Tag Archives: Edward Winslow

THE PILGRIMS’ “FIRST THANKSGIVING” WAS NOT THE ONE WE REMEMBER

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know that in past years I’ve bombarded readers all November long with essays on the history of Thanksgiving, most of them drawn from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Because I’ve been taking a “sabbatical” from my blog this year, I’ve spared you that fate this time around, but I find that I can’t bring myself to let the holiday pass without sharing just a few of my favorite Thanksgiving posts.

Anytime I’m interviewed about the history of Thanksgiving, the interviewers always seem to try to direct the conversation to popular myths about the “First Thanksgiving,” with the tiresome result that we end up mostly talking about what the Pilgrims had to eat.  For my part, I’d rather discuss the far more important misconceptions most of us have about the Pilgrims: we tend to misunderstand why they came to America in the first place, how they saw themselves, and how they understood the celebration that we–not they–labeled the “First Thanksgiving.”  This week I am sharing some past posts that speak to those foundational questions.  I hope you enjoy.

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In forty-eight hours families all across America will celebrate Thanksgiving, and some, at least, will link what they are doing to the Pilgrims’ celebration on the coast of Massachusetts in 1621. Although frequently embellished and sometimes caricatured, the story of the Pilgrims’ “First Thanksgiving” is rich with insight and inspiration. The Pilgrims were human, which means that they bore the imprint of the Fall with all its attendant sinful consequences: they were ethnocentric, sometimes judgmental and intolerant, prone to bickering, and tempted by mammon. They were also people of remarkable faith and fortitude—common folk of average abilities and below-average means who risked everything in the interest of their families and their community of faith.

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

The Pilgrims’ trial began with their voyage on the Mayflower, a 65-day-long ordeal in which 102 men, women, and children crossed the stormy Atlantic in a space the size of a city bus. Following that came a cruel New England winter for which they were ill prepared. (Massachusetts is more than six hundred miles south of London—on a line of latitude even with Madrid, Spain—and the Pilgrims were expecting a much more temperate climate.) Due more to exposure than starvation, their number dwindled rapidly, so that by the onset of spring some fifty-one members of the party had died. A staggering fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished in their new home. Widowers and orphans abounded.

The 1621 Celebration

That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope. Yet celebrate they did, most probably sometime in late September or early October after God had granted them a harvest sufficient to see them through the next winter. This is an inspiring story, and it is a good thing for Christians this Thanksgiving to remember it. I don’t know about you, but I am always encouraged when I sit down with Christian friends and hear of how God has sustained them in hard times. Remembering the Pilgrims’ story is a lot like that, although the testimony comes to us not from across the room but from across the centuries.

And yet the part of the Pilgrims’ story that modern-day Americans have chosen to emphasize doesn’t seem to have been that significant to the Pilgrims themselves. More importantly, it fails to capture the heart of the Pilgrims’ thinking about God’s provision and our proper response. Most of what we know about the Pilgrims’ experience after leaving Holland comes from two Pilgrim writers—William Bradford, the long-time governor of the Plymouth colony, and Edward Winslow, his close assistant. Bradford never even referred to the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration (what we call the “First Thanksgiving”) in his famous history of the Pilgrims’ colony, Of Plymouth Plantation. Winslow mentioned it but briefly, devoting five sentences to it in a letter that he wrote to supporters in England. Indeed, the 115 words in those five sentences represent the sum total of all that we know about the occasion!

This means that there is a lot that we would like to know about that event that we will never know. It seems likely (although it must be conjecture) that the Pilgrims thought of their autumn celebration that first fall in Plymouth as something akin to the harvest festivals common at that time in England. What is absolutely certain is that they did not conceive of the celebration as a Thanksgiving holiday.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.  On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe's imaginative recreation of the "First Thanksgiving" helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims 1621 celebration in the public mind.  Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.

“Holy Days”

When the Pilgrims spoke of holidays, they used the word literally. A holiday was a “holy day,” a day specially set apart for worship and communion with God. Their reading of the scripture convinced them that God had only established one regular holy day under the new covenant, and that was the Lord’s Day each Sunday. Beyond that, they did believe that the scripture allowed the consecration of occasional Days of Fasting and Humiliation to beseech the Lord for deliverance from a particular trial, as well as occasional Days of Thanksgiving to praise the Lord for his extraordinary provision. Both were comparatively solemn observances, characterized by lengthy religious services full of prayer, praise, instruction, and exhortation.

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first formal celebration of a Day of Thanksgiving in Plymouth came nearly two years later, in July 1623. We’re comparatively unfamiliar with it because, frankly, we get bored with the Pilgrims once they’ve carved the first turkey. We condense their story to three key events—the Mayflower Compact, the Landing at Plymouth Rock, and the First Thanksgiving—and quickly lose interest thereafter. In reality, the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued at least another two years.

This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the colony. Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune. The thirty-five new settlers on board would nearly double their depleted ranks. Unfortunately, they arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as William Bradford bitterly recalled. Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation. Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half. In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.” By May they were almost completely out of food. It was no longer the season for waterfowl, and if not for the shellfish in the bay, and the little grain they were able to purchase from passing fishing boats, they very well might have starved.

The harvest of 1622 provided a temporary reprieve from hunger, but it fell far short of their needs for the coming year, and by the spring of 1623 the Pilgrims’ situation was again dire. As Bradford remembered their trial, it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from. For two to three months they had no bread or beer at all and “God fed them” almost wholly “out of the sea.”

Adding to their plight, the heavens closed up around the third week in May, and for nearly two months it rained hardly at all. The ground became parched, the corn began to wither, and hopes for the future began dying as well. When another boatload of settlers arrived that July, they were “much daunted and dismayed” by their first sight of the Plymouth colonists, many of whom were “ragged in apparel and some little better than half naked.” The Pilgrims, for their part, could offer the newcomers nothing more than a piece of fish and a cup of water.

“Oh the Mercy of Our God!”

In the depths of this trial the Pilgrims were sure of this much: it was God who had sent this great drought; it was the Lord who was frustrating their “great hopes of a large crop.” This was not the caprice of “nature,” but the handiwork of the Creator who worked “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Fearing that He had done this thing for their chastisement, the community agreed to set apart “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As Edward Winslow explained, their hope was that God “would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls. . . . But oh the mercy of our God!” Winslow exulted, “who was as ready to hear, as we to ask.” The colonists awoke on the appointed day to a cloudless sky, but by the end of the prayer service—which lasted eight to nine hours—it had become overcast, and by morning it had begun to rain, as it would continue to do for the next fourteen days. Bradford marveled at the “sweet and gentle showers . . . which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn.” Winslow added, “It was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.”

