Most of us in America are struggling with uncertain times. Between politics and restrictions, we stand on shaky ground. I know Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time to give thanks, but since it’s hard to do that right now, I thought it wise to revisit The First Thanksgiving and gain much needed perspective on gratefulness. Here’s an excerpt from The Mystery of History Volume III (Lessons 59 and 60.) I needed two lessons to tell this story of faith, courage, and friendship! I hope you enjoy it, and rediscover the meaning of giving thanks in hardship. (This may make for a good read-aloud* for children on Thanksgiving Day – after the turkey and before the pie! And don’t miss the age-appropriate activities at the end.)
The Pilgrims Land at New Plymouth—1620
“Are we there yet?” I wonder how many times the children on board the Mayflower asked this question. Their voyage across the Atlantic was as expected – smooth at times and tumultuous at others. When bad storms hit, the ship was tossed to and fro. In one such storm, lightning struck the cross beam of the mast. There were lots of days and nights when the children were forced below deck along with the other passengers. The stench was awful, but it was far too dangerous to be outside on those bad days. One crewman had already fallen off the deck and been rescued. He was lucky to have survived.
As far as the Separatists were concerned, it wasn’t luck that was keeping them alive. It was prayer. The Separatists, as you may know, were those people who wanted to “separate” from the Church of England. They held deep convictions regarding the Word of God. For this, they were seeking religious freedom in the New World.
Persecution in England
The story of the Pilgrims really begins in the early 1600s, when a group of Separatists (and some former Puritans) started their own congregation in Scrooby, England. Members included William Brewster – a postmaster and a tavern keeper, William Bradford – a 12-year old orphan, and John Robinson – who later became a pastor. At this time, James I was the king of England. Under his reign, there was a great deal of hostility toward anyone opposed to the Church of England. It led to persecution.
The Separatists were forced to meet secretly at the Scrooby manor. Authorities were suspicious. William Brewster was fired as postmaster (or perhaps resigned) and church members were being spied on day and night. A few were tortured and imprisoned. So, the congregation of Scrooby decided to pack their belongings, sell their homes, and move to Holland in the Netherlands.
The Separatists first attempt to flee in 1607 ended in disaster. Their plot was discovered and most of the congregation was thrown in jail for a month! The second attempt was equally difficult when authorities once again found out their plans. As the men escaped by ship, the women and children were held back from joining them. There were many tears and crying! But the women and children were released, and in 1608 the families reunited in Amsterdam, Holland. Eventually, about 100 of the Scrooby churchmen moved to Leiden (LYE den), Holland. Though Leiden wasn’t “home” it was a place to freely worship God.
The Separatists would have stayed in Leiden, Holland a long time I suppose except that things weren’t going as smoothly as they hoped. The Separatists had been farmers back in England. But in Holland, they were forced to work in factories. It was so difficult to make a living that even the children were working in the factories and falling behind in their school work. Furthermore, after 11 years in Holland, the young people were forgetting their English customs, they were forgetting English and speaking Dutch, and they were picking up poor habits around them. William Bradford wrote this of the youth, “. . . of all sorrows most heavy to be born, was that many of their children. . . were drawn away by evil examples intro extravagant and dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and departing from their parents.” (Of Plymouth Plantation, p. 25)
Besides that, William Brewster was a “wanted” man in Holland for printing and shipping religious materials to England. And on top it all, Spain remained a constant threat to the Dutch, due to the Dutch Revolt!
Through all these difficult circumstances, many Christians believe it was the Lord who led the Separatists to relocate. But where? Well, as difficult as things had been for the settlers of Jamestown, who landed in Virginia in 1607, the New World was still inviting. The land was ripe, abundant, and wide open. Yes, there would be trials, storms, and challenges. But, the Separatists were eager to settle and to spread out in a new land. After all the bloodshed and the persecution of the Reformation, the Separatists were willing to move again for the sake of freedom.
