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Thanksgiving 1620 to 2020

November 23, 2020 —

Throughout history, many people have worked through or succumbed to adversity. With Thanksgiving upon us, it seems natural to remember the plight of some of our nation’s earliest settlers as notable among them.

It was 1621, after a treacherous ocean voyage, brutal winter, illnesses, and deaths, when colonists at Plymouth, Massachusetts, celebrated the first Thanksgiving with Native Americans.

The Pilgrims’ courage, perseverance, thoughtful approach to governing,
and willingness to unite with each other and Native Americans
should be an inspiration for each of us.

Expedition to the New World

In September 1620, one hundred thirty hopeful passengers, including 70 adults and 30 children as well as chickens, goats, pigs, and dogs boarded the Mayflower for the New World.


A 12-year-old, 3-masted cargo ship,
the Mayflower was not designed to carry passengers
or travel long distances.

Between the previous August and that fateful September day, the Mayflower expedition suffered two failed starts. Both tries included a smaller ship, the Speedwell, which returned to harbor after springing leaks. Leaving the unseaworthy Speedwell behind and taking on some of its passengers, the Mayflower set sail a third time on September 6, 1620, from Southampton, England, to cross the Atlantic.

Among the passengers were forty-one Pilgrims (also known as Puritans or separatists) seeking religious freedom from King James I and the Church of England. In addition, tradesmen, merchants, servants, and orphans (called strangers or saints) also were aboard. Like the Pilgrims, some of the other passengers left England for religious freedom, whereas others wanted the chance for prosperity and a better life.

The Virginia Contract

To fund their expedition, the Pilgrims signed a contract in England with the Virginia Company — a trading company King James I chartered to establish colonies in the New World. In agreeing to the Virginia Contract, the Pilgrims and other passengers promised to create a settlement near the Hudson River at what was then northern Virginia. Both investors and explorers agreed settlers would repay the expedition debt with profits from the new settlement.

A Long, Stormy Voyage

As is often the case in life, things did not happen as planned. Stormy seas extended the trip and blew the Mayflower 500 miles north of its intended destination. In addition to difficulties from rough weather, lack of provisions, cramped quarters, and unsanitary conditions made the voyage a hardship. Many passengers were sick, two people died, and a baby was born at sea.

Weary and ailing after 66 days at sea, the passengers dropped anchor off the coast of Massachusetts near Cape Cod. It was then November 21, and the weather was getting cold.

In late December, after living on board, the Mayflower passengers took up anchor, crossed Massachusetts Bay to Plymouth, and went ashore to establish a village.

Map of Cape Cod showing Provincetown Harbor,
where the Mayflower first anchored,
and Plymouth Harbor, where the Pilgrims established their colony.

Unification for the Good of All

Even on arrival at Plymouth, the Mayflower passengers were sick with malnutrition and scurvy. To add insult to injury, some of them no longer wanted to honor terms of the Virginia Contract because they had landed in new territory far beyond their original destination. With no official government for law and order, some of the defiant passengers began dividing the group with angry speeches.

Realizing survival of the entire Mayflower crew depended on a unified approach to law and order, William Bradford and William Brewster drafted the Mayflower Compact — a 200-word document that outlined a democratic approach to governing. Upon signing the Mayflower Compact, male colonials aged 21 or older had the right to propose the passage, change, or removal of laws and officials with support of a popular vote.

In addition to providing the Plymouth Colony
with an effective form of government and legislation,
the Mayflower Compact became the foundation for our state constitutions,
Declaration of Independence, and US Constitution.


Signing the Mayflower Compact.

As a result of its effectiveness and because its principles
have influenced free societies throughout the world,
the Mayflower Compact is recognized
among the most important documents in world history.

Native Americans and English Settlers Unite

By 1621, after a harsh first winter, lack of food, and outbreaks of disease, about half of the Mayflower group had died. That spring, the Mayflower crew returned with the ship to England, leaving the settlers at Plymouth to survive on their own.


Early settlers at Plymouth lived
in small, rustic, wooden homes.

In March 1621, Native Americans from the Abenaki Tribe greeted survivors of the Mayflower. Realizing the need for communication, the Abenakis soon returned to the colony with an English-speaking Pawtuxet tribesman named Tisquantum (or Squanto).

Squanto learned to speak English after Captain John Smith’s men kidnapped him in 1614/1615. Smith’s men then sold Squanto as a slave. But Squanto eventually escaped to London and returned to his homeland on an expedition to the New World. Tragically, when Squanto returned home, the majority of his people had died of plague.

Squanto and the Native Americans helped save the settlers’ lives.

Bearing the English no ill will despite his previous capture, Squanto helped the colonists and Native Americans communicate with each other. He also taught the Pilgrims how to fish local rivers, hunt deer for meat, trap beavers for fur, grow corn and local vegetables, tap maple trees for sap, and store the harvest for winter.

The alliance Squanto cultivated
between the English settlers and Wampanoag people
lasted for more than 50 years.

The First Thanksgiving

By fall 1621, the settlers at Plymouth enjoyed a successful harvest. To celebrate their bounty, the Pilgrims planned a 3-day community harvest feast to share with their Native American allies.

We now refer to the feast of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts,
as the first Thanksgiving.

 
Native Americans and English settlers shared the first Thanksgiving.

“And although it be not always so plentiful,
as it was at 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.”
— Letter to a friend in England
from Mayflower Passenger and Third Governor of Plymouth
Edward Winslow, 1621

Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday

Since 1621, Thanksgiving has become an American tradition. By 1863, during the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln designated it a national November holiday. In a gesture of unity, Lincoln encouraged all Americans then to “commend [God’s] tender care to all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal wounds of the nation.”

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week to promote retail sales during the Great Depression. Public opposition to his action, however, prompted Roosevelt to sign a bill in 1941, making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November.

Thanksgiving 2020

Although nearly four centuries separate us from the settlers at Plymouth, we share important similarities with them. For example, we, like the Pilgrims and early settlers, value and subscribe to a democratic system of government that allows us many freedoms, namely freedom to speak and worship as we choose. Like our country’s early settlers, we have adapted to manage hardships. We also share their spirit for pursuing a good life and happiness.

Most recently, of course, we have weathered tragedies, managed complicated logistics, and sought solutions for the coronavirus, social unrest, and our political differences.

Reflecting on History

With our recent challenges in mind, what can we learn from our colonial forebears? What have their successes and failures taught us, reinforced in us, and inspired in us?

Can we pause, if momentarily, from our fears and hardships to appreciate what is going well in our lives? Can we put ourselves aside to consider the lives, concerns, and needs of others to ensure their safety, success, and happiness? Can we unite for the greater good of our country?

Rather than being a holiday with singular focus on our bounty,
Thanksgiving should inspire us to appreciate its genesis in cooperation,
fortitude, and the pursuit of freedom and happiness we so deeply value.

Although the coronavirus prevents us from gathering together for Thanksgiving this year, we can still reflect on and share the qualities and strengths that have brought us to this point in history.

Unity was key to the Pilgrims’ success;
it will be key to solutions for our challenges.