Pilgrims, Native Americans, Presidents, and a Magazine Editor: The True Story of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is so much more than food, football, family, and gearing up for the first day of Christmas shopping?
Most Americans look forward to the Thanksgiving feast, hours of watching football on television, and visits with family members that they rarely get the chance to see.
On Thanksgiving night, you will loosen your belt contentedly for waist expansion while watching shoppers being interviewed on the nightly news, as they queue up at the malls ready to descend on the stores for Black Friday sales. You may also hear and read sad stories of those who must depend on charity in order to partake in the day.
It's all that and more. Knowing the rich history of Thanksgiving, and of the people whose lives and beliefs gave us this National Holiday may just make the day even more enjoyable.
And you may be surprised to know that if it were not for the hard work of one woman, the fourth Thursday of November would just be another work day!
It all began with a group of people in England who were targeted by their government for having their own ideas about religion and way of life...
They Were Separatists Before They Were Pilgrims
- Holland Was Their First Destination. Once the Protestant Reformation had accomplished its goals in England, there was a group of people there who felt that the Reformation had not entirely succeeded in its work. They believed that the true Christian's worship and way of life should be entirely based upon the Bible. Some of the reforms for which they worked included doing away with colorful priestly robes, prayer books and even altars. They wanted to purify the Church of England from within, and were therefore called Puritans.
- From Puritans to Separatists. Some Puritans remained within the Church, but by the early 1600s, there was a group of them who decided that they would not be able to reform the Church of England as they wanted, so they separated from her and set up congregations of their own. They called themselves "Saints", as the Bible termed believers in this way; but they came to be known as "Separatists" because they would not conform.
When King James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth as ruler of England in 1603, he declared that his subjects must conform in religion or he would "harry them out of the land."
- They fled England for Holland. By 1608 there was a group of Separatists under the leadership of William Brewster. They held their meetings in Scrooby, England; and "harried" they were. They were being arrested and tried for nonconformity. In order to escape the persecution, this group fled England in 1609 and settled in Leiden, Holland. At the time, Holland--called "the Low Countrie" by the Puritans--was the only country in Europe where complete religious freedom was allowed.
After eleven short years in Holland, the Separatists were dissatisfied. They did not approve of the Dutch way of life, judging it as frivolous and fearing its influence on their children. They also feared that a war would ensue between Holland and Spain.
They were conflicted, an admirable group, longing for their English way of life and yet holding to the religious ideals they cherished. Returning to England would not resolve their problem, so they looked to the New World.
- The Virginia Company of London, also known as the London Company or the Virginia Company was a joint stock company to which James I, in 1606, granted all the westward-stretching land between what is now the northern end of New Jersey and the middle of South Carolina. This was the Virginia Colony, settled for the economic interests of England.
When the Separatists decided they would go to America, the London Company granted them permission to settle in that area, which was generally known as Virginia.
From Separatists to Pilgrims
It is not certain when or even if the people we call Pilgrims ever called themselves Pilgrims. It is only written that "by the time they left Holland they knew they were Pilgrims", meaning 'wanderers'.
In July 1620, Brewster led the Separatists out of Holland in the Speedwell, a small ship--final destination, America. Before setting out for the New World, the Speedwell stopped in England so that additional Separatists could join them. Other English citizens who hoped to better their lives also joined, and the entire group left England in two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower, a larger ship.
However, the Speedwell proved unseaworthy, and the expedition returned to England twice. Finally, on September 16, 1620, the Mayflower sailed alone from Plymouth, England with 102 passengers including men, women and children.
Counting Up On the Mayflower
Of the 102 passengers, 37 were Separatists calling themselves "Saints" and the 65 other passengers whom they termed "Strangers". Two passengers died on the way: one was William Butler, a young boy who was servant and apprentice to Dr. Samuel Fuller; the other was a crew member whose name remains unknown. He does not seem to be counted in the total number of passengers in most accounts of the Pilgrims' story. If he had been counted, the total would swell to 103. All in all, there is some disagreement about the exact number of passengers starting out.
A son was born to Elizabeth Hopkins, whom she named Oceanus for the obvious reason that he was born at sea. Because the crew member who died is not usually counted, it is agreed that the number of 102 passengers remained constant.
The journey lasted 65 days.
Navigational Error and Conditions—Why Plymouth Became Associated with Pilgrims, and Pilgrims with Thanksgiving.
The Separatists had been granted land in Virginia by Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer of the London Company, so Virginia was their intended destination. But errors in navigation and conditions, such as adverse winds and dangerous shoals off Cape Cod, forced the Mayflower to stay north of their intended point of landing.