Heading to the New World
William Brewster was one of the leaders who arranged the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. London merchants agreed to finance the trip using an old boat named the Speedwell. Brewster and members of his church boarded the Speedwell and sailed first to England. Pastor John Robinson stayed behind with the rest of the church, hoping to join them later. I wonder what it was like when these brothers and sisters in Christ said goodbye. Did they exchange gifts and goods for the trip? Did they exchange hugs and prayers? William Bradford wrote in his account, “. . . truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to see what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them, what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each heart. . . . (Of Plymouth Plantation, p. 50)
There were many uncertainties ahead for the travelers, not to mention great danger. John Robinson led church members in a day of prayer and fasting before they divided the church in two. For inspiration, he read Ezra 8:21 asking the Lord for the “right way for us and for our children.”
Once they made it to England, the Separatists were joined by “Strangers.” That’s what the Separatists called them. The Strangers were a mix of Englishmen seeking adventure and new business. According to William Bradford, “They left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims” (Of Plymouth Plantation, p. 50. Italics mine.) when they first left Holland. He was referring to the Separatists who were on a pilgrimage to the New World. But over time, the entire group of Separatists and Strangers were called “the Pilgrims.”
In England, the Pilgrims filled the old Speedwell and a larger ship named the Mayflower. Unfortunately, the Speedwell was unstable on the sea. It had to return to port twice. It was finally abandoned. With it, several passengers abandoned their dreams and returned home.
When at last the Mayflower was boarded, it carried about 30 sailors, and 102 Pilgrims. Only 35 of the Pilgrims were Separatists from Leiden. Most of the Pilgrims were traveling as families, so there were 32 children on board (if you can imagine!). But that number changed when two babies were born on the Mayflower! One named Oceanus Hopkins was born at sea and cleverly named after the event. Another baby named Peregrine White was born while anchored in the harbor of the New World. With everyone’s belongings and supplies, a few favorite pets, and crying newborns, the ship was far more cramped than planned.
Fortunately, the Strangers and the Separatists got along well. Though they ventured across the ocean for different reasons, they had much in common. All were courageous folks. All had hopes for starting new lives in North America. They would cling together through difficult times yet ahead. I imagine that those new babies were rocked and held by most of the women on board.
After 65 days at sea, land was finally in sight. (I’m sure the children shrieked with delight!) The first obstacle the Pilgrims faced was where to set ashore. You see, they had been granted passage to the territory of Virginia, but they didn’t exactly land there. The storms in the Atlantic drove them further north than Jamestown. They were at Cape Cod in present-day Massachusetts. The Pilgrims tried to turn the Mayflower south, but the rocky shoreline and strong currents wouldn’t allow for it. An historic decision was then made.
The Pilgrim men gathered on board the Mayflower to sign the Mayflower Compact. It was an agreement between them all that they were to be “self-governed.” Since they weren’t in Virginia, they weren’t under its laws and needed to make their own. The Mayflower Compact stated that each man would do their best according to God’s will and would protect the rights of others. It would help prevent any one man from ruling over all the rest and restricting freedom – the very thing they were striving for. At this time, John Carver was elected the first governor.
Now, the signing of the Mayflower Compact may not seem like a big deal. But it really was. You have to remember the state of things back in Europe. The Thirty Years War was raging between Protestants and Catholics under the weight of heavy handed kings and emperors. The Pilgrims didn’t want the same problems in the New World. The Separatists therefore did not impose their faith and religion on the Strangers among them. Nor did the Strangers restrict the worship of the Separatists. All of the men sought to be represented and protected under this newly formed charter. It was baby steps toward democracy in the New World.
Before I tell you about making landfall, let me introduce you to one of the heroes of the Pilgrims. His name was Miles Standish. His wife was named Rose. Miles was a short stout redhead with a fiery temper. Miles Standish met the Separatists back in Leiden. He never joined the church of the Separatists, but he had great respect for these God-fearing people. The Separatists voted him in as the first captain of the colony. They knew that to tame to the land, they needed his bravery and expertise. Unfortunately, Miles had hostile encounters with the Native Americans that ended in bloodshed. The Native Americans quickly learned to leave the short red head alone.
After scouting the area for five weeks, Miles Standish and others found a place with a clearing, good water, and a high hill for scouting. The area had been home to a Native American tribe that had since died out. The Pilgrims named their settlement New Plymouth, after a city in England. The official date of their landing was December 21, 1620. There sits a large rock at Plymouth today that marks the spot where the Pilgrims supposedly stepped from their ship to the shore. All I can picture are the children hitting the beach and running – after their long and dreary confinement!
