Thanksgiving is my most favorite holiday. I like Christmas because it’s the day we celebrate the Savior’s birth, but I don’t like how commercialized it’s become.
So Thanksgiving is it, especially the week of Thanksgiving. When my children were young, I used to read a book which I don’t remember the title, but it told the true story of the Pilgrims and the details we don’t normally hear.
The people who comprised the Plymouth Colony were a group from England who were Protestants called Puritans who wanted to break away from the Church of England. These "separatists" initially moved to Holland, specifically Leiden. There were about 150 to 200 Pilgrims intent on forming a “pure” church in 1608. Leiden proved more welcoming, and many found work in the booming textiles industry but after 12 years of financial problems, the group received funding from English merchants to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in 1620 to settle in the “New World.”
Initially, the plan was for the voyage to be made in two vessels, the other being the smaller ship called the Speedwell. The first voyage of the ships departed Southampton, England, on August 5, 1620; but the Speedwell developed a leak, and had to be refitted at Dartmouth. This pushed their trip to a later date. A merchant ship called the Mayflower ended up being used and set sail from Plymouth, a port on the southern coast of England. Normally, the Mayflower’s cargo was wine and dry goods, but on this trip the ship carried passengers: 102 of them (Men, women and children,) all hoping to start a new life on the other side of the Atlantic where they could freely practice their faith.
The Mayflower traveled the ocean for a very treacherous and uncomfortable 66 days and was supposed to land where New York City is now located. But windy conditions forced the group to cut their trip short and settle at what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring. In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English.
Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years.
In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit.
The first Thanksgiving was not called as such, although the Pilgrims themselves may have used the term at the time, the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the first Thanksgiving's exact menu, much of what we know about what happened at the first Thanksgiving comes from Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, who wrote:
“One day, Samoset, a leader of the Abenaki people, and Tisquantum (better known as Squanto) visited the settlers. Squanto was a Wampanoag who had experience with other settlers and knew English. Squanto helped the settlers grow corn and use fish to fertilize their fields. After several meetings, a formal agreement was made between the settlers and the native people, and in March 1621, they joined together to protect each other from other tribes.”
It was also told: “One day that fall, four settlers were sent to hunt for food for a harvest celebration. The Wampanoag heard gunshots and alerted their leader, Massasoit, who thought the English might be preparing for war. Massasoit visited the English settlement with 90 of his men to see if the war rumor was true.
Soon after their visit, the Native Americans realized that the English were only hunting for the harvest celebration. Massasoit sent some of his own men to hunt deer for the feast and for three days, the English and native men, women, and children ate together. The meal consisted of deer, corn, shellfish, and roasted meat, different from today's traditional Thanksgiving feast. They played ball games, sang, and danced.”
I think of the great sacrifice these people accomplished for freedom in a new world. If it weren’t for those Native Americans, those Pilgrims would have died. They were blessed to have Squanto who spoke English, to help them plant and survive.
A hundred years later, in October of 1777 all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration. It also commemorated the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga. But it was a one-time affair. Here is George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation.
New York, 3 October 1789
New York, 3 October 1789
By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interposition of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the “increase” of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
We are so blessed to live in this country with such great beginnings from those who sacrificed so much to settle this promised land.