Overwhelmed by God’s gracious intervention, the Pilgrims immediately called for another providential holiday. “We thought it would be great ingratitude,” Winslow explained, if we should “content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God.” This occasion, likely held at the end of July, 1623, perfectly matches the Pilgrims’ definition of a thanksgiving holy day. It was a “solemn” observance, as Winslow noted, called to acknowledge a very specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord. In sum, it was what the Pilgrims themselves would have viewed as their “First Thanksgiving” in America, and we have all but forgotten it.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday, perhaps we might remember both of these occasions. The Pilgrims’ harvest celebration of 1621 is an important reminder to see God’s gracious hand in the bounty of nature. But the Pilgrims’ holiday of 1623—what they would have called “The First Thanksgiving”—more forthrightly challenges us to look for God’s ongoing, supernatural intervention in our lives.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

THE “FIRST THANKSGIVING” WE’VE FORGOTTEN

Tomorrow families all across America will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, and some, at least, will link what they are doing to the Pilgrims’ celebration on the coast of Massachusetts in 1621. Although frequently embellished and sometimes caricatured, the story of the Pilgrims’ “First Thanksgiving” is rich with insight and inspiration. The Pilgrims were human, which means that they bore the imprint of the Fall with all its attendant sinful consequences: they were ethnocentric, sometimes judgmental and intolerant, prone to bickering, and tempted by mammon. They were also people of remarkable faith and fortitude—common folk of average abilities and below-average means who risked everything in the interest of their families and their community of faith.

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

The Pilgrims’ trial began with their voyage on the Mayflower, a 65-day-long ordeal in which 102 men, women, and children crossed the stormy Atlantic in a space the size of a city bus. Following that came a cruel New England winter for which they were ill prepared. (Massachusetts is more than six hundred miles south of London—on a line of latitude even with Madrid, Spain—and the Pilgrims were expecting a much more temperate climate.) Due more to exposure than starvation, their number dwindled rapidly, so that by the onset of spring some fifty-one members of the party had died. A staggering fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished in their new home. Widowers and orphans abounded.

That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope. Yet celebrate they did, most probably sometime in late September or early October after God had granted them a harvest sufficient to see them through the next winter. This is an inspiring story, and it is a good thing for Christians this Thanksgiving to remember it. I don’t know about you, but I am always encouraged when I sit down with Christian friends and hear of how God has sustained them in hard times. Remembering the Pilgrims’ story is a lot like that, although the testimony comes to us not from across the room but from across the centuries.

And yet the part of the Pilgrims’ story that modern-day Americans have chosen to emphasize doesn’t seem to have been that significant to the Pilgrims themselves. More importantly, it fails to capture the heart of the Pilgrims’ thinking about God’s provision and our proper response. Most of what we know about the Pilgrims’ experience after leaving Holland comes from two Pilgrim writers—William Bradford, the long-time governor of the Plymouth colony, and Edward Winslow, his close assistant. Bradford never even referred to the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration (what we call the “First Thanksgiving”) in his famous history of the Pilgrims’ colony, Of Plymouth Plantation. Winslow mentioned it but briefly, devoting five sentences to it in a letter that he wrote to supporters in England. Indeed, the 115 words in those five sentences represent the sum total of all that we know about the occasion!

This means that there is a lot that we would like to know about that event that we will never know. It seems likely (although it must be conjecture) that the Pilgrims thought of their autumn celebration that first fall in Plymouth as something akin to the harvest festivals common at that time in England. What is absolutely certain is that they did not conceive of the celebration as a Thanksgiving holiday.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.  On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe's imaginative recreation of the "First Thanksgiving" helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims 1621 celebration in the public mind.  Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.

When the Pilgrims spoke of holidays, they used the word literally. A holiday was a “holy day,” a day specially set apart for worship and communion with God. Their reading of the scripture convinced them that God had only established one regular holy day under the new covenant, and that was the Lord’s Day each Sunday. Beyond that, they did believe that the scripture allowed the consecration of occasional Days of Fasting and Humiliation to beseech the Lord for deliverance from a particular trial, as well as occasional Days of Thanksgiving to praise the Lord for his extraordinary provision. Both were comparatively solemn observances, characterized by lengthy religious services full of prayer, praise, instruction, and exhortation.

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first formal celebration of a Day of Thanksgiving in Plymouth came nearly two years later, in July 1623. We’re comparatively unfamiliar with it because, frankly, we get bored with the Pilgrims once they’ve carved the first turkey. We condense their story to three key events—the Mayflower Compact, the Landing at Plymouth Rock, and the First Thanksgiving—and quickly lose interest thereafter. In reality, the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued at least another two years.

This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the colony. Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune. The thirty-five new settlers on board would nearly double their depleted ranks. Unfortunately, they arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as William Bradford bitterly recalled. Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation. Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half. In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.” By May they were almost completely out of food. It was no longer the season for waterfowl, and if not for the shellfish in the bay, and the little grain they were able to purchase from passing fishing boats, they very well might have starved.

The harvest of 1622 provided a temporary reprieve from hunger, but it fell far short of their needs for the coming year, and by the spring of 1623 the Pilgrims’ situation was again dire. As Bradford remembered their trial, it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from. For two to three months they had no bread or beer at all and “God fed them” almost wholly “out of the sea.”

Adding to their plight, the heavens closed up around the third week in May, and for nearly two months it rained hardly at all. The ground became parched, the corn began to wither, and hopes for the future began dying as well. When another boatload of settlers arrived that July, they were “much daunted and dismayed” by their first sight of the Plymouth colonists, many of whom were “ragged in apparel and some little better than half naked.” The Pilgrims, for their part, could offer the newcomers nothing more than a piece of fish and a cup of water.

In the depths of this trial the Pilgrims were sure of this much: it was God who had sent this great drought; it was the Lord who was frustrating their “great hopes of a large crop.” This was not the caprice of “nature,” but the handiwork of the Creator who worked “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Fearing that He had done this thing for their chastisement, the community agreed to set apart “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As Edward Winslow explained, their hope was that God “would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls. . . . But oh the mercy of our God!” Winslow exulted, “who was as ready to hear, as we to ask.” The colonists awoke on the appointed day to a cloudless sky, but by the end of the prayer service—which lasted eight to nine hours—it had become overcast, and by morning it had begun to rain, as it would continue to do for the next fourteen days. Bradford marveled at the “sweet and gentle showers . . . which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn.” Winslow added, “It was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.”

