Nearly 400 years ago on August 5, 1620, two wooden sailing ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, set off from England headed for the New World. Unfortunately, the Speedwell leaked at 300 miles out, forcing both ships to turn back to England. The Speedwell’s passengers were rapidly transferred to the already overcrowded Mayflower, which finally set sail from Plymouth England on September 6, 1620, with 102 passengers and 30 crewmembers. The voyage, which today can be traversed in 6 1/2 hours by commercial jet, took 66 long days at sea. Cape Cod was sighted on November 9, 1620.
The Mayflower Compact
To quell a passenger dispute over future governance, while anchored in the Provincetown harbor on November 11, 1620, the male members of the ship’s company, including half Pilgrims and half non-Pilgrim tradesmen and colonists who were not indentured servants nor the ship’s crew, agreed to a Compact, written by William Brewster, that set the Colony rules for self-governance. It established the principle, later embedded in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, of a government formed by the consent of the governed.
The First Year of Hardship and Death
Colonists went ashore from the Mayflower and selected New Plymouth as the place to begin construction of log homes with thatched roofs, dirt floors and fireplaces for warmth and cooking. Many remained on the Mayflower that first winter, suffering from scurvy, pneumonia, or tuberculosis. By spring, nearly half of the original passengers and crew of the Mayflower had perished. Only four of the 20 women who had set sail in September were still alive, along with 49 surviving men and children.
The First Thanksgiving
Legend dates the “First Thanksgiving” to October 1621 when the colonists, after signing a non-compete alliance with the Wampanoag tribe, invited some 90 Native Americans to celebrate the Plymouth Colony’s first harvest with the 53 remaining colonists. The menu is said to have included five deer supplied by the wary Wampanoags, plus wild fowl (but not turkeys), clams, berries, and squash from the settlers. The first Thanksgiving was not a feast, but a brief respite from famine.
In November 1621, the Fortune arrived with 35 more men to help with labor, but without supplies. Rations were cut in half to feed the new arrivals. In the summer of 1683, two more ships, the Anne and the Little James arrived with about 100 new colonists, including more women and children.
The Real Lesson of Thanksgiving
The Colony barely survived the first two bitter New England winters. Despite help from Native Americans who may have taught the Pilgrims to fish, hunt and plant corn, the settlement suffered from near starvation and discontent.
The freemen who came to Plymouth first established a socialist communal system. Everyone had to pool whatever they hunted or grew on their lands to repay the English merchant investors who had funded the Mayflower voyage. The system failed, and famine ensued.
By 1623, unable to raise enough food to sustain themselves, the Colony, under the practical Governor William Bradford, abolished its communal system and gave each family its own parcel of land to plant its own crops and trade the surplus. With private property to call their own, the Pilgrims suddenly became industrious and found themselves with more corn than they knew what to do with. The famine that nearly wiped out the Colony before 1623 gave way to a period of abundance enabling its citizens to set down permanent roots in the New World.
Why Do We Celebrate Thanksgiving Today?
The Pilgrims did not extend their Thanksgiving tradition. President George Washington declared November 26, 1789, “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to God Almighty, our Creator,” but it was not until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln, after two years of Civil War, proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of each November.
Since then we have evolved, over time, to a more non-religious view as expressed by the great Miami Herald humorist, Dave Barry, who opined that “Thanksgiving is a time when we pause to remember the courageous sacrifice of numerous turkeys, without which all Americans would weigh at least 15 pounds less each year.”