If it were not for these factors, we would probably not ever have celebrated Thanksgiving as we do today, and possibly not at all. For as many know, the Native Americans in the region where the Pilgrims landed were friendly and helpful as we will see; but the Native Americans of the Virginia Colony--where the Pilgrims were supposed to land--were extremely hostile toward the European invaders, practicing heinously cruel killings to anyone they considered their enemies. The Powhatans, to which tribe Pocahantas belonged, reigned in that part of the country, and in 1622, they attempted to completely wipe out the Virginia colonists, nearly succeeding.
On November 21, 1620, the Mayflower anchored in Provincetown harbor inside the tip of Cape Cod. By the calendar in use at the time, it was November 11. The company did not land at this time. Rather they explored the coast of Cape Cod Bay for nearly a month. During this time, a blinding snowstorm forced them to take refuge on an island in Plymouth harbor.
Re-counting the Passengers
At Provincetown four died and one child was born. This was a son, born to Susanna and Resolved White and named Peregrine. He is considered the first English person born in New England; and his name, just as the name 'Pilgrim', comes from the Latin meaning 'to travel abroad'.
Beginning with the last tally of 102, a total of 99 people were left to land at Plymouth on December 21, 1620.
Why Was the Mayflower Compact Needed?
The passengers of the Mayflower knew that they had no right to any land in New England, for that would require a patent; nor did they have any right to establish a government there, for that required a charter. The permission the London Company gave them was to join the already established Virginia Colony.
New England was yet unsettleded by the Europeans, and had only been named by Captain John Smith in 1614, when he had reached it and explored its shores.
Some of the "Strangers" aboard the ship threatened that "when they came ashore they would use their own liberty, for none had any power to command them, the patent they had being meant for Virginia."
So, while still on board, the famous Mayflower Compact was formulated. In it they pledged allegiance to the king, combined themselves Separatists and Strangers alike, "into a civil body politic", and bound themselves to obey all the laws their new government may enact.
The Mayflower Compact
The Mayflower Compact thus created a government, unified the people and guaranteed equality among them. It was drawn up by the 41 men who were on board the ship and signed by them on November 21, 1620.
Landing at Plymouth Rock
It was not until December 21, that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. It offered an excellent harbor and a large brook with pure water and a great supply of fish.
Mysteriously, the Land Was Already Cleared.
The Pilgrims named their new home New Plymouth, for it was from Plymouth, England that they came. The site was previously the town of Patuxet, a Native American community that was wiped out by syphilis brought over with English slavers. For this reason, much of the land was cleared and ready for building.
The Winter of 1620—Another Re-Counting
The cold, snow and sleet of the New England winter made the Pilgrims' work almost impossible. Many perished, and of the 98 to 100 people who landed only 50 were left by spring of 1621.
Important Players and How They Met on the Stage of History
Squanto was from the village of Patuxet and a member of the Pokanokit or Pawtucket tribe of the Wampanoag nation. His village had once stood on the exact site where the Pilgrims built Plymouth Colony.
In 1614, Squanto was captured by Captain Thomas Hunt-a lieutenant of Captain John Smith-who lured him and 23 other American Indians onto his vessel with the promise of trade.
Once on board, Hunt locked them up below deck and sailed off to Malaga, Spain where he sold them as slaves.
Squanto was taken to London by a ship's captain and then to Newfoundland, where he lived for a few years before being taken back to England to be used as an interpreter for Captain Thomas Derner.
In 1619, Ferdinando Gorges sent Squanto back to New England to trade with local Native Americans.
In 1620, Squanto returned to his village of Patuxet on Cape Cod and found that everyone dead from the illness brought by the English slave-traders.
And so he went to stay in the neighboring Wampanoag village, settling there with permission from their king, Massasoit.
Samoset 1590-1653, the loquacious Native American and greatest link between his people and the Pilgrims.
Samoset was a sagamore, or subordinate chief of the Pemoquid Indians and a member of the Wampanoag tribe. He learned English from fisherman who came to fish from Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine.
The Wampanoag were part of the Woodland Culture of Native Americans and lived along what is now the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
The name "Wampanoag" means "Eastern People", "People of the Light", or "People of the Dawn".
On Friday March 16, 1621, Samoset walked into the encampment at Plymouth Colony and startled the Pilgrims by calling out to them in English, "Welcome".
He was incredibly friendly and talkative, and it is likely due to his open personality that Plymouth Colony was saved failure and possible extinction.
It is from Edward Winslow's publication "Mourt's Relation" that we have a description of this momentous day. In it, Samoset is described as tall, with hair long behind and short before, bold in manner, speaking broken English, and "stark naked except for a leather about his waist" with some fringe.