Overwhelmed by God’s gracious intervention, the Pilgrims immediately called for another providential holiday. “We thought it would be great ingratitude,” Winslow explained, if we should “content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God.” This occasion, likely held at the end of July, 1623, perfectly matches the Pilgrims’ definition of a thanksgiving holy day. It was a “solemn” observance, as Winslow noted, called to acknowledge a very specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord. In sum, it was what the Pilgrims themselves would have viewed as their “First Thanksgiving” in America, and we have all but forgotten it.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, perhaps we might remember both of these occasions. The Pilgrims’ harvest celebration of 1621 is an important reminder to see God’s gracious hand in the bounty of nature. But the Pilgrims’ holiday of 1623—what they would have called “The First Thanksgiving”—more forthrightly challenges us to look for God’s ongoing, supernatural intervention in our lives.

Have a great day tomorrow.

REMEMBERING “THE FIRST THANKSGIVING”: THE GUESTS AT THE FEAST

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Brownscombe, 1914. Arguably one of the most famous depictions of the event, Brownscombe’s work suggests that the Pilgrims outnumbered their Native American guests. In reality, there were likely at least twice as many Wampanoag as Pilgrims at the feast.

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Brownscombe, 1914. Arguably one of the most famous depictions of the event, Brownscombe’s work suggests that the Pilgrims outnumbered their Native American guests. In reality, there were likely at least twice as many Wampanoag as Pilgrims at the feast.

The presence of the Wampanoag has for a long time loomed large in popular memory of the First Thanksgiving. A bit of context is necessary. The Pilgrims chose Plymouth as the site for their colony for several reasons. At its center was a tall hill which would be readily defensible. There was a decent, if somewhat shallow harbor. The coast was alive with “innumerable fowl,” the shore boasted an abundance of mussels (“the greatest and best that ever we saw”), and the harbor was teeming with lobsters and crabs. What is more, there were several small brooks and numerous springs blessed with “the best water that ever we drank.”

But the clincher was that much of the adjacent land had already been cleared for planting, which would save them incalculable labor. The Pilgrims unknowingly had landed in a region of present-day Massachusetts that had once been teeming with Native Americans, but sometime after 1617 the entire region had been devastated by disease, possibly bubonic plague or viral hepatitis contracted from European fishermen. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands had died in the epidemic, whole villages being wiped out so suddenly that there was no time to bury the dead.

On a journey inland during the summer of 1621, Edward Winslow was puzzled by the combination of “many goodly fields” but few inhabitants. The paradox was solved when he came across “skulls and bones . . . still lying above the ground where their houses and dwellings had been.” A few years later, another English settler related that all through the coastal forest the Indians “had died on heapes, as they lay in their houses,” the gruesome remains reminding the observer of “a new found Golgotha.”

The new home the Pilgrims would call Plymouth was actually the abandoned village of a tribe called the Patuxet, where as many as two thousand individuals may have lived scarcely five years before. There were remnants of other peoples nearby—chiefly the Wampanoag (the closest), Massachusetts, Nausets, and Narragansetts—but with the exception of the last, these also had been recently decimated.

That the Pilgrims survived, humanly speaking, was due to the assistance of nearby Indians, although some of that assistance was, shall we say, inadvertent. When the first landing party was exploring the coastline back in November, they had stumbled on an underground cache of dried Indian corn (which they had never seen before) and promptly appropriated it, purposing to give the owners “full satisfaction when they should meet with any of them.” When spring came it proved invaluable as seed, and in fact nearly four-fifths of the acreage that they planted in 1621 was sown from this unexpected supply. Without it, William Bradford admitted, the entire settlement “might have starved.”

That they knew how to make good use of the seed was—as every schoolchild knows—also courtesy of the Indians, in particular a surviving Patuxet named Tisquantum, or Squanto for short. Squanto had been kidnapped by an English sea captain around 1614 and sold as a slave in Spain. He then escaped, made his way to England, spent some time in Newfoundland, and eventually returned to the New England coast with an English explorer sometime after 1617, only to learn that his people were no more. The combination of Squanto’s extraordinary past and his invaluable service to the Pilgrims prompted William Bradford to declare Squanto “a special instrument sent of God for their good.”

It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims to fertilize their cornfields with shad from nearby streams and to add beans and squash (to climb the corn stalks) once the corn shoots had broken the ground. Equally valuable in the short run, it was Squanto who taught them how to catch eels from the creek and river beds. In an impressive display, Squanto dug them out with his feet and caught them with his bare hands, and in a few hours had as many as he could lift. To the hungry Pilgrims they were a delicacy; a visitor two years later described them as “passing sweet, fat and wholesome, having no taste at all of the mud.”

Perhaps of greatest importance, it was Squanto who served as the Pilgrims’ interpreter and facilitated peaceful, if often tense, relations with the nearby Wampanoag. Since first landing at Cape Cod, the Pilgrims had repeatedly sighted Indians at a distance, and even traded shots with a group of Nausets, but except for the message they conveyed when they discharged their weapons, they had not as yet actually communicated with any of the native peoples in the area. With Squanto’s aid, in March of 1621 the Pilgrims agreed to a kind of mutual-defense pact with the Wampanoag sachem (or chief) Massasoit, one that both sides honored, incidentally, for more than fifty years.

All of this makes it plausible to believe that, when God granted the Pilgrims a good harvest, they would have invited their Native American neighbors to join them in their 1621 harvest celebration. Perhaps they did. Yet it bears emphasizing: four centuries after the fact, we still don’t know for sure how the Wampanoag came to be at the Pilgrims’ feast. The belief that the Pilgrims invited them as a gesture of good will is sheer conjecture.  No direct evidence survives to prove it.

In fairness, according to an English merchant who visited Plymouth in 1623, when William Bradford remarried in the summer of that year, the Pilgrims invited Massasoit and the Wampanoag to the wedding celebration. That they did something comparable two years earlier for their harvest feast is not implausible.
And yet, Edward Winslow’s ambiguous reference to “Indians coming amongst us” leaves open the possibility that they simply showed up, uninvited, expecting hospitality.

This, too, is plausible, for they had a track record of doing precisely that. According to Winslow, the very day after the Pilgrims concluded a peace treaty with the Wampanoag the previous March, “divers of their people came over to us, hoping to get some victuals as we imagined.” This initiated a pattern the Pilgrims would come to know well. In the coming weeks, the Wampanoag “came very often” and in force, bringing their wives and children with them.