William Bradford describes the scene for us this way, “Being thus arrived in a good harbour, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to se their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.” (Of Plymouth Plantation, p. 69)
Unlike the British gentlemen of Jamestown, who opposed strenuous work at first, the Pilgrims were industrious. They immediately went about their chores of building, hunting, and gathering wood. The women had loads of foul laundry to wash. Even with all their hard work, the first winter in Plymouth was miserable. It was so cold that their clothes froze on their bodies. Food was scarce and disease raged. The Pilgrims called it “the Great Sickness.” Everyone lived under the same roof of a fort that soon turned into a hospital.
At one time, only seven Pilgrims were healthy enough to tend to all the others. One of the healthy Pilgrims was Miles Standish. He cooked, nursed the sick, and did laundry. Despite the efforts of everyone, by springtime, 42 Pilgrims were dead, including Rose Standish. That means that half of the Pilgrims perished that first winter in Plymouth! I do wonder what the Pilgrims thought of the desperate situation. Had they heard the Lord clearly? Would they survive?
In mid-March of 1621, the Pilgrims were startled to hear the words, “Welcome! Welcome Englishmen!” These words were spoken by a Native American named Samoset. According to the Pilgrims, Samoset was a gift from God. He spoke broken English and introduced them to two very important people. First, he brought them Squanto, a Native American who spoke almost perfect English! (More on him later.) Second, Samoset brought them Chief Massosoit (mass eh SOIT). Massosoit was a kind Native American chief who was visiting in the region. He was the leader of the Pokanoke Indians who lived in southeastern Massachusetts. They were also called the Wampanoag (wom peh NO ag) which means “people of the early light.” On the east coast of North America, they were the first people to see the sun rise each morning. Chief Massosoit, after getting to know the Pilgrims, agreed to sign a peace treaty with them that lasted for 50 years. The peace treaty greatly helped the Pilgrims survive their hardships. (Tragically, peace would not last in the region beyond those 50 years! But that’s a topic for The Mystery of History Volume IV, “The French and Indian War.” Our focus here is the first Thanksgiving at New Plymouth.)
In April of 1621, Governor Carver died. It was decided than that William Bradford would be the new governor. Bradford carried a great amount of responsibility on his shoulders, but he relied on the Lord for strength and held his position for 30 years. William Bradford was a godly man and provided the spiritual leadership that the Pilgrims desperately needed. He wrote, “the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean. . . What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace?” (Keesee, Timothy and Mark Sidwell. United States History for Christian Schools, p.23) I suspect that with every new grave that was made, many prayers were prayed. I believe the Lord was listening.
Samoset and Squanto
Getting back to Samoset, it only made sense that he would introduce the Pilgrims to Squanto, who spoke the white man’s language. (He learned the language after numerous captures and escapes back and forth to the Old World!) It must have been a delightful encounter on both sides because once Squanto met the Pilgrims, he never left.
Do you remember that first terrible winter for the Pilgrims in 1621? That’s when nearly half of them died from the Great Sickness. Well, it was the following spring when Squanto came to join them. Squanto taught them many things like how to find eel and clams and how to sneak up on deer, turkey, and bear. He taught the Pilgrim children where to find wild berries and nuts. It was probably something he grew up doing as a young Native American boy.
But probably the most famous gesture by Squanto was teaching the Pilgrims how to improve their crops of corn, beans, and pumpkins. (I love this part of the story.) In particular, Squanto taught the settlers to fertilize the ground with fish. Yes, fish. Squanto showed them that every seed or kernel planted should be surrounded by three small alewives, or tiny fish. (Alewives are fish in the herring family.) The decomposing fish nourished the ground and helped the crops grow stronger.
The First Thanksgiving
Squanto’s tips and tricks would pay off. That fall, in 1621, the Pilgrims had an extremely bountiful harvest. Governor Bradford declared it a time of “thanksgiving.” The feast lasted three days and included worship, Bible readings, and games. I think you already know who was invited. The Pilgrims invited Chief Massasoit who brought about 90 Native Americans with him to the first Thanksgiving. They in turn brought more deer to eat. It was only fitting.
