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The Pilgrims Story, the Mayflower, and the First Thanksgiving

By John T. Marck

Although many have come to America guided by the stars of fame, fortune and freedom, it was those Pilgrims who founded the first white settlement on the then barren stretch of land that is now the state of Massachusetts, who were guided by the single star of freedom.

The pilgrims were Englishmen, and loved their native land. However, in this land they loved, under the laws of the time, they were denied the right to worship as they pleased. Consequently, they left the Established Church of England, and became known as Separatists. Having formed their own church, but in fear that they would be discovered and therefore suppressed, they met and worshiped in secret in areas of England known as Scrooby and Gainsborough. Still fearful that discovery was imminent, they decided to migrate to Holland in 1607, where religious freedom prospered. In doing so they faced obstacles because an ancient statute prevented emigration from England. In spite of this, by 1609, one hundred of the Separatists finally reached Holland, forming a settlement at Leyden.

Over the next eight years the original members of the settlement at Leyden had grown to about five hundred. Although almost all of the Pilgrims had been agriculturists in England, they now were obliged to learn new trades, in order to be self sufficient. Two such members were William Brewster and William Bradford. Brewster, having an education from Cambridge University, who was previously in the service of the Secretary of State, set up a printing shop. Bradford, a future governor of the Pilgrim Republic, was an apprenticed baize-maker (baize is cotton or woolen material napped to imitate felt), who later went on to manufacture it himself. Other learned trades were ribbon-weavers, silk workers, wool-carders, wool combers, hatters, twine spinners, masons, carpenters, cabinetmakers, bakers, tailors and merchants.

Because the Pilgrims continued to find it difficult to maintain their English customs in a foreign land, and feared that their solemn puritan beliefs would suffer through contact with the pleasure-loving people of Holland, and now being a self-contained community, they decided to journey to the new continent of America.

In planning to go to America, it was not for fame or fortune, but was their goal to build homes, educate their children in the English traditions, and worship as they pleased. They decided that America, in all the world, was the one place that offered them such opportunities.

The Voyage on the Mayflower

Through the help of a group of English merchants known as the Virginia Company, they received permission from King James to make the voyage to America. As funds were needed for such a voyage, about seventy English merchants, known in the history of the Pilgrims as the "Adventurers," raised the money to charter a ship and buy the necessary provisions by taking stock at ten pounds a share. This stock was derived by those Pilgrims selling their estates and putting their money into common stock.

Now ready for their journey, in late July 1620, they sailed from Holland in the Speedwell, and on August 15, 1620, joined the Mayflower at Southampton, England, and together, they set sail for America. Within a very short time, the Speedwell proved unseaworthy and returned to London, with eighteen passengers, who decided, through either fear, discontent or disability not to make the journey. The others from the Speedwell boarded the Mayflower, and finally set sail for America on September 16, 1620.

The Pilgrims voyage was a hazardous one, enduring terrible storms, and the hardships that came with living on a ship. During the voyage only one of their members died, a William Burton, who was buried at sea. One of the married couples, Stephen and Elizabeth Hopkins became the parents of a son, who they named "Oceanus," in honor of his birthplace. As the sun began to rise on the morning of November 20, as the Pilgrims slept, they were awakened by the shouts of "Land!" Rising from their quarters, they all went on deck and saw America for the first time. Expecting to land either at or near the settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, they found themselves much farther to the north, and anchored off Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Before going ashore, they met in the cabin of the Mayflower and elected John Carver as their first governor, and drew up and signed a compact, known as the Mayflower Compact. This compact stands out as one of the great liberty documents in history and is the "beginning of government of the people, by the people and for the people."

The Pilgrims Land at Plymouth

For almost five months the Mayflower lay offshore Provincetown while expeditions went ashore under the command of Myles Standish. He was from an English family and had won a commission in the English army in Holland. Believing in the Pilgrims, he joined them and for the next thirty-six years, until his death in 1656, was their most courageous associate. Being one of the foremost Pilgrim Fathers, Standish served as a captain, magistrate, engineer, explorer, interpreter, merchant and physician.

On his first scouting trip, Standish and his men discovered Indian corn, and brought back the seeds, which probably saved the colonists from starvation, as corn was their sole support at the time. Now that winter had set in, and with no home site found as yet, the cramped conditions on the Mayflower gave rise to unhealthy conditions, and sicknesses increased, killing Edward Thompson and Jasper More. But also, there were happier occasions, as the first Caucasian child to be born in New England was to William White and his wife, who they named Peregrine.

On December 17 expeditions continued to find a suitable place to build their settlement. As they approached an area along Great Meadow Creek (Herring River) in Eastham, they decided to camp there for the night. The following morning they awoke to the ringing bells from the Pilgrim guards watching over the camp. "They are Men! Indians!" They shouted. This led to a quick skirmish, and the Indians disappeared into the forest. This first "fight" is known as the First Encounter with the Red Men.

