This week we celebrate Thanksgiving Day.
It’s a day we’ll gather for turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, and pie. We’ll gather with friends and family, watch football and check the advertisements for Black Friday specials. Most of us will share gratitude for something or someone.
But in 1621, the first Thanksgiving feast happened for none of those reasons.
Here’s the REAL story. The story that you won’t hear on the History Channel, at the museum or in school. In fact, if you’re under 45, you’ve likely never learned what really happened with the pilgrims. In recent years, we’ve been fed a history that one revisionist stated was how “noble-minded pioneers slaughtered Indians with little remorse, kept servants and slaves, and treated women no differently than cattle.”[i] It’s simply not true.
Many Americans believe Europeans originally settled America as part of a systematic “hostile takeover” of the native Indian (or indigenous people). They argue the “white man” stole the land from the Indian, then enslaved the African Black.
But is that true? Were the Pilgrims evil white Christian oppressors? Or have we been taught the wrong story.
To understand this tale we need to begin in 1603 when King James I ascended the English throne.
King James wanted a pure Anglican church and absolute obedience to civil authority. He drove dissident groups underground through imprisonment, fines and other persecution. In 1611, King James “authorized” his own Anglican translation of the Bible. Among these dissident groups were groups called Separatists and Puritans. Initially, the Puritans wanted to “purify” the corruption in the Anglican church but tried to retain unity with their Anglican brothers. The Separatists were different. They completely separated from the Church of England. In 1607, an entire church (known as the Scrooby congregation) illegally migrated to Holland to escape King James. This group of dissident Christians were eventually known as the “pilgrims.”
Holland proved tolerant of religion for these Christian pilgrims, but it was also more heathen in culture and traditions.
After a dozen years living among the Dutch, this Scrooby church noticed changes in their kids…and they weren’t good ones. It was time to move again. That’s when they heard about a new world called “America.” England was seeking immigrants to colonize the region that eventually would be called “New” England.
In September of 1620 the “pilgrims” set sail for America.
They set sail initially on the Speedwell but this ship was leaky and unreliable. The Mayflower ship, accompanying the Speedwell, was able to take only 102 of the Speedwell pilgrims. There were other non-separatists aboard, but the pilgrims were the in the majority. The 65 day voyage across the Atlantic was a dangerous and life-threatening. Intense storms nearly tore the Mayflower ship apart, and tore off the central mast at one point.
One pilgrim named James Howland fell overboard and would’ve drown had he not (miraculously) found the trailing rope behind the Mayflower. Howland was saved and that proved fortunate. James later married and had ten children. Among Howland’s descendants are H.W., G.W. and Jeb Bush, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, Henry Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Humphrey Bogart, Alec and Stephen Baldwin, Chevy Chase, John Lithglow, country artist Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Joseph Smith, Jr. and Jane Austin.
On November 9, 1620 the Mayflower arrived in America.
Originally the pilgrims planned to settle in Jamestown, VA but a winter storm pushed them further north into Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
William Bradford led the group in a thanksgiving reading of Psalm 100: Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
William Bradford emerged as a leader and pastor for the pilgrims in the new world.
He was barely 30 years old but already a respected leader among the pilgrims. He volunteered to help explore the area with several other men. But first they needed to agree on a basic government for their new colony. They authored what would become “The Mayflower Compact.” The pilgrims knew settling in a different area than Jamestown could be perceived as defiance by King James. Consequently, they wrote out a simple constitution—the first for Americans—promising “all Submission and Obedience” to “King and country.”
They also stated their purpose was a Christian settlement “undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith.”
With the Compact signed, exploration parties commenced.
Initially, they found no people. The cold November winds were chilling, the New England land barren, rocky and hard to traverse. On their third exploration the men discovered an abandoned Indian village. It was the former fort of the Patuxet Indians and it was now a graveyard of skulls and bones. Between 1616 and 1619, a deadly plague killed off the entire tribe. The tragedy of a tribe would be fortunate for these pilgrims seeking a quick home. But the young Bradford now faced his own tragedy. Upon his return to the Mayflower he learned his young wife had accidentally fallen into the cold Atlantic waters and drowned. It was the first of many misfortunes he’d face.
The abandoned Indian fort proved a Divine blessing for the pilgrims who began disembarking the Mayflower.
Winter was approaching fast, and they needed food and shelter. By Christmas Day 1620 the settlers were rebuilding the old Indian fort. Unfortunately, starvation, freezing temperatures and sickness soon took its toll. At one point, Bradford collapsed from a sudden pain in his hip. Some feared he wouldn’t last the night, but he “miraculously” pulled through. Not everyone was that lucky. During March and February, two to three pilgrims died every day. By spring more than half the original 102 pilgrims were dead.
Many Puritans later thanked a hired soldier named Myles Standish for their survival in that first winter.
