EIGHT days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. At the outset I concentrated mainly on some of the ways we have mythologized the Pilgrim story over the years. This week I want to contextualize the First Thanksgiving as accurately as I can. Today we’ll discuss two episodes from the winter of 1620-1621: one that is mostly imaginary, on that was all too real.
After sighting land in early December, the Pilgrims spent the next six weeks exploring the coast of Massachusetts before settling on a location for their future home. Finally, on the 23rd of December all who were able went ashore about thirty miles south of present-day Boston and set to work. More than a century later (but still more than a century before Bradford’s history was discovered in London), the descendants of the Pilgrims would come to believe that they knew exactly where their ancestors had landed when they first set foot on the site. Specifically, they had it on good authority that the Pilgrims had touched ground at a distinctive rock still embedded in the sandy beach—what we know today as “Plymouth Rock.”
The Pilgrims’ descendants knew about this landmark because in 1741—121 years after the landing—a fifteen-year-old boy overheard ninety-five-year-old Thomas Faunce relate that his father, who came to Plymouth three years after the Mayflower, had told him that he had been told by unnamed persons that the landing had occurred there. (No, it wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, but if you visit Plymouth today you’ll find a rock about the size of your living-room couch sheltered by a classical Greek portico, before a sign erected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which proclaims, “Plymouth Rock: Landing Place of the Pilgrims.”)
Curiously, Bradford never mentioned such a rock in his narrative, and if the expedition landed there he seems not to have noticed. Other features did attract the group’s attention, however. When they returned to the Mayflower, they told the other passengers of a tall hill which would be readily defensible, sloping gradually down to a decent, if somewhat shallow harbor.
With eyes of faith, the Pilgrims envisioned a fort at the top of a 165-foot hill, the six cannon they had brought with them commanding the landscape in every direction. From the fort—which would double as a meeting house on Sundays—they saw descending toward the water a double row of snug houses. (Nineteen would suffice, they calculated, with every single male assigned to live with a family.) There would also be storehouses, stables, and gardens, and around the entire village a reassuring palisade.
Half of the Mayflower’s passengers would live to see this vision a reality, but during their horrific first winter they struggled to erect a handful of crude structures, likely little more than frameworks of saplings slathered in mud and topped with thatched roofs. (High winds sometimes blew away the daubing, and sparks from the chimneyless fireplaces always threatened to set the roofs on fire.) The cruel weather was their constant enemy, preventing them from working more than half of any week, but above all they were plagued by sickness.
Although historian Samuel Eliot Morison designated the period from January through March the Pilgrims’ “starving time,” the Pilgrims themselves recalled it as the time of the “general sickness” or the “common infection.” They sometimes spoke of “scurvy” as the source of their suffering, but the most likely culprit was pneumonia brought on by prolonged exposure to the elements.
For the first six weeks after their arrival, the ship’s longboat had been mostly unavailable for general service, either because it was undergoing repairs or being used by various expeditions. This meant that whenever the passengers wished to go ashore they had to wade through frigid waters up to their thighs, and because the harbor was so shallow, the Mayflower was often anchored more than a mile from the beach. Late in life, William Bradford compiled a list of the passengers with information of their “deceasings and increasings,” and it is no coincidence that the phrase “died soon after they came ashore” was a common epitaph.
At its worst, the epidemic claimed two or three victims a day, and there was a time when scarcely a half dozen of the Pilgrims were well enough to tend to the rest. Bradford, who himself hovered near death for a time, later particularly praised elder William Brewster and the company’s military leader, Myles Standish, for their heroic efforts on behalf of the ill. These “spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health . . . did all the homely and necessary offices” for the sick “which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named.”
The toll was staggering. Within weeks, fifty-two of the 102 passengers who had reached Cape Cod were dead, including fourteen of the twenty-six heads of families and the colony’s recently elected governor, John Carver. All but four families had lost at least one member. Of the eighteen married couples who had sailed from England, only three had survived intact. “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God,” Paul and Barnabas had instructed the churches of Asia Minor (Acts 14:22). The Pilgrims understood this well.