By late spring the problem had gotten so bad that Governor Bradford sent a delegation to the Wampanoag settlement to “prevent abuses in their disorderly coming unto us.” Traveling to Massasoit’s home in present-day Rhode Island, a commission of Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins first presented the sachem with a handsome red “horseman’s coat” trimmed in lace. Then, as diplomatically as possible, they explained to the Wampanoag leader that, while his people were welcome to visit, the Pilgrims “could no longer give them such entertainment as [they] had done.” Translation: don’t plan on staying for dinner every time you pay us a visit.

Even if Massasoit and his men were invited, we err when we remember the First Thanksgiving as some kind of idyllic multicultural celebration. It was likely tense at best. The Pilgrims had been schooled to see the Native Americans they encountered as bloodthirsty “savages”; even after the feast one of the Pilgrim writers would describe the Wampanoag as naturally “cruel and treacherous people.” The Wampanoag had learned to view Europeans in much the same way, for more than once European sailors or fishermen visiting Cape Cod had kidnapped or murdered unsuspecting natives.

If the Pilgrims had arrived just a few years earlier, before the great epidemic had ravaged the Wampanoag, Massasoit’s first inclination would likely have been to drive the newcomers into the ocean. Now with but a shadow of his former strength—and possibly in awe of the Pilgrims’ muskets—the sachem opted for warfare of a different kind: he commanded his powwows to curse the new arrivals. According to William Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, for three days the Wampanoag medicine men convened “in a dark and dismal swamp” and “in a horrid and devilish manner did curse and execrate them with their conjurations.” This is a part of the Thanksgiving story we tend not to emphasize.

If Morton’s information was accurate, it was only after this covert operation failed that Massasoit turned to diplomacy. It is possible that he was encouraged to do so by the English-speaking Squanto, who saw in this alternative strategy an opportunity to improve his status among the Wampanoag, who had essentially been holding the Patuxet Indian prisoner since his appearance the previous year. Although Squanto figures prominently in children’s books as the Pilgrims’ friend, the Pilgrims soon concluded that he “sought his own ends and played his own game,” as William Bradford recalled.

As Bradford and Edward Winslow both told the story, Squanto tried to play the Pilgrims and Wampanoag off against each other, in one case orchestrating false reports of an impending attack on Plymouth, at other times telling Massasoit that the Pilgrims kept the plague under their storehouse and would soon unleash it unless he could persuade them to desist. In both instances Squanto was apparently striving to enhance his own influence as an intermediary and peacemaker, making the Wampanoag “believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would.” When Massasoit learned of this duplicity, he sent his own knife to the Pilgrims through messengers and requested that they cut off Squanto’s head and hands. When the Pilgrims declined to do so—they needed Squanto even if they no longer trusted him—the Wampanoag were “mad with rage.”

If the Pilgrims’ association with the Wampanoag was often strained, their relations with other native peoples in the area were often worse. Not long after the First Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims received a threat from the Narragansett Indians and began to construct a palisade for self-defense. Fear pushed them to a prodigious pace, for by the end of February 1622 a log fence eight feet high and twenty-seven hundred feet long ringed the entire settlement. That spring they began construction of a fort inside the palisade to render their position even stronger, and after ten months of tedious labor they had completed a citadel at the top of the hill complete with six cannon.

About that time they briefly went to war against the Massachusetts Indians. Having reason to believe that the Massachusetts were planning a surprise attack, the Pilgrims initiated a preemptive strike, sending Myles Standish and eight men to ambush a contingent of Massachusetts warriors. Upon hearing of the bloodshed, their beloved Pastor Robinson wrote plaintively from Holland, “Oh, how happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you had killed any!”

As we imagine the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag guests sharing a meal at the First Thanksgiving, it will serve as an antidote to over-sentimentality if we remember that less than two years later the head of a Massachusetts Indian decorated the Pilgrims’ fort. Governor Bradford explained to the Merchant Adventurers that they kept it there “for a terror unto others.” The “others” likely included Massasoit and the Wampanoag, for when they arrived for the governor’s marriage feast a couple of weeks later, they would have seen the gruesome trophy displayed prominently, along with “a piece of linen cloth dyed in the same Indian’s blood.”

REMEMBERING “THE FIRST THANKSGIVING”: THE HOSTS OF THE FEAST

The First Thanksgiving--Jean Louis Ferris

The First Thanksgiving–Jean Louis Ferris

While a lot more evidence survives concerning the Pilgrims than we might expect, almost none survives concerning the episode for which we remember them best. The Pilgrims’ historian and long-time governor, William Bradford, never mentioned a 1621 thanksgiving celebration in Of Plymouth Plantation.

Bradford began writing his history in 1630, quickly bringing his narrative up to the landing of the Mayflower, but he then set the work aside and did not resume it until the mid-1640s. From that vantage point (perhaps referring to a journal long since lost), he still recalled vividly the “sad and lamentable” details of the first winter, the particulars of their negotiations with the Wampanoag, the facts of Squanto’s personal history, even the fine points of corn planting. He also noted happily that the Pilgrims began to recover their health and strength in the spring of 1621, reaped an adequate harvest that fall, and enjoyed “good plenty” as winter approached.

What he failed to mention was a celebration of any kind. This should give us pause. It would seem that the episode so indelibly imprinted in our historical memory was not memorable at all to the Pilgrims’ long-time governor.

As it turns out, the only surviving firsthand account of a celebration in 1621 comes from the pen of Edward Winslow, Bradford’s younger assistant. Upon the arrival of a ship from England in November 1621, Winslow crafted a cover letter to accompany the reports to be sent back to the London merchants who were financing the Pilgrims’ venture. In his letter—the main purpose of which was to convince the investors that they weren’t throwing their money away—Winslow described the houses the Pilgrims had built, listed the crops they had planted, and emphasized the success they had been blessed with. To underscore the latter, he added five sentences describing the abundance they now enjoyed.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling; that so we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our Arms; many of the Indians coming amongst us. “And amongst the rest, their greatest King, Massasoyt, 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 our Governor, and upon the Captain, and others.”

These 115 words constitute the sum total of contemporary evidence regarding the First Thanksgiving. It’s a brief, ambiguous account. If we wanted to, we could compile a whole list of details commonly taken for granted about the occasion which we could never prove from Winslow’s brief description. What do we know with any confidence about this iconic event?

Let’s start with some basic details. By William Bradford’s reckoning, the Mayflower had sailed from England in September 1620 with 102 passengers, divided more or less equally between “saints” (members of the Pilgrim congregation of Leiden, Holland) and “strangers” (individuals recruited by the London financiers who were bankrolling the voyage). Thanks to the “general sickness” that had devastated the colony during its first winter, it seems likely that there were fifty-one members of the Plymouth settlement at the time of the celebration—fifty survivors of the Mayflower’s voyage plus toddler Peregrine White, who had been born aboard ship after the Pilgrims reached Cape Cod. (The little colony’s other baby, Oceanus Hopkins, had not survived his first year.)

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As we try to imagine the gathering, it would be great if we had a better sense of what the Pilgrims actually looked like, but of course there are no photographs, and the only Pilgrim known to have had his portrait painted was Edward Winslow, but that was not until three decades later. Enough evidence survives for some informed speculation, however. If we could take a time machine back to the occasion, the first thing we might notice about the Pilgrims is how small they were. Europeans in the 17th-century weren’t exactly Hobbits, but they were noticeably shorter and dramatically lighter than we are today. Historians of Elizabethan England estimate that the average adult male stood 5’6”, the average female 5’½ ”, and even as late as the American Civil War, the typical soldier weighed in at less than 140 pounds. With regard to the Pilgrims’ stature, think junior high.

We might also be struck by how the Pilgrims were dressed. We have been conditioned to picture the Pilgrims as if they were headed to a funeral, the somber black of their outfits interrupted only by the occasional white collar and the silver buckles mandatory on all shoes, belts, and hats. In reality, this quaint image of the Pilgrims dates only to the middle of the nineteenth century and was pretty much conjured out of thin air. For one thing, buckles were all but unheard of among common folk for at least another half-century, and even had they been available we may doubt whether the Pilgrims would have worn them, as they tended to frown on anything that remotely resembled jewelry. (Their wives did not even wear wedding rings.)

On the other hand, the Pilgrims definitely had a taste for bright colors. Plymouth Colony estate inventories contain countless references to red, blue, green, yellow, and “russet” (orange-brown) garments. To cite but two examples, upon his death, carpenter Will Wright left among other items a Bible, a psalm book, a blue coat, and two vests, one white, the other red. The inventory of William Bradford’s estate showed that the long-term governor did, in fact, own a black hat and a “sad colored” (dark) suit, but he also sported a “colored” hat, a red suit, and a violet cloak. If the Pilgrims genuinely viewed their autumn gathering as a time of rejoicing, then they probably left the “sad-colored” clothing at home.

We might also be surprised at how young the Pilgrims were and at how few women there were among them. The mortality of the first winter had struck the “saints” and “strangers” in similar proportions, so that the saints from Leiden remained approximately half of the depleted company at the time of the First Thanksgiving. In other ways, however, the “general sickness” had affected the Pilgrims unevenly. The death rate was higher among wives than among husbands, higher among the married than among the unmarried, higher among adults than among children.

By autumn only three of the fifty-one survivors were definitely older than forty—elder William Brewster, his wife Mary, and a wool comber named Francis Cooke. The colony’s new governor, William Bradford, was only thirty-one. Among the adults, males now outnumbered females five to one. (The ratio had been about three to one at the time of their departure from England.) The higher death toll among adults also meant that children and teenagers now accounted for roughly half of the entire group (up from approximately one-third before the general sickness). These latter included the wonderfully named Remember Allerton, Resolved White, Humility Cooper, and the two Brewster boys, Love and Wrestling.

Death had surely left its mark in other ways, as well. In the four sentences that he devoted to the 1621 celebration, Edward Winslow left no clue about the Pilgrims’ state of mind. The devout among them had been schooled to see God’s loving hand in every trial, to believe, by faith, “that in all their afflictions the justice and mercy of God meet together,” as the Pilgrims pastor in Leiden, John Robinson expressed it. Late in his life, William Bradford preached this gospel to himself in verse:

“Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust / fear not the things thou suffer must / for, whom he loves he doth chastise / and then all tears wipes from their eyes.”

And yet, in the autumn of 1621 the wounds were still so fresh. It would be no stain on the Pilgrims’ faith if their rejoicing was leavened with a lingering heartache. Widowers and orphans abounded. Fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished during the winter. There were now only four married couples, and one of these consisted of Edward and Susannah (White) Winslow, who had married that May shortly after both had lost their spouses. Mary Chilton, Samuel Fuller, Priscilla Mullins, and Elizabeth Tilley each had lost both parents, and young Richard More, who had been torn from his parents before sailing, had since lost the three siblings who sailed with him. That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope.

Yet celebrate they did.

FIVE MYTHS ABOUT THE PILGRIMS

Thanksgiving is a week from today, and in keeping with a time-honored custom dating to 2013, I am bombarding you with posts on the history of Thanksgiving.  Most of them draw to some degree from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Below is an essay that originally appeared in the Washington Post.  The Post runs a regular feature each Sunday identifying popular myths about some misunderstood individual or event.  I sketched out a long list of possibilities for the editor, and she chose the five that made it into print.

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Five Myths about the Pilgrims:

When it comes to historical memory, the old saying that you can’t choose your relatives is just plain wrong. Americans have chosen the Pilgrims as honorary ancestors, and we tend to see their story as inseparable from the story of our nation, “land of the Pilgrims’ pride.” We imagine these honorary Founders as model immigrants, peace-loving and pioneers in the democratic experiment. We have burdened them with values they wouldn’t have recognized, and shrouded their story with myth. Here are five of the most common myths about the Pilgrims.

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877. Although William Bradford’s history makes clear that there were no females among the initial landing party at Plymouth in December 1621, this imaginative recreation includes several and also gives credence to a local tradition that teenager Mary Chilton was the first Pilgrim to come ashore. Note as well that the beach at Plymouth is predominantly sandy, not rocky as the artist suggests.

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877.

1) The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. If you visit Plymouth today, you’ll find a distinctive rock about the size of your living-room sofa embedded in the sandy beach, sheltered by a classical Greek portico and labeled with a sign erected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts proclaiming,”Plymouth Rock: Landing Place of the Pilgrims.” It’s not hard to picture simple English folk huddled on that rock, envisioning through eyes of faith the great nation that would spring from their humble beginning. Except that’s probably not what happened. We “know” the location of the Pilgrims’ landing because in 1741 -121 years after the Pilgrims arrived – a 15-year-old boy overheard 95-year-old Thomas Faunce relate that his father, who came to Plymouth three years after the Mayflower, told him that he’d been told by unnamed persons that the landing occurred there. Curiously, William Bradford never mentioned Plymouth Rock in his history “Of Plymouth Plantation,” and if the expedition landed there he seems not to have noticed.

“Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” Charles Lucy, 1847

“Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” Charles Lucy, 1847

2). The Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom. It’s fair to say that the Pilgrims left England primarily to find religious freedom, but that’s not the primary motive that propelled them to North America. Remember that the Pilgrims went first to Holland, settling eventually in the city of Leiden. There they encountered a religious tolerance almost unheard of in that day and age, and Bradford and Edward Winslow both wrote glowingly of their experience. In Leiden, God had allowed them, in Bradford’s estimation, “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty,” Winslow echoed. If a longing for religious freedom had compelled them, they likely never would have left. But while they cherished the freedom of conscience they enjoyed in Leiden, the Pilgrims had two major complaints: they found it a hard place to maintain their English identity, and an even harder place to make a living. In North America they hoped to live by themselves, enjoy the same degree of religious liberty, and earn a “better and easier” living.

The First Thanksgiving--Jean Louis Ferris

The “First Thanksgiving”–Jean Louis Ferris

3)  The Pilgrims’ autumn celebration in 1621 was the First Thanksgiving. No one seriously believes that the Pilgrims were the first to stop and thank their Creator for a bountiful harvest. Native Americans had a long tradition of thanksgiving celebrations. The Algonquian people, for example, participated in regular ceremonies linked to the crop cycle, while the nearby Wampanoag annually celebrated the first harvest of the new season with a “strawberry thanksgiving.” Europeans who arrived in North America prior to the Pilgrims likely also engaged in such observances. There is evidence of a thanksgiving service held in 1564 near present-day Jacksonville, Florida by French Huguenots-at a time when only two of the Pilgrims had even been born. The very next year Spanish documents refer to a thanksgiving mass celebrated at St. Augustine by conquistadores (who would soon slaughter the nearby Huguenots). Texas historians insist that Spanish colonists celebrated thanksgiving with the Manso Indians near present-day El Paso in 1598, not early enough to beat out Florida but still a generation before the celebration in Massachusetts. Among English settlers, there is evidence of a thanksgiving celebration in 1607 at a short-lived colony on the coast of Maine, and of two others among Virginia colonists in 1610 and 1619. More importantly, if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration was far from the first Thanksgiving, from the Pilgrims’ perspective it was not a Thanksgiving at all, but rather a kind of autumn harvest festival. As the Pilgrims understood it, a genuine Thanksgiving was a solemn observance to be observed irregularly, a “holy day” devoted to worship in acknowledgment of a specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord.

4)  The Pilgrims were a humorless lot with a fondness for black. With more wit than historical accuracy, H. L. Mencken famously defined “puritanism” as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” Modern Americans bought in to the stereotype, so that we regularly picture the Pilgrims as if they were on their way to a funeral, their solemn behavior matched by a somber wardrobe. When we read Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest festival, however, we’re transported to a scene of beer and barbeque, shooting and sports. And forget about the ubiquitous black outfits. In fact, the Pilgrims had a taste for a wide range of bright colors. Estate inventories in Plymouth Colony reveal abundant references to red, blue, green, yellow and orange garments. Carpenter Will Wright, for example, upon his death left a blue coat and two vests, one white, the other red. William Bradford’s estate inventory showed that the long-term governor owned a “colored” hat, a red suit and a violet cloak. Pretty gaudy, actually.

“The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on Board the Mayflower,” engraving after a painting by Tompkins Matteson, 1859. Shortly after dropping anchor in Cape Cod in November 1620, forty-one adult males gathered in the great cabin of the Mayflower to sign the statement we now remember as the Mayflower Compact.

“The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on Board the Mayflower,” engraving after a painting by Tompkins Matteson, 1859.

5) The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact was an early and noteworthy example of American democracy. Americans have loaded this document with far more significance than it’s worthy of. We read it selectively, zeroing in on the parts where the signers commit to form “a civil body politic” and agree to formulate “just and equal laws . . . for the general good of the colony.” But it is no accident that the Compact begins with a description of the signatories as “the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James.” Having been blown off course en route to America, the Pilgrims were about to settle some 200 miles north of the northernmost jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, authorized by King James I to coordinate colonial ventures along the Atlantic seaboard. It was quite possible they were committing an illegal act in the eyes of the Crown. But they made a point of assuring James of their unquestioned loyalty. They also identify him as their king not by virtue of their consent, but “by the grace of God.” This puts the Mayflower Compact closer to an affirmation of the divine right of kings than of the right of self-rule.

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART ONE

In recent years I’ve become more and more fascinated with popular historical memory.  It’s an odd phenomenon, really.  By definition, it exists at the intersection between past and present.  In the best case, it’s informed (at least somewhat) by historical evidence, but it’s always influenced by the contemporary context as well.  This means that one of the best ways to track the changing values of a culture is to examine how popular memory of a particular historical event differs over time.  The memory of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving is a case in point.

The history of popular memory of the First Thanksgiving falls neatly into two broad periods separated by a crucial event in the year 1841.  The first of the two is the simplest to characterize.  For 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no one remembered the event that later generations would recall as a defining episode in the founding of America.  To our knowledge, there was only one contemporary record made of the event.  Sometime shortly after the celebration, a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote a letter back to an acquaintance in England in which he sketched how the passengers of the Mayflower had fared since their arrival at Plymouth.  In the course of that letter, which was published as part of pamphlet in 1622, Winslow included a 115-word description of the event we now remember as the “First Thanksgiving.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

The pamphlet containing the description was published in England under the modest title A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and Others, with the Difficult Passage, their Safe Arrivall, their Joyfull Building of, and Comfortable Planting Themselves in the Now Well Defended Towne of New Plimoth.  The printer who actually published the book was one “G. Mourt,” and the pamphlet has been known ever by the mercifully shorter title Mourt’s Relation.  (In the seventeenth century, “relation” was another word for “report” or “account.)

Rare in England, Mourt’s Relation was rarer still in the American colonies, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century there was probably not a single copy of it in all of New England.  With neither oral tradition nor a written record to keep it alive, the 1621 event gradually faded until it vanished entirely.

The opposite was true of Thanksgiving itself.  As memory of the First Thanksgiving died away, the celebration of Thanksgiving became more popular, not less.  The original Pilgrims had been very skeptical of regular holy days.  (Remember that our word “holiday” is just an elision of the two words “holy day.”)  The Pilgrims associated regular holidays with the perceived abuses of Catholicism, and in general the only true holy day that they celebrated regularly was the Lord’s Day every Sunday.  Their descendants, however, gradually forgot or rejected their ancestors’ hostility to regularly scheduled holidays.  By the 1690s they had adopted a pattern of annual springtime Fast Days, to beseech God’s blessing on the crop about to be planted, and autumn Thanksgiving Days, in which they thanked the Lord for the harvest just past.