He was the first Native American whom the Pilgrim's met personally. He told them that he was from Morattiggon (Maine area) and had been in the Plymouth area of for eight months.
He was familiar with the English and asked the Pilgrims for beer. They did not have any but gave him what food and drink they had with which he was pleased.
It is he, Samoset, that told the Pilgrims that their settlement was once the town of Patuxet and that it was wiped out by the mysterious plague.
He talked to them all afternoon and did not want to leave at night, so they "lodged him that night at Stephen Hopkins house and watched him."
Saturday morning, before the Pilgrims sent him back to the neighboring town from whence he came, they gave him gifts: a knife, a bracelet and a ring.
He promised to return with some of the Massasoits--that is, the Wampanoag under the rule of Massasoit--and trade beaver skins with the Pilgrims.
Two days later, Samoset returned with Squanto, who was fluent in English.
Born in what is now Bristol, Rhode Island, Massasoit was the grand sachem, or intertribal chief of the Wampanoag Confederacy. His name, Massasoit, means "Great Sachem". His given name was Ousmequin.
Samoset brought Massasoit to meet the Pilgrims in March 1621. Interested establishing a healthy trade with them, Massasoit founded a peaceful accord between the colonists of Plymouth and his own people--a peace that lasted as long as he lived.
Massasoit formed an alliance with the Pilgrims that "If any did unjustly warr against him they would aide him; if any did warr against them, he should aide them".
Once the Pilgrims agreed, Squanto was free to teach the Pilgrims everything they needed to know in order to survive in New England.
Instruments of God
Because of the kindness of these three men, the lives of the Pilgrims were literally saved and the foundations of a strong English settlement were established.
From these friendly Native Americans, of whom Squanto was the most instrumental, the Pilgrims learned how to plant corn, where to fish, to dig for clams, and to obtain maple syrup. He taught them which plants were of medicinal use and which were poisonous. And he taught them how to build houses in the style of his own people.
Come October of 1621, the Pilgrims were able to enjoy a plentiful harvest, having enough food to put in store for the winter. They had built homes and made friends with the Native Americans of their area. Truly, their faith that God was with them and would help them beat insurmountable odds came through for them.
William Bradford, the second governor of Plymouth Colony, was to give much credit for the Pilgrims' success to Squanto, of whom he would write that he was "a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation."
Chroniclers—How We Know What Happened
William Bradford 1590-1657
William Bradford has been called "the father of American History" because of his book "Of Plimouth Planation". It covers the history of the Pilgrims from the time of their religious persecution in England and the history of Plymouth Plantation until 1646. It is the chief source of our knowledge of this history.
Bradford had tried to escape to Holland with the Separatists but was arrested and imprisoned. He succeeded in reaching Holland in 1609 and settled with them in Leiden.
His book, while still in manuscript form, disappeared from its place in the Old South Church on Boston during the Revolutionary War. It was discovered 1855 in the library of the Bishop of London in Fulham Palace. It was published the following year.
In 1897 the original manuscript was returned to American soil, and it is now n the State House in Boston.
Present copies are prefaced with heartfelt messages written by those who were instrumental in returning it to New England.
Edward Winslow 1595-1655
Edward Winslow was a printer of London. He escaped with the Separatists to Holland. His wife, Elizabeth, died during that first hard New England winter of 1620.
In 1621 he married the widowed Susanna White, mother of Pereigrine White. It was the first marriage to take place in Plymouth Colony.
He was part of the many early explorations of Cape Cod and led many expeditions to meet and trade with the Native Americans.
Winslow wrote several first-hand accounts of the early years in Plymouth Colony. It is from his publication, "Mourt's Relations that we have the story of the First Thanksgiving.
Which Is the First Thanksgiving?
The First "First Thanksgiving"
Because of the success of the colony by autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims had much to celebrate, and it is commonly believed that this marks the first Thanksgiving, the very one that we celebrate today.
According to most accounts fifty Pilgrims and ninety Native Americans shared a celebratory feast that lasted three days. They played games and showed off their various skills, the Native Americans with bow and arrow and the Pilgrims with their muskets.
Edward Winslow's account states: "...many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captain and others."
Before the Native Americans came bearing venison, Winslow wrote that the Pilgrims had hunted fowl, including wild turkey, and that they were already celebrating the plenteous food they were given to enjoy.
The Second "First Thanksgiving"
In 1622 more Separatists arrived at Plymouth putting a strain on supplies. The spring and summer of 1623 were hot and dry, withering the crops.
