The First Thanksgiving in America
The first Plymouth settlers experienced great human suffering after landing in Plymouth on November 9,1620 after a 65 day journey across the Atlantic. They were unified under 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.
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.
November was too late to plant crops. Many settlers died of scurvy and malnutrition during that horrible first winter. Of the 102 original Mayflower passengers, only 44 survived. The God sent kindness of the local Native Americans saved them from a frosty death.
The Pilgrims’ remarkable courage was displayed the following spring. When the Mayflower returned to Europe, not a single Pilgrim deserted Plymouth.
They were called Pilgrims by their journalist and second governor William Bradford, who had in mind the Letter to the Hebrews 11:13-16, when he wrote – “they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”
They wished to live a pious community life, as the Apostles in the New Testament of the Bible.
Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe, signed a treaty with the Pilgrams in 1621, that was never broken. As a result, the two groups enjoyed a peaceful coexistence.
By early 1621, the Pilgrims had built crude huts and a common house on the shores of Plymouth Bay. Soon neighboring Indians began to build relations with the Pilgrims. SQUANTO, a local Indian who had been kidnapped and taken to England nearly a decade before, served as an interpreter with the local tribes. Squanto taught the Pilgrims to fertilize the soil with dried fish remains to produce a stellar corn crop.
MASSASOIT, the chief of the nearby Wampanoags, signed a treaty of alliance with the Pilgrims in the summer. In exchange for assistance with defense against the feared Narragansett tribe, Massasoit supplemented the food supply of the Pilgrims for the first few years.
Successful colonies require successful leadership. The man to step forward in Plymouth colony was WILLIAM BRADFORD. After the first governor elected under the Mayflower Compact John Carver perished from the harsh winter, Bradford 31 years old was elected governor for the next thirty years. In May of 1621, he performed the colony’s first marriage ceremony.
Under Bradford’s guidance, Plymouth suffered less hardship than their English compatriots in Virginia. Relations with the local natives remained relatively smooth in Plymouth and the food supply grew with each passing year.
By autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims had much for which to be thankful. After the harvest, Massasoit and about ninety other Indians joined the Pilgrims for the great English tradition of HARVEST FESTIVAL. The participants celebrated for several days, dining on venison, goose, duck, turkey, fish, and of course, cornbread, the result of a bountiful corn harvest. This tradition was repeated at harvest time in the following years.
It was President Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving a national celebration in 1863. The Plymouth Pilgrims simply celebrated survival, as well as the hopes of good fortune in the years that lay ahead.
After much trial and tribulation, the pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 declared a time of “Thanksgiving” to God who had provided richly for them. This manner of celebrating by giving thanks to God had been a custom in England. The following text comes from original accounts of the young colony’s leaders, Governor William Bradford and Master Edward Winslow, in their own hand. The spelling differences are in the original.
“They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; for some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no wante. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter aproached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degree). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they took many, besids venison, &c. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to yt proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.” W.B. (William Bradford)
“Our Corne did proue well, & God be praysed, we had a good increase of Indian Corne, and our Barly indifferent good, but our Pease not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sowne, they came vp very well, and blossomed, but the Sunne parched them in the blossome; our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a more speciall manner reioyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst vs, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed fiue Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed upon our Governour, and upon the Captaine, and others. And although it be not alwayes so plentifull, as it was at this time with vs, yet by the goodneses of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” E.W. (Edward Winslow) Plymouth, in New England, this 11th of December, 1621.
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Daniel E Woodhead Ph.D.