While the custom of springtime fasts never caught on elsewhere, the celebration of regular autumn Thanksgivings spread across New England during the eighteenth century, expanded to the Midwest after the War of 1812, and began to catch on in the Upper South by the 1840s.  Thanksgiving was becoming a beloved American holiday, just not one linked to the Pilgrims.

Since the late-18th century the Pilgrims had been growing in importance in American memory, but the part that they played in the national story was as generic “founders” or “forefathers.”  Thinking of their national story as a series of dramatic images, Americans imagined the Pilgrims huddled on Plymouth Rock, not gathered around the Thanksgiving table.  Out of 223 colonial or state thanksgiving proclamations I have located from the years 1676-1840, not a single one refers to the Pilgrims, even euphemistically.  It was as if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration had never occurred.  Americans thought of their Thanksgiving tradition as coming mainly from New England Puritans but did not think of it as originating in a particular historical moment.  As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was simply not a part of historical memory.

It became a part of popular historical memory not in 1621 but in 1841, the year that Edward Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration reentered the historical record.  The key figure in the process was the Reverend Alexander Young, a New England-born Unitarian minister with a passion for local history.  Working with a copy of Mourt’s Relation discovered in Philadelphia a generation earlier, Young included the text of the pamphlet in a compilation of historical documents he titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.  The reverend appended his own explanatory notes to the manuscript, and when he came to Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ celebration, the clergyman explained to his audience that what they were reading was an account of the “first thanksgiving . . . of New England.”

The result was that Americans gradually became more and more aware of the Pilgrims’ celebration. Notice I said aware, not impressed. Generations would pass before Americans widely embraced the story of the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving as an important chapter in the early history of America. So why was this?

I can think of three reasons. For starters, Winslow’s account showed that the Wampanoag Indians had played a prominent role in the Pilgrims’ celebration. Winslow had devoted only one sentence to the Wampanoag, but that lone sentence made two disturbing facts undeniable: the majority of those present at the “First Thanksgiving” had been Indians, not Pilgrims, and the two groups had interacted peacefully.

The revelation was jarring, especially outside of the Northeast. In 1841, Thanksgiving was still almost exclusively a northern holiday, flourishing particularly in New England and in areas farther west to which New Englanders had migrated in large numbers. In New England—where few Native Americans remained in 1841—it was possible for Yankees to romanticize the “noble savage” and to imagine a carefully circumscribed role for Indians in their beloved regional holiday. Elsewhere this was far from easy.

In 1841 the southeastern United states was only three years removed from the infamous “Trail of Tears,” the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia to Oklahoma that had resulted in more than four thousand Cherokee deaths. West of the Mississippi, violence would continue to punctuate Indian-white relations for another two generations, on scattered battlefields with evocative names like Sand Creek, Little Big Horn, and Wounded Knee. Correspondingly, until long after the Civil War, most artistic representations of Thanksgiving that included Native Americans portrayed them as openly hostile, and it is no coincidence that the now familiar image of Indians and Pilgrims sitting around a common table dates from the early twentieth century. By that time America’s Indian wars were comfortably past, and it would begin to be broadly possible in the public mind to reinterpret the place of Native Americans at the Thanksgiving table. But that would come later. In 1841 the national policy toward Native Americans was not assimilation but removal, and in that respect the First Thanksgiving fit awkwardly in the national story.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims.  It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims. It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

Keep in mind also the growing sectional rivalry of the period. Winslow’s account of the 1621 celebration was republished just as tensions between North and South were beginning to mount. Unfortunately, fans of Thanksgiving had traditionally emphasized its regional ties. New England magazines and newspapers boasted that the holiday was “strictly one of New England origin.” The custom was “precious to every New-England man,” and without its recurrence “a Yankee could scarce comprehend that the year had passed.” More to the point, white southerners also associated the holiday with New England, and that made it suspect in their eyes. Even as it gradually expanded southward, there was a lingering tendency among southerners to think of Thanksgiving as a holiday invented by Pharisaical Yankees to take the place of Christmas, which Puritans had traditionally spurned.

New Englanders did little to make the holiday easier to swallow. From our twenty-first-century perspective, one of the striking things about Thanksgiving in antebellum America is how politicized it could be. For southern whites, it didn’t help that northern governors often endorsed the abolition of slavery in their annual proclamations, or that antislavery organizations sometimes took up collections at thanksgiving services, or that New England abolitionists wrote poetry linking the “Pilgrim Spirit” to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers occupied the federal arsenal in that place as the first step in an ill-defined plot to foment a slave uprising. Yankee educator Franklin Sanborn, a secret supporter of Brown’s scheme, penned a tribute to the antislavery zealot, noting that “the Pilgrim Fathers’ earnest creed . . . inspired this hero’s noblest deed.”)

As the crisis of the Union came to a head, the Richmond Daily Dispatch surely spoke for many southerners in mocking New England’s favorite holiday. When a New York newspaper reported that the newly elected Abraham Lincoln had celebrated the holiday “like the rest of Anglo-Saxon mankind,” the editor of the Dispatch erupted. Thanksgiving was unknown outside “a few Yankee Doodle States,” he insisted with some exaggeration, “but it is a common notion of New England, that it is the hub of the whole creation, the axis of the entire universe, and that when it thanks God that it is not as other men, everybody else is doing the same. . . . What a race these sycophants are!”

A final reason for the Pilgrims’ limited usefulness to mid-nineteenth century Americans, I believe, is that they had come to celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that the Pilgrims would not have recognized, much less approved. This had not been intentional. Americans’ Thanksgiving traditions had developed while the country knew nothing about the First Thanksgiving. And then, after two centuries, in the span of less than two decades the veil was pulled back. The first step had been the republication of Mourt’s Relation, but much more was involved. A decade later came the release of three volumes of writings and sermons from the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson. Five years after that came the dramatic publication of Pilgrim Governor William Bradford’s long-lost history Of Plymouth Plantation.

Collectively, these sources revealed that the Pilgrims had roundly criticized the Church of England for its numerous annual holidays. All three underscored the Pilgrims’ conviction that Days of Thanksgiving should be proclaimed irregularly and should center on public worship. Unfortunately for the Pilgrims’ popularity, mid-nineteenth-century Americans had precisely reversed these criteria. By the eve of the Civil War, the “traditional American Thanksgiving” was a regularly scheduled celebration centered inside the home.

