Happy Thanksgiving -- Pilgrim Colonists Arrived 400 Years Ago This Month (1620-2020)
The First Thanksgiving – An oil on canvas painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrim Colonists in 1620. It was President Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving a national celebration in 1863. (Content Credit: The Independence Hall Association – IHA, UShistory.org) (Image Credit: United States Library of Congress) (Video Credit: Plimoth Plantation, plimoth.org)
Pilgrim Colonists Arrived 400 Years Ago This Month (1620-2020)
Religious strife reached a peak in England in the 1500s. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church of Rome, spiritual life in England was turned on its ear. The new church under the king's leadership was approved by the English Parliament, but not all the people in England were willing to accept the Church of England. At first, the battles were waged between English Catholics and the followers of the new Church — the Anglicans. The rule of Queen Elizabeth brought an end to bloodshed, but the battle waged on in the hearts of the English people.
Pilgrims and Puritans both believed in the teachings of John Calvin. According to Calvin, neither the teachings of the Catholic nor the Anglican Churches addressed God's will. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, England was a nation of many different faiths.
The Stuart family, who ascended to the throne after the demise of Elizabeth, made matters worse for the followers of John Calvin. King James and his son Charles supported the Church of England, but secretly admired the ceremonies of the Catholic Church. To these kings, Calvin was a heretic, a man whose soul was doomed for his religious views.
The Pilgrims, called the Separatists in England because of their desire to separate from the Anglican Church, were persecuted by agents of the throne. The Puritans, so named for their desire to purify the Church of England, experienced the same degree of harassment. By the second and third decades of the 1600s, each group decided that England was no place to put their controversial beliefs into practice.
Where else but in the New World could such a golden opportunity be found? The land was unspoiled. Children could be raised without the corruption of old English religious ideas. The chance to create a perfect society was there for the taking. The Stuart kings saw America a means to get rid of troublemakers. Everything was falling into place.
By 1620, the seeds for a new society, quite different from the one already established at Jamestown, were planted deeply within the souls of a few brave pioneers. Their quest would form the basis of New England society.
Not all the English Separatists set out for the New World. The first group to leave England actually headed for the Dutch Netherlands in 1608. They became uneasy in their new land as their children started speaking Dutch and abandoning English traditions. Even worse to the Separatists, the tolerance shown to them by the Dutch was shown to many different faiths. They became disgusted with the attention paid to worldly goods, and the presence of many "unholy" faiths.
The great Separatist experiment in the Netherlands came to a quick end, as they began to look elsewhere for a purer place to build their society. Some headed for English islands in the Caribbean. Those who would be forever known to future Americans as the Pilgrims set their sights on the New World in late 1620.
Over a hundred travelers embarked on the voyage of the Mayflower in September 1620. Less than one third were Separatists. The rest were immigrants, adventurers, and speculators.
When the weather was good, the passengers could enjoy hot food cooked on deck. When there was high wind or storms, they lived on salted beef, a dried biscuit called "hard tack," other dried vegetables, and beer. The nearest thing to resemble a bathroom was a bucket.
Their voyage took about two months, and the passengers enjoyed a happier experience than most trans-Atlantic trips. One death was suffered and one child was born. The child was named Oceanus after the watery depths beneath them.
One of the greatest twists of fate in human history occurred on that epochal voyage. The Pilgrims were originally bound for Virginia to live north of Jamestown under the same charter granted to citizens of Jamestown. Fate charted a different course. Lost at sea, they happened upon a piece of land that would become known as Cape Cod. After surveying the land, they set up camp not too far from Plymouth Rock. They feared venturing further south because winter was fast approaching.
The founders of the New England colonies had an entirely different mission from the Jamestown settlers. Although economic prosperity was still a goal of the New England settlers, their true goal was spiritual. Fed up with the ceremonial Church of England, Pilgrims and Puritans sought to recreate society in the manner they believed God truly intended it to be designed.
The Pilgrims had an important question to answer before they set ashore. Since they were not landing within the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, they had no charter to govern them. Who would rule their society?
In the landmark Mayflower Compact of 1620, the Pilgrims decided that they would rule themselves, based on majority rule of the townsmen. This independent attitude set up a tradition of self-rule that would later lead to town meetings and elected legislatures in New England.
Like the Virginia House of Burgesses established the previous year, Plymouth colony began to lay the foundation for democracy in the American colonies.
The major similarity between the first Jamestown settlers and the first Plymouth settlers was great human suffering.
November was too late to plant crops. Many settlers died of scurvy and malnutrition during that horrible first winter. Of the 102 original Mayflower passengers, only 44 survived. Again like in Jamestown, the kindness of the local Native Americans saved them from a frosty death.
The Pilgrims' remarkable courage was displayed the following spring. When the Mayflower returned to Europe, not a single Pilgrim deserted Plymouth.
By early 1621, the Pilgrims had built crude huts and a common house on the shores of Plymouth Bay. Soon neighboring Indians began to build relations with the Pilgrims. Squanto, a local Indian who had been kidnapped and taken to England nearly a decade before, served as an interpreter with the local tribes. Squanto taught the Pilgrims to fertilize the soil with dried fish remains to produce a stellar corn crop.
Massasoit, the chief of the nearby Wampanoags, signed a treaty of alliance with the Pilgrims in the summer. In exchange for assistance with defense against the feared Narragansett tribe, Massasoit supplemented the food supply of the Pilgrims for the first few years.
Successful colonies require successful leadership. The man to step forward in Plymouth colony was William Bradford. After the first governor elected under the Mayflower Compact perished from the harsh winter, Bradford was elected governor for the next thirty years. In May of 1621, he performed the colony's first marriage ceremony.
Under Bradford's guidance, Plymouth suffered less hardship than their English compatriots in Virginia. Relations with the local natives remained relatively smooth in Plymouth and the food supply grew with each passing year.
By autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims had much for which to be thankful. After the harvest, Massasoit and about ninety other Indians joined the Pilgrims for the great English tradition of Harvest Festival. The participants celebrated for several days, dining on venison, goose, duck, turkey, fish, and of course, cornbread, the result of a bountiful corn harvest. This tradition was repeated at harvest time in the following years.
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