Undaunted, Standish and his men continued their scouting and reached an island in Plymouth Harbor. Five years earlier, Captain John Smith, the leader of the Virginia Colony, had visited this same harbor and named it Plymouth. Smith had made a map of the area; a map that the Pilgrims had with them and this discovery was a well-known fact in England. They landed here on December 21, the day now observed as Forefathers' Day.

As the water here was too shallow for their heavy boat to go ashore, they pulled close to shore, and stepped onto a large boulder, now called Plymouth Rock.

Being gone for a week, Standish returned to the Mayflower at Provincetown and informed the others of the good news, that a site had been found for their new settlement. But sadness too was learned. While Standish was away, several people had died of illness, including Mrs. Bradford and James Chilton, and many others remained very ill. Using all haste, the Mayflower set sail for Plymouth, but heavy winds forced her to drop its anchor. On December 26, 1620, they set sail again, and this time was successful. Arriving at Plymouth, on January 2, 1621, the Mayflower stayed in the harbor until all the Pilgrims and supplies were safely ashore; an activity that took four months. With all safely on land, the Mayflower set sail for its return to England, leaving Plymouth on April 15, 1621.

Upon arriving at Plymouth in January, the Pilgrims went ashore, and began cutting down trees for the building of their settlement. The first building was constructed of hand-squared logs, with a roof made of swamp grass. It was used as a common building, then later as a meeting place.

The Pilgrims were divided into nineteen families, with the single men being assigned to different selected households. Each family was given a plot of land, and each family was to build their own house. As bad luck would have it, one of the first homes that was built had to be converted into a hospital, as exposure to the cold winter, lack of proper food, and the cramped living previously aboard the ship undermined the Pilgrims. During this first hard winter, half the population died, and was laid to rest on Cole's Hill. However, fearing that the Indians might attack, and seeing that half their strength had died, the Pilgrims sowed grain over the burial ground.

Fearing a possible attack by the Indians, the Pilgrims decided to form a military organization, adopted on February 27. Myles Standish was chosen as its captain, a post he held for thirty-five years. As a defensive measure, five cannons were placed on Fort Hill, and the men regularly drilled. However, although Standish was an excellent soldier, he believed it better not to fight with the Indians, but rather was wise enough to establish a friendship with them instead.

On March 26, 1621, Samoset, sachem (chief) of the Monhegan Tribe, entered the Pilgrims' village. Extending his arm, he exclaimed, Welcome! The Pilgrims, accepting his friendship, feasted and entertained him for two days. From him they learned that many of the Indians around Plymouth had died of a plague four years earlier. Through him they were introduced to Tisquantum (Squanto), who became a long and devoted friend of the Pilgrims. The Indians taught the Pilgrims how and when to plant corn. They said that when the oak leaves were as big as mouse-ears it was time to plant. They were also taught how to catch fish and to use them not only as food, but as fertilizer for the soil. In early spring, on April 1, Massasoit, the grand chief of the Pokanoket tribes, along with his warriors appeared at Watson's Hill, opposite Plymouth. One of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow took gifts to the great chief. As they approached Plymouth, the Pilgrim guard saluted the great chief and his men. Following a grand ceremony and feasting, Massasoit and Governor Carver entered into a treaty of peace that was faithfully adhered to for more than fifty years.

Now that spring and warmer weather was here, much of the sickness ceased and the planting began. The Pilgrims entire male working force consisted of twenty-one men and six of the older, stronger boys. With this small force, they tilled and planted with heavy hoes, ( having no horses nor domestic animals), twenty acres of Indian corn, six acres of wheat, rye and barley, as well as small gardens near the homes consisting of peas and other small vegetables. While working in the fields, Governor Carver was overcome with sunstroke and died. William Bradford was chosen to succeed Carver. With the exception of five years when he did not want to serve in this position, Bradford remained as governor until his death on May 19, 1657.

The First Thanksgiving

When the first autumn arrived, the Pilgrims homes and storage buildings were filled with provisions. By this time, their village consisted of seven houses, and four public buildings, one for worship and town meetings and the other three for provisions. As the waters were overflowing with fish, and the forests abundant with deer and wild turkeys, the Pilgrims celebrated and gave thanks for their good fortune.

For the feast and celebration, Massasoit and ninety of his people came and stayed for three days, joining the Pilgrims in rounds of entertainment, amusements and feasting, thus heartily inaugurating the first New England Thanksgiving. In later years, on November 26, 1789, Thanksgiving was celebrated as a National Holiday.

In the years that followed, other colonies were formed. In 1643, the four colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven formed the confederation of The United Colonies of New England.

We all owe the Pilgrims, these strong men and women, who through their greatness of mind and heart, dared the risks of an unknown land and wilderness, so that their children, the descendants of those of us today, might enjoy religious and political liberties. We owe them an undying debt of gratitude for the ideas they fostered, and the independence they sought. As we all enjoy our Thanksgiving dinners, we must remember to give thanks. The Pilgrims truly were the very foundation of American liberty and democracy we enjoy today.

Copyright 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.