If the Pilgrims’ story was to become an important part of Thanksgiving, there was much that would have to change.  We’ll talk about those changes next time.

THE “FIRST THANKSGIVING” WE’VE FORGOTTEN

Tomorrow families all across America will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, and some, at least, will link what they are doing to the Pilgrims’ celebration on the coast of Massachusetts in 1621. Although frequently embellished and sometimes caricatured, the story of the Pilgrims’ “First Thanksgiving” is rich with insight and inspiration. The Pilgrims were human, which means that they bore the imprint of the Fall with all its attendant sinful consequences: they were ethnocentric, sometimes judgmental and intolerant, prone to bickering, and tempted by mammon. They were also people of remarkable faith and fortitude—common folk of average abilities and below-average means who risked everything in the interest of their families and their community of faith.

The Pilgrims’ trial began with their voyage on the Mayflower, a 65-day-long ordeal in which 102 men, women, and children crossed the stormy Atlantic in a space the size of a city bus. Following that came a cruel New England winter for which they were ill prepared. (Massachusetts is more than six hundred miles south of London—on a line of latitude even with Madrid, Spain—and the Pilgrims were expecting a much more temperate climate.) Due more to exposure than starvation, their number dwindled rapidly, so that by the onset of spring some fifty-one members of the party had died. A staggering fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished in their new home. Widowers and orphans abounded.

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope. Yet celebrate they did, most probably sometime in late September or early October after God had granted them a harvest sufficient to see them through the next winter. This is an inspiring story, and it is a good thing for Christians this Thanksgiving to remember it. I don’t know about you, but I am always encouraged when I sit down with Christian friends and hear of how God has sustained them in hard times. Remembering the Pilgrims’ story is a lot like that, although the testimony comes to us not from across the room but from across the centuries.

And yet the part of the Pilgrims’ story that modern-day Americans have chosen to emphasize doesn’t seem to have been that significant to the Pilgrims themselves. More importantly, it fails to capture the heart of the Pilgrims’ thinking about God’s provision and our proper response. Most of what we know about the Pilgrims’ experience after leaving Holland comes from two Pilgrim writers—William Bradford, the long-time governor of the Plymouth colony, and Edward Winslow, his close assistant. Bradford never even referred to the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration (what we call the “First Thanksgiving”) in his famous history of the Pilgrims’ colony, Of Plymouth Plantation. Winslow mentioned it but briefly, devoting five sentences to it in a letter that he wrote to supporters in England. Indeed, the 115 words in those five sentences represent the sum total of all that we know about the occasion!

This means that there is a lot that we would like to know about that event that we will never know. It seems likely (although it must be conjecture) that the Pilgrims thought of their autumn celebration that first fall in Plymouth as something akin to the harvest festivals common at that time in England. What is absolutely certain is that they did not conceive of the celebration as a Thanksgiving holiday.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914

When the Pilgrims spoke of holidays, they used the word literally. A holiday was a “holy day,” a day specially set apart for worship and communion with God. Their reading of the scripture convinced them that God had only established one regular holy day under the new covenant, and that was the Lord’s Day each Sunday. Beyond that, they did believe that the scripture allowed the consecration of occasional Days of Fasting and Humiliation to beseech the Lord for deliverance from a particular trial, as well as occasional Days of Thanksgiving to praise the Lord for his extraordinary provision. Both were comparatively solemn observances, characterized by lengthy religious services full of prayer, praise, instruction, and exhortation.

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first formal celebration of a Day of Thanksgiving in Plymouth came nearly two years later, in July 1623. We’re comparatively unfamiliar with it because, frankly, we get bored with the Pilgrims once they’ve carved the first turkey. We condense their story to three key events—the Mayflower Compact, the Landing at Plymouth Rock, and the First Thanksgiving—and quickly lose interest thereafter. In reality, the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued at least another two years.

This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the colony. Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune. The thirty-five new settlers on board would nearly double their depleted ranks. Unfortunately, they arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as William Bradford bitterly recalled. Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation. Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half. In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.” By May they were almost completely out of food. It was no longer the season for waterfowl, and if not for the shellfish in the bay, and the little grain they were able to purchase from passing fishing boats, they very well might have starved.

The harvest of 1622 provided a temporary reprieve from hunger, but it fell far short of their needs for the coming year, and by the spring of 1623 the Pilgrims’ situation was again dire. As Bradford remembered their trial, it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from. For two to three months they had no bread or beer at all and “God fed them” almost wholly “out of the sea.”

Adding to their plight, the heavens closed up around the third week in May, and for nearly two months it rained hardly at all. The ground became parched, the corn began to wither, and hopes for the future began dying as well. When another boatload of settlers arrived that July, they were “much daunted and dismayed” by their first sight of the Plymouth colonists, many of whom were “ragged in apparel and some little better than half naked.” The Pilgrims, for their part, could offer the newcomers nothing more than a piece of fish and a cup of water.

In the depths of this trial the Pilgrims were sure of this much: it was God who had sent this great drought; it was the Lord who was frustrating their “great hopes of a large crop.” This was not the caprice of “nature,” but the handiwork of the Creator who worked “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Fearing that He had done this thing for their chastisement, the community agreed to set apart “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As Edward Winslow explained, their hope was that God “would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls. . . . But oh the mercy of our God!” Winslow exulted, “who was as ready to hear, as we to ask.” The colonists awoke on the appointed day to a cloudless sky, but by the end of the prayer service—which lasted eight to nine hours—it had become overcast, and by morning it had begun to rain, as it would continue to do for the next fourteen days. Bradford marveled at the “sweet and gentle showers . . . which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn.” Winslow added, “It was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.”

Overwhelmed by God’s gracious intervention, the Pilgrims immediately called for another providential holiday. “We thought it would be great ingratitude,” Winslow explained, if we should “content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God.” This occasion, likely held at the end of July, 1623, perfectly matches the Pilgrims’ definition of a thanksgiving holy day. It was a “solemn” observance, as Winslow noted, called to acknowledge a very specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord. In sum, it was what the Pilgrims themselves would have viewed as their “First Thanksgiving” in America, and we have all but forgotten it.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, perhaps we might remember both of these occasions. The Pilgrims’ harvest celebration of 1621 is an important reminder to see God’s gracious hand in the bounty of nature. But the Pilgrims’ holiday of 1623—what they would have called “The First Thanksgiving”—more forthrightly challenges us to look for God’s ongoing, supernatural intervention in our lives.

Have a great day tomorrow.