Fortunately, we have written accounts of that first Thanksgiving, so we don’t have to use our imagination. Edward Winslow wrote a letter to a friend in England describing the great feast. He wrote, “Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might . . . rejoice together, after we had gathered in the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as many fowl as . . . served the Company for almost a week, at which time, amongst our recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their great king the Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.” (Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. p. 100)
Beyond the full bellies, I hope there were full hearts on that first Thanksgiving. I hope the Pilgrims and the Native Americans were warmed by the presence of one another. I hope they saw beyond their differences in color and creed. I imagine the children had an abundance of fun competing in games and trading homemade dolls and bracelets. I would love to have been there.
I wish I could end the story here and say that all lived happily ever after. But that is not the case. The next winter and spring were terribly difficult. Again the Pilgrims were short of food and a severe drought nearly killed their crops. Ships from the New World arrived with more hungry settlers and few supplies. There just wasn’t enough to go around. At one time, each Pilgrim was allotted no more than 5 kernels of corn to eat per day. Regardless, the Pilgrims continued to pray and place their faith in God. They would survive to celebrate more and more Thanksgivings, but it wasn’t without hardship.
As for Squanto, he had only a few adventures left which give us a little insight into his character. He heard that his friend Captain Thomas Dermer was captured by other Native Americans. As a good gesture, Squanto rescued Dermer and helped to set him free. As another good gesture, Squanto joined a search party for a lost Pilgrim boy. Fortunately, the young boy was found! But on another note, Squanto was accused of spreading rumors of an Indian attack on Plymouth! It is unclear of his intentions on the matter. Governor Bradford dropped any charges against him and allowed him to stay on with the Pilgrims.
In the end, Squanto suffered quite unexpectedly. In the fall of 1623, Squanto fell ill with a high fever and nose bleed. He knew he was dying. Squanto asked William Bradford to pray for him. He then gave his few belongings to the Pilgrims. Squanto died at about age 38. William Bradford wrote a lot about how much Squanto had meant to them. He said, “. . .But Squanto continued with them (the Pilgrims) and was their interpreter and was 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 was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.” (Of Plymouth Plantation. p. 89. Words in parentheses mine.)
As for Thanksgiving, it has become a well-loved American holiday for most. It is above all, a time to give thanks despite hardships, not in the absence of them. In that spirit, let us give thanks in the midst of our modern problems and remember to be grateful in all things. May the Lord bless you and keep you!
If you’d like age-appropriate activities for students, please keep reading! These are contained in the Companion Guide that accompanies The Mystery of History, Volume III.
Five Kernels of Corn. Materials: unpopped popcorn, glue, leaves (real or made from construction paper).
If you were to join my family for Thanksgiving one year, you would learn that one of our traditions is to place a large fall-colored maple leaf on each plate before dinner is served. Five kernels of corn are glued to each leaf (for convenience and storage, we use popcorn kernels.) Before we pray and eat, we are reminded that at one time the Pilgrims were allotted only five kernels of fresh corn to eat per day! That realization adds to the appreciation of the feast waiting for us. Make these to store away for your next Thanksgiving. You will need large maple leaves, popcorn kernels, and glue. You can use real fall-colored maple leaves if maples grow in your area and the time of the year is right for them. Or you can make your own out of orange, yellow, and red construction paper.
Beans and Sardines. Materials: can of sardines, dry beans, paper cups, planting soil
Squanto has been well remembered for teaching the Pilgrims to add fish to the soil of their gardens. Do the same in a windowsill garden. Fill a paper cup 2/3 full with planting soil. Poke a hole with your finger. Drop a sardine into the hole. Add a bean. Cover with soil. Water gently and watch it grow. To make an experiment of the project, plant a bean without a sardine in the cup and see how the two compare. I can not guarantee that a canned sardine will improve your results!
Trivia Time. Why in 1941 did Franklin Roosevelt move Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of each November? To answer this question, you will need to do a quick study on the history of the celebration of Thanksgiving. See what trivia you can find.