What Thanksgiving is Really About: Part II – Hardships, Blessings and Lessons Learned

SquantoteachingStill out in the bay, the Pilgrims discovered their shallop (smaller boat) was damaged in the Atlantic storms and required repair.  However, sixteen men made it to shore and explored on November 15.  They soon encountered “salvages” (savages) who turned and ran into the woods.

The group encamped for the night and the next morning set out to explore more, looking for water.  They found water to refresh themselves and upon coming into a clearing discovered a field of recently harvested corn.  They found four Indian baskets filled with multi-colored corn (some of it in ears) – something they had never seen before.  Fearing for their safety, the group soon returned to the ship, taking part of the corn and burying the rest.  Everyone was greatly encouraged.

When the boat was repaired, another group of 30 men set out for more extensive exploration.  Again the Pilgrims encountered vacated houses and found more corn and beans and were thankful they had gathered corn in the first trip ashore because now there was snow and frozen ground:

And here is to be noted a spetiall providence of God, and a great mercie to this poore people . . . the Lord is never wanting unto his in their greatest needs ; let his holy name have all the praise.

By December 16, the Mayflower was safely docked and by December 25 the first common house had begun to be built.  The charter that the Pilgrims came to America under (Mayflower Compact) provided that the group would live together communally – everyone would share everything.

John Carver was chosen to be the first governor and the men began to meet to discuss laws and an orderly system for the community to function under.  During the cold and brutal weather, their numbers were depleted by scurvy and other diseases.

With the winter weather and disease ravaging their settlement, the settlers became discouraged and turned on one another, desperate for food.  One man cursed his wife for convincing him to take the voyage in the first place.  Around March 16, an Indian named Samaset came into the town and spoke to them in broken English.  Though not from the area he told the settlers of another Indian by the name of Squanto who lived in the area and could speak better English than himself.

A few days later an entourage consisting of the Indian chief Massasoit and his friends (including Squanto) entered the village.  The Indians and settlers met, exchanged gifts and mutually agreed to a pact – basically that they would neither harm nor steal from each other and if attacked unjustly they would defend one another.  Squanto remained behind as the others returned to their homes to serve as an interpreter for the settlers.  He also  showed them how to plant corn, where to fish and provide sustenance for all “and was also their pilott to bring them to unknowne places for their profitt, and never left them till he dyed.”

With the coming of spring, the weather improved as did the health of the settlers.  At the beginning of April, the Mayflower was finally sent back to England.  Squanto supervised the planting by showing them how to set the corn and tend it, how to fish and how to store up for the winter months ahead.  Some seeds brought forth crops and some failed.  One day in April, Governor John Carver came out of the field very sick and died a few days later.  His wife died five or six weeks later.

William Bradford, although not fully recovered from sickness, was appointed Governor and assisted by Isaak Allerton.  In the fall, the settlers were able to harvest their crops and began to take account of all the food they had gathered, including fowl and fish.  A feast with the Indians was also held which is said to be the basis of what we now celebrate as Thanksgiving (but it’s not really — read on).

The Pilgrims set about to equally divide the provisions amongst everyone but discovered that even at half an allowance the provisions would not last more than six months.  Meanwhile, the Indians were still not at peace with one another and Squanto made several trips to negotiate and smooth things out.  Interestingly:

… they begane to see that Squanto sought his owne ends, and plaid his owne game, by putting the Indeans in fear, and drawing gifts from them to enrich him selfe ; making them beleeve he could stur up warr against whom he would, & make peece for whom he would. Yea, he made them beleeve they kept the plague buried in the ground, and could send it amongs whom they would, which did much terifie the Indeans, and made them depend more on him, and seeke more to him then to Massasoyte, which proucured him envie, and had like to have cost him his life. For after the discovery of his practises, Massasoyt sought it both privatly and openly ; which caused him to stick close to the English, & never durst goe from them till he dyed.

As predicted the food that had been gathered and distributed did not last.  Although they were able to procure some additional provisions, that still wasn’t enough to adequately supply the settlers.  A quarter pound of bread was apportioned daily to each person – the Governor concerned that if it was distributed all at once it would be quickly consumed and eventually people would starve.

When harvest time came, and having been in want for so long, food was stolen day and night.  This plan wasn’t workable and even the Indians had nothing to trade.  The settlement was in disarray so Captain Standish and Squanto set out to find trading partners.   Squanto, however, fell ill with a fever – his nose bleeding “(which the Indeans take for a simptome of death), and within a few days dyed ther ; desiring the Govr to pray for him, that he might goe to the Englishmens God in heaven, and be queathed sundrie of his things to sundry of his English freinds, as remembrances of his love.”

Provisions were eventually secured, but by February of the next year the settlers were again in want.  Some began to wonder if they should attack the Indians to procure food.   The Governor and other leaders strongly advised against such a move because it would endanger the safety of all.  People became more desperate.

This cycle continued until in 1623 it was decided that sharing everything in common was not working.  It was decided that land would be divided among the settlers, according to size of family.  The result:

This had very good success ; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means the Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into the feild, and tooke their litle-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie ; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.

The experience that was had in this comone course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos & other ancients, applauded by some of later times ; — that the taking away of propertie, and bringing in comunitie into a comone wealth, would make them happy and florishing ; as if they were wiser then God.  For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion & discontent, and retard much imploymet that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For the yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour & service did repine that they should spend their time & streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompence. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in devission of victails & cloaths, then he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could ; this was thought injuestice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victails, cloaths, &c, with the meaner & yonger sorte, thought it some indignite & disrespect unto them. And for mens wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, &c., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brooke it.

The 1623 growing season was marked by drought for approximately two months.  A “day of humiliation” was called for as they cried out to God and:

….he was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to thier owne and the Indeans admiration, that lived amongest them. For all the morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hotte, and not a cloud or any signe of raine to be seen, yet toward evening it begane to overcast, and shortly after to raine, with shuch sweete and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoyceing, and blesing God. