The Pilgrims and Thanksgiving Day

The time of year has rolled around again when old and young are directing their thoughts to Thanksgiving Day, and plans are being made to celebrate the festival among relatives and friends after attending church services to thank the providential Father for the abundance of food and clothing and for other favors he has bestowed upon us in the past year.

In this connection it would be interesting to review the origin of this harvest festival, and this would take us back to the time of the Pilgrims. It will be remembered that the Pilgrims came over in the Mayflower in 1620, landed in Cape Cod Harbor, and stepped out on a rock which they named Plymouth Rock. The little settlement that was then started they called Plymouth after the place in England from which they embarked. When they had gathered in their first harvest the following year they had their first thanksgiving day. These facts are fairly well known, but there are many interesting details in both the preceding history of this day of feast and in subsequent events that would be worthwhile mentioning. Accordingly I have gathered material from various sources, and will attempt to give the gist of it in this article.

First, as to the origin of the Pilgrims it may be said that they were called pilgrims because of their various wanderings. In England a large number of the clergy and people were dissatisfied with the form of religion in the State Church. About seventy years before this time the state religion had been changed from Catholic to Protestant, but the change had not been complete, and it was this state of affairs that caused many of the clergy and people to demand a more thorough purification from the old observances and doctrines. Because of this they were called Puritans. This demand was not only refused by the government, but they were also punished for not using the prescribed form of worship.. This led some of the clergy to question the authority of the government in things religious. They came to believe that any body of Christians had the right to organize itself into a church independently from any external authority. When they began separating themselves from the Church of England and organizing themselves into independent congregations they were called Separatists and Independents. One of these Separatist churches was at Scrooby, in eastern England. Not being allowed to worship in peace they fled to Leyden, Holland (1608) where they lived for twelve years. But evil influences surrounded their children, and they longed for a land where they could worship God in their own way and save their families from worldly follies. America offered such a home. They came, braving every danger, and trusting God to shape their destiny.

Accordingly on September 6, 1620, one hundred and two pilgrims embarked at Plymouth, England on the Mayflower, a little vessel hardly as large as a lake excursion boat of today, though by the standard of that day it was a well-equipped, if not luxurious boat. On December 11 they reached Provincetown Harbor in Cape Cod. (This December 11 old style is the same day as December 21 new style. In 1752 eleven days were added to correct an error in the calendar. This made the date the 22nd. However, only ten days should be added for 1620). They had paid for transportation farther south, but the Dutch bribed the ship’s captain to keep away from Holland colonies at what is now New York. Before landing, the little group drew up what has since been known as the Mayflower Compact. In this they expressed their loyalty to the king of England and agreed to maintain law and order in accordance with the will of the majority. This was a new idea at that time. A little shallop was sent out to reconnoiter before landing, but it was lost in a furious storm and lost its rudder, sail and mast. Late at night the party sought shelter in the lee of a small island. They spent the next day in cleaning their rusty weapons and drying their wet clothes. Every hour was precious, the season was late, and their companions on the Mayflower were anxiously awaiting their return; but “being ye last day of ye week they prepared there to keep ye Sabbath.” This incident gives an idea of their religious character.

They spent considerable time in selecting a suitable place to build their log houses. They finally found a place which furnished fresh water, a safe harbor and a hill on which they could build a fort. They suffered severely during the first winter. They were hampered by the weather in building their homes and in obtaining food. They had no experience as hunters or fishermen, and the fishhooks they had brought along were too large for the fish there. The chief food was clams, mussels and eels. The climate was more severe than that to which they were accustomed so that many fell ill with pneumonia. By the next spring one half of their little company, including their first governor, John Carver, died from the effects of disease, hunger and exposure. Nevertheless when the Mayflower sailed again in April not one of the survivors wished to return. At one time there were only seven persons who were well enough to take care of the sick. Miles Standish was one of those who proved himself a tender nurse as well as a fearless soldier. You can imagine what hardships must have been endured if you consider that they had only a few hand tools, such as axes and hammers and small saws with which to fell trees, cut them into proper form for building their houses, and had no horses or oxen to move them, but had to move them all by man-power through the deep snow.

Lest the Indians should learn how greatly their number was reduced they buried their dead at night, and in the spring corn was planted over the grave. Fortunately the settlers were able to win the friendship of some of the Indians. Tisquantum or Squanto, an Indian who had been captured by the crew of an English vessel to be sold as a slave in Spain, but who had escaped to England, and there learned the English language became their interpreter. Through him and Samoset, an Indian chief, a meeting was arranged with the powerful Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanorgas, and a treaty of peace was signed which was not broken for fifty years. Massasoit was a true friend and once he sent the settlers news of a threatened attack by another tribe of Indians. One day an Indian brave came bearing the skin of a rattlesnake filled with arrows as a challenge to war from the chief of the Narragansets. Governor Bradford returned the skin filled with powder and shot. The Indians appreciated the answer and abandoned the attack.

The friendly Indians also taught them how to plant Indian corn, and next year’s harvest banished famine and want from the settlement. In ten years the result of this grave venture of freedom-seekers in the New World had proved not only a great religious victory, but also an economic one, and thus proved the way for further colonization.

It must have been a happy occasion that November day in 1621 when the Pilgrims realized their first harvest was a very good one, and they sent four men on a hunting trip for the first Thanksgiving turkey. The little group had been hungry so often that they could scarcely gaze on a plentiful supply of food without thoughts of thanksgiving. As soon as the harvest had been gathered in, Governor Bradford appointed three days for feasting and thankfulness. He left nothing undone to make the day a success and a real holiday, for “he dispatched foure men on fowling, so that we might after a more special manner rejoyce together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They foure in one day killed as many fowle, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.” Also he sent Squanto to Nancasket to dispatch from there a runner to Massasoit inviting him with his brother and a fitting escort to the feast on the following Thursday. Governor Bradford, as usual, was up early, for he loved that early morning hour for devotion and meditation. The guests, the invited Indians, coming early, undoubtedly found guests to welcome them.

Soon the roll of drums announced the morning prayers, which began each day for the pilgrims, and certainly were not omitted on this day of thanksgiving. The Indians must have stared openmouthed at this demonstration of devotion to their God, and at the sight of so many stern pilgrim fathers, busy mothers and homespun-clad children who were gathered for morning devotions.

Speaking of children, there must have been plenty of them, for the usual quota per family was between fifteen and twenty, although the mortality rate was high. And what strange names they bore. One family included a Hopestill, Wait, Thanks, Desire, Unite, Supply, Experience, and Waitstill. The first child born on the Mayflower was named Oceanus. Events, emotions, Bible characters, and even whole Bible verses became names for children who were, of course, not able to protest or defend themselves.

Going on with the feast, we find that they “gathered in the meeting house beginning some halfe an hour before 9, and continued untill after 12 oclocke”, with psalm singing, prayer and sermon. Then came “making merry to the creatures, the poor sort being invited of the richer.” A sumptuous meal was served of meat with mustard, turnips, clams, plum porridge, turkey with beechnut dressing, and hasty pudding. A bushel of popcorn was added by Massasoit’s brother. This was the first popcorn the colonists had ever seen.

The meal over, a lengthy grace was said.

Miles Standish had prepared, so he thought, a pleasant surprise for the Indians, who had on their holiday paints. Chief Massasoit wore a chain of bones about his neck, a bag of tobacco down his back, and a knife dangling on his chest. His head and face were oiled we know, because one chronicler relates that “he looked greasily”.

But if the Pilgrims had hoped to please their guests, they were disappointed. They had prepared a display of musketry, a wild fanfare of trumpets, and a terrifying roll of drums. The sound of so much exploding gunpowder and the sight of the military display struck terror into the hearts of the Indians. They wondered if they had perhaps been lured into a trap.

So the diplomatic Quadequina, Massasoit’s brother, suggested the Indians go hunting deer for awhile until the ardor of the Pilgrims for shooting had spent itself. The Indians returned early the next day with enough venison to last the group for four days. Such was the first Thanksgiving.

In the course of the Revolutionary War the Continental Congress appointed November 18, 1777 to be observed generally as Thanksgiving Day in consequence of the surrender of Burgoyne. In the first year of his office, President George Washington issued a proclamation recommending that November 26, 1789 be kept as a day of national thanksgiving.

For years the festival was exclusively a New England institution celebrated by religious services in the churches, the sermon often being a political address. The day gradually became a custom in the western and some of the southern states, each appointing its own day. In 1864 President Lincoln issued a proclamation in which he set aside and appointed the last Thursday in November as a day of national thanksgiving “for the defense of unfriendly designs without, and signal victories within over the enemy who is of our own household.”

Each president has since followed Lincoln’s example in proclaiming a day of thanksgiving, and, of course, the governors of the various states also issue a proclamation. For years the custom has been to proclaim the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. But in 1939 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day for commercial reasons—there being more shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas by that arrangement. Twenty-three states followed the president’s lead but the other twenty-five refused to change the custom, and stuck to the traditional last Thursday. In 1940 the president again proclaimed the fourth Thursday as Thanksgiving Day, and all but sixteen states followed his lead. In the next five years the fourth and last Thursdays are the same, so there was no confusion. In two out of seven years November has five Thursdays. But this year again November has five Thursdays so again we will celebrate two Thanksgiving Days. Forty-one states will celebrate on the fourth Thursday, November 23, seven states will celebrate on the last Thursday, November 30, and one state, Georgia, will celebrate both days.

No settlement of the issue is in sight. However, let us not commercialize the day. Originally the day had no commercial significance. It was only intended as a day to be set aside to give our heavenly Father our thanks and express our gratitude for his gracious blessings. And let us not forget that each and everyone of us is able to celebrate this day, for we have all received grace in one form or another, be it in prosperity or adversity, in joy or in sorrow, in health or in sickness, for we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, that are called according to his purpose.