Standish not only nursed Bradford back to health, but many others too. He foraged for food, reinforced the fort and kept the dying pilgrim community alive. He’d also be William Bradford’s right hand man…and a gift from God. For Bradford everything was a matter of Divine Providence. God was controlling this venture…and blessing it. Even when the Mayflower headed back to England and the ship’s captain begged the starving pilgrims to return, they refused.
God had led them to America.
As for the neighboring Indians? Here’s the real story that’s not taught today.
In early spring 1621, this surviving band of pilgrims had their first meeting with an Indian.
His name was Samoset and he was part of the Wampanoag tribe. His chief Massasoit had sent him to meet the white settlers and to their surprise he greeted them in English. The introduction grew into a friendship and eventually a mutual treaty to work together for the good of all. The pilgrims and Wampanoag agreed to help each other and, if necessary, fight together. It was an alliance that likely saved the pilgrims.
The reason Somoset could greet the pilgrims in their English tongue is due to another Indian named Tisquantum.
He was not a Wampanoag Indian. In fact, he belonged to that fateful Patuxet Indian tribe that had perished due to the plague. Tisquantum was kidnapped twice by white slave traders. The second time he was taken to Spain to be a slave, and that proved fortuitous because he missed the epidemic that wiped out his tribe in 1617. In Spain Tisquantum was sold to some Spanish Christian monks. These monks educated Tisquantum, taught him Spanish and English, as well as European customs. They also instructed him in Christianity…then they freed Tisquantum. The liberated Indian left Spain and traveled to England (where Tisquantum met Pocahontas) and then, in 1619, returned to his native America.
But Tisquantum returned to discover his people were gone.
His family and friends were all dead due to a killer epidemic. His entire life and culture was finished. So he joined the Wampanoag tribe. He was the one who likely taught Samoset a simple English greeting. Because once in the door, Tisquantum quickly took the lead. He did all the translation work between the Indians and these white settlers, and helped create the treaty. He lived with the pilgrims for nearly two years and proved an indispensable resource to Bradford and the colonists. Bradford said Tisquantum was “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”
The pilgrims gave Tisquantum a different, shortened name: Squanto.
And he became one of the most influential Indians in American history. Like Pocahontas and, later, Sacagawea, he proved a trusted friend to the white settler.
Squanto singlehandedly equipped this struggling colony. He was their American “Moses”—leader, guide, interpreter, and advisor. Squanto introduced the settlers to the fur trade and taught them how to hunt and fish. He showed them how to grow crops in the rocky Massachusetts’s dirt, including a new crop known as “corn.” At one point, a food shortage forced Bradford to take a treacherous expedition to trade some pelts. Squanto expertly piloted the ship through dangerous waters. But that expedition was also Squanto’s last, as he contracted “Indian fever” sometime during the trip. Within days, he was dead. Bradford tenderly cared for his Indian friend to his last breath. He wrote in his journal how Squanto was a “great loss” to him and the pilgrim colonists.
The year 1621 proved a banner year for the pilgrims.
Despite the steep loss of human life in early spring, the colony rebounded—thanks to the help of Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe. They now thrived in their new world. There was an abundance of wildlife and fish in this new world, not to mention trees for building homes. The pilgrims killed so much fowl and deer, and their crops grew so well, that they had more than they needed for the coming winter.
It was time to party. It was time to thank God for His Protection and Provision.
The First Thanksgiving was a fellowship meal of gratitude.
Yes, there was gratitude towards the Indians. It why the pilgrims invited their chief Massasoit and several Indians to join their company for a good old-fashioned potluck dinner. Ninety Indians showed up for the fellowship meal. They feasted for three days on wild turkey, venison, fish, fowl, fruits, nuts and vegetables. They also dined on a new dish known simply as “corn.” A pilgrim named Edward Winslow recorded his gratitude: “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.”
Thanksgiving was about thanking God for his “goodness” and his abundant provision.
It was also gratitude for new friends, rugged individualism and a liberty to live (and worship) as one desired.
It’s why those who wish to twist this Thanksgiving tale into a story of greed, theft and hate completely miss the point. The Puritans weren’t oppressors. They didn’t steal any land. In fact, every Indian tribe in the area could’ve done what these Puritans did, but they did not. Why? Because their superstitions about death kept them far away from this plot of land these pilgrims chose. They feared living in such a place would bring death upon their own tribe. So the abandoned fort was never inhabited again…until a hundred hungry European Christians desperately needed shelter one cold November day.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday with an amazing tale of survival. We should enjoy the bounty of what we’ve earned and produced. But let us never forget to be grateful for how God provided that opportunity, that job, that paycheck, that home, that food.
And out of charity and gratitude, don’t forget to invite some friends to the table.
Thanksgiving is about being grateful, hopeful…and neighborly.
- Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis (New York: Avon Books, 1990): 20.
- Bradford’s History “Of Plimoth Plantation” by William Bradford (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing, 1898)
- The Pilgrim Fathers or Colony of Plymouth from 1602 to 1625 by Alexander Young (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1841).