“Friday, a fair warm day towards noon.”
Journal entry of William Bradford
March 26, 1621
During the first winter half of the 102 members perished, including a dozen male heads of household. Over half of the families lost their husband or father. With the fear of Indian attacks and the almost imminent threat of starvation looming before them, the Pilgrims needed divine intervention.
That intervention came on a “fair warm” spring Friday when, in Bradford’s words, “a savage…very boldly came all alone…saluted us in English, and bade us “Welcome!” It was a startling welcome, to say the least. Samoset was “stark naked, only a leather about his waist, with a fringe about a span long or little more.” For good measure, “we cast a horseman’s coat about him.” But Samoset was friendly. Before leaving the next day, he promised to return soon with another native who could speak better English than he.
A few days later, Bradford would meet the man who would serve as the Pilgrim’s interpreter, arbiter, teacher, and friend. Governor Brad-ford had no misgivings about Squanto’s importance to the Pilgrims. Bradford called him “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.”1
By assisting the Pilgrims, Squanto helped keep alive the English Protestant dream for religious freedom. For many, in that land 3,000 watery miles away, that dream had been slipping away.
The Pilgrims and Their Pilgrimage
The Pilgrims were English Christians who were frustrated over the stalled English Reformation. They disagreed with Anglican church government, its high-church ceremonies, and the forced use of the Book of Common Prayer. These concerns they shared with their contemporaries, the Puritans, although the Puritans preferred to reform the church internally. The Pilgrims, on the other hand, were separatists.
The problem with being a separatist in England in the 16th and 17th centuries was that there was no separation of church and state. To criticize the Church of England was to challenge the crown. For such challenges, in the words of Bradford, the Pilgrims were “hunted and persecuted on every side . . . Some were . . . clapped up in prison, others had their houses… watched day and night . . . and the most were [obliged] to flee and leave their houses, habitations, and the means of their livelihood.”
Seeking respite first in the Netherlands, the Pilgrims enjoyed freedom of religion and relative peace during Holland’s twelve year truce with Spain (1609-1621). Being immigrants, the Pilgrims had limited vocational opportunities and, therefore, lived in relative poverty. Given this condition, few Englishman were willing to join their community. The Pilgrims also feared the cultural influences to which their children were subjected. Under their toilsome labors, the Pilgrims, and their dream, began to wear out. The aging Pilgrims realized that to establish a prosperous Christian community they would have to act soon.
After rejecting a plan to begin a colony in Guiana, South America, they returned to England to secure a land patent for settling in America. The Mayflower’s companion, ironically named the Speedwell, proved unseaworthy and had to turn back. Before landing, two children were born on the ship and two people died. Landing at Cape Cod, but having a charter for the middle states, the Pilgrims found themselves without civil oversight.
The Founding of Plymouth
Before landing at Plymouth the Pilgrims drafted the Mayflower Compact affirming their allegiance to King James and their intention to draft their own laws “for better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country.” This first assertion of self-government in the New World is infused with not only religious, but explicitly Christian, language.
In stark contrast to the motives of several other early colonists, the Pilgrims saw their relocation not only as a means of preserving their own faith but of propagating it as well. One Pilgrim leader listed the Great Commission as the first motive for moving to the New World. “If we pray for the heathen, should there not also be ordinary means toward their conversion exercised by us . . . That then is sufficient reason to prove our going thither to live, lawful.” The Pilgrims’ love for the Indians flowed out of concern for their souls. It was this love that contributed toward healthy Indian relations for over half a century. Edward Winslow wrote “We . . . walk as peaceably and safely in the woods as in the highways in England; we entertain them in our houses, and they as friendly bestow venison on us.”
But there almost weren’t any Indians to meet them. In 1617-19 roughly ninety percent of the Indian population along the Massachusetts coast was wiped out by epidemic; a sad fact, but one which providentially allowed the Pilgrims to settle with little interference. Squanto was one of the few survivors from his Patuxet tribe. The reason for his survival is a story of remarkable providence. Years before the Pilgrims arrived, Squanto had been captured, enslaved, and set free in Spain. He found his way to England, learned English and returned to America. Like a more contemporary Joseph, Squanto’s slavery and deliverance resulted in many people being “kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). In addition to helping the Pilgrims avoid starvation, Squanto helped them to enter into a treaty with the Indian King Massasoit on whose behalf the Pilgrims would later engage in war. Squanto’s death just two years later was described by Bradford as “a great loss.”
The First Thanksgiving
The first thanksgiving was held in November 1621, a year after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Edward Winslow sent a letter to a friend in England describing the event.
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors . . . At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us [including] their greatest King, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted; and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation, and bestowed on [us]… 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.”
William Bradford wrote similarly:
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs a-broad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store . . . All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached . . . And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”
Ostensibly, the Pilgrims had little for which to be thankful. They had seven houses (for the remaining fifty-three people) and four buildings for common use. Of the eighteen adult wo-men who left England only four survived the first year. They had a good corn harvest, thanks to the Indian techniques; their barley was good too. But, according to Winslow, “Our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed; but the sun parched them in the blossom.”
Both Winslow and Brad-ford refer to their “plenty” unaware that this too, was about to disappear. A ship called the Fortune had recently landed carrying more pilgrims but few supplies. The goods sent back on the Fortune were apprehended by the French. With additional pilgrims arriving and the need to outfit the Fortune for her return voyage, things took a turn for the worse. That winter the Pilgrims survived on “half allowance” still with no cattle, sheep, or horses. In fact it took ten years (and visits by four ships) to raise the population from 100 to 300. By 1650, thirty years after their landing there were still less than 1,000 people under Governor Brad-ford’s jurisdiction. Very often the question that came to the minds of the settlers was, “Will we survive?”
When we are tempted to complain about tough turkey, lack of white meat, or obnoxious friends and family members, we should remember the First Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims frequently spoke of God’s providence, despite the fact that half of their people died in their struggle to build a viable community. They were thankful to God, who, in the words of Winslow, “Hath dealt so favorably with us.”
William Boekestein pastors Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Carbondale, PA, and has written three children’s books on the history of the Reformed Confessions including, The Quest for Comfort: The Story of the Heidelberg Catechism.
1 Bradford wrote Of Plymouth Plantation, one of only two primary sources for the First Thanksgiving. The other, Mort’s Relation was written by Bradford and Edward Winslow.