Governor Bradford--the second governor of Plymouth--ordered a day of fasting and prayer. Shortly afterward the rains came and the crops were saved. Bradford wrote that the Native Americans were astonished at the results of their supplications to their God.
November 29, 1623 was proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving and it was celebrated joyfully with feasting, friends and games.
It is from Bradford's writings that we have an account of this Second Thanksgiving.
By the late 1600s many colonies began holding Thanksgiving feasts during the autumn months, but it was not observed throughout the country.
It should also be noted that it was already customary for the English to celebrate the harvest each year.
The Thanksgiving that we celebrate today is a blend of the two celebrations above. But the famous First Thanksgiving is the one that occurred in the autumn of 1621.
How Thanksgiving Came to the Table
Here we'll explore how an ancient harvest celebration took on a whole new flavor in the New World
- Pre-Christian peoples celebrated an early harvest in summer and a later, final harvest in autumn. These celebrations were two of the eight observances or 'spokes' on the Wheel of the Year.
- Christianized peoples continued their customary celebrations, including the harvest celebration, giving thanks to their new Christian God.
The English were among those who traditionalized the harvest celebration.
Pilgrims and Native Americans
- 1621—The First Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims celebrated the success of the Plymouth Colony with the Native Americans. Squanto was the most instrumental in their success. The name 'Thanksgiving' was not used.
- November 29,1623—The Second First Thanksgiving. Rains came, ending a drought and saving the harvest after all prayed. Governor Bradford, second governor of the Plymouth Colony, proclaimed this day be set aside as a day of thanksgiving.
- 1623 to 1700s-Annual Thanksgivings. Over the following years, some colonists celebrated a day of thanksgiving in late autumn; but it was not a national tradition.
- American Revolution 1777: The Continental Congress instructed George Washington and his troops to stop in the open fields on their way to Valley Forge to mark Thanksgiving.
- October 3, 1789—A Presidential Proclamation: After his inauguration, President George Washington declared November 26, 1789 a national day of thanksgiving and prayer.
This was his first presidential proclamation and it was requested of him by Congress who felt that the nation should "acknowledge with grateful hearts the many blessings given them by, God", including the "opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness".
Washington's proclamation also urged that on this day, the country unite in prayer and supplication to ask God to pardon our transgressions both as a nation and individually; to be render our government a blessing to all its people; and to ask his guidance and protection for all governments "especially such as have shown kindness to us".
- 1817, New York—The Day is Named: There were no more presidential proclamations for a day of thanksgiving through the early 1800s, and the holiday may have been celebrated by some. But in 1817, New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom.
- 1817 to Mid-1800s: Some states celebrated Thanksgiving Day by the mid-1800s. These states led by New York, included Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Missouri; but it was not a national observance or holiday.
A Magazine Editor and a President
- In 1854, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book (a popular women's publication of fashion and news) had read Edward Winslow's accounts and was inspired to bring the celebration of a day of thanksgiving back to life.
The following year, shortly after she had discovered Winslow's writings, Bradford's book "Of Plimouth Plantation" had resurfaced in the library of Fulham Palace in London.
Up until this time, Thanksgiving Day was only a regional holiday celebrated mostly in New England and not across the country. It was virtually unknown in the American South. Each state scheduled its own holiday, some as early as October and others as late as January.
Sarah Josepha Hale was a successful writer, magazine editor and social advocate who concentrated mainly on the advancement of women. Her advocacy of Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday covered a span of 17 years beginning in 1846.
She wrote letters to five presidents of the United States from Zachary Taylor to Abraham Lincoln. The letter she wrote to Lincoln convinced him to support legislation to establish a national day of Thanksgiving.
- It's National, 1863: By Presidential Proclamation, on October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens". This became the first in the unbroken series of the holiday that we celebrate today.
President Lincoln's proclamation was an evident effort to unify the nation as it was undergoing the strife of the American Civil War. In it he stated that we should be thankful that the population had increased "notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battlefield"; that we should ask forgiveness for "our national perverseness and disobedience"; and to "commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged"; and to ask God to "heal the wounds of the nation"; and to restore it to unity.
- Please Pass the Gravy—Why Turkey? Finding in Bradford's book that the Pilgrims hunted wild turkey, Sarah J. Hale published articles and recipes about Thanksgiving dinners with roasted turkey, and the idea became popular.
A Movable Feast that Finally Settled
- In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the fourth Thursday of November to the third Thursday of that month hoping to boost the economy-still struggling to recover from the Great Depression-by adding an extra week to Christmas shopping. Not all states observed this change.
- In 1941, Congress decreed that Thanksgiving fall on the fourth Thursday of November where it stands to this day.
