon voted to leave Holland for the Americas, though many doubted. Stories circulated for years about the new world and how there were hostel tribes, no food sources, and bitter winters, but they were determined because of Mathew 5:14 or the Sermon on the Mount.

“Ye are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”

The Start of The Journey

The Separatists sent two men to secure a land patent from the English government in the New World. The license was secured in 1619. The pilgrims hired two boats: the Speedwell and the Mayflower to carry around 120 passengers. The younger and stronger members, who were led by William Brewster, were sent as an advanced party to initially build the colony. The Bradford family was forced to leave their three-year-old son, John, behind in England. Soon after the ships left port, the Speedwell began to leak, so they were forced to turn back to England for repairs. The Speedwell was repaired, but the second attempt forced them to turn back yet again.

It was decided that the Speedwell was unreliable and was sold. The Pilgrims later discovered that the crew of the Speedwell deliberately sabotaged the ship, allowing them to abandon a year-long commitment to earn some quick cash by purchasing the ship at a discount and then fix it. Now, the Separatists were left with one ship, the Mayflower. Out of the 120 original passengers, 102 were picked to continue the journey to the New World.

The other 18 would come at a later time. The journey was eventful. The main mast broke and was fixed with a large iron screw. Also, a man named John Howland was washed overboard during a storm, but caught hold of a rope and survived. He went on to father ten children. Two people died before reaching land, and a baby boy was born during the voyage. He was named Oceanus Hopkins, but he died in America at the age of 7. 

Arrival In The New World

Once they arrived in the New World, they discovered that 1) they had landed in Massachusetts, not Virginia, and 2) they arrived in late December. Before they disembarked from the Mayflower, all of the men wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact, which would be the law of the land for the new colony. Some believe that the Mayflower Compact was the cornerstone for the U.S. Constitution.

Many of the settlers were sick with a violent cough. The first building of Plymouth was a small, community shelter, which was perfect for spreading germs. In the first winter, two to three people died each day, and at any given time, there were only six to seven healthy people to care for the rest of the colony. In three months, half of the original 102 colonists died, but the Pilgrims were people of faith. The dying stopped when spring came around. The colonies first order of business was to establish peace with the local native Americans.

The natives were suspicious of the Pilgrims because they previously encountered Englishmen who were not so nice. Some natives were killed, others were taken as slaves and diseases that the English brought over wiped out entire villages. However, the Pilgrims were diplomatic and carried a high opinion of the natives. They sought a long-term relationship with natives, and with the help of Squanto, a local English speaking native, they reached an agreement with Wampanoag chief, Massasoit. The summer of 1621 was filled with building homes, planting crops, hunting, and fishing. Squanto and the other natives aided the Pilgrims in teaching them the key skills needed to survive. The fall of 1621 was abundant and plenty full after an arduous first year; the Pilgrims finally felt peace. That fall, they held the first Thanksgiving, which was a three-day celebration with the Wampanoag Indians.

The Pilgrims faced persecution, hunger, hostile tribes, and death during their voyage to the new world. This matters to modern Americans because we need to be thankful for everything we have been given.

Picture Credit: Jennie Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving, 1925