The Real First Thanksgiving?
In November of 2005, Robyn Gioia published a children's book entitled "The Real First Thanksgiving".
Gioia claims that on September 8, 1565—fifty-six years before the Pilgrims shared a feast with the Native Americans in New England—a Spanish explorer landed at Saint Augustine, Florida and celebrated a feast of Thanksgiving with the Timucua Indians. The meal consisted of bean soup.
Gioia was inspired to write the story after hearing a lecture about the Spanish explorer, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, given by Michael Gannon, a retired history scholar of the University of Florida.
Gannon had written of this first Thanksgiving in 1965 in his book "The Cross in the Sand". The account remained unnoticed until 1985 when a reporter brought his writing to light.
Gioia believes that this real first Thanksgiving will slowly become recognized as America's Hispanic population continues to grow. She serves her own family bean soup on September 8.
It is common for many states to claim that a first Thanksgiving took place in their location before the Pilgrims ever landed at Plymouth.
More Facts... In Case You Were Wondering
Plymouth Plantation Today
Plymouth Colony never grew very large and in 1691 it was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Today in Massachusetts, at Pilgrim Memorial State Park, you can visit Plymouth Plantation, a reconsruction of the 1621 Pilgrim Village and meet descendants of the Wampanoag at Hobbamock's Homesite.
At Plymouth Plantation visitors can enjoy Thanksgiving dinners on selected days in October and November. On Thanksgiving Day only, a Victorian Thanksgiving feast is served.
The Mayflower II can also be explored there. It is a 106 foot long, full scale replica of the original.
After the death of Massasoit, the peaceful accord between the settlers and the Wampanoag gradually dissolved culminating in King Philip's War in 1675. The conflict was led by Massasoit's second son, Metacomet, who became "King Philip".
There are about 4,000 to 5,000 Wampanoag alive today. Most live in Massachusetts. In the Caribbean Islands there are also Wampanoag who are descended from those who were sent there as slaves in the 1670s after King Philip's War.
Plymouth Rock is the traditional site of the disembarkation of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Harbor in 1620. Today it can be visited at Forefather's Monument, a part of Pilgrim Memorial State Park. It is a symbol of the courage and faith of those who founded Plymouth Colony, and is carved with the date 1620.
There are no references to the Pilgrims landing at a rock at Plymouth. But in 1715, "a great rock" is mentioned in the town records as a delineation of boundary lines. The rock that is now enshrined at Forefather's Monument is traditionally believed to be this rock.
It is believed that the real Plymouth Rock was a boulder about 15 feet long and 3 feet wide forming a pier for ships to land. In December 1620 it would have stood well above the high-water mark and it is not likely that the captain would choose to land there with a safe and sheltered harbor nearby.
Master Christopher Jones was the owner of the Mayflower, a commercial ship. In 1620, he was hired to captain the ship and take the Pilgrims to Northern Virginia.
During the voyage, the crew and passengers stayed in the gun deck, called the "tween deck" or the area "betwixt the decks" by the Pilgrims. It was where the cannon were located and also, where additional cargo would be stored during commercial voyages. Occasionally, during safe conditions, the passengers ventured to the upper deck.
The gun deck afforded a space 58 feet by 24 feet for the 102 passengers. In that space they built "cabins" which were simple wood divisions to allow for some privacy. In the same area, the Pilgrims stored a 30 foot shallop that they would reassemble upon arrival and use for exploration.
Many lived on the ship as Cape Cod was explored for a place to live. Later they worked to build homes in the middle of the New England winter, taking refuge in the ship.
The Mayflower left New England on April 5, 1621, leaving the Pilgrims on their own.
After Jones died in 1622, the ship was appraised for probate purposes in May 1624, and was described as being "in ruins". Most likely, it was broken up and sold for scrap.
During a storm on the voyage, passenger John Howland was knocked overboard, but was able to grab hold of the topsail halyards, giving the crew enough time to save him.
In 1920, a barn in Jordans, England was identified as having been constructed from the remains of the Mayflower. Experts are seriously doubtful of the claim, but it is a much visited tourist attraction notwithstanding.
Lambs and Thanksgiving?
Fleecy lambs may put us in mind of spring, but the next time you hear "Mary Had a Little Lamb" struck out on a keyboard, your thoughts just may chain to Thanksgiving; for its author was Sarah Josepha Hale, the person most credited with bringing Thanksgiving to just about every table across America.
So, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone over the globe, and I hope the feast is made richer by the remembrance of those who suffered to follow their faith, the kindness of Native Americans, the efforts of a woman advocate, and presidents who considered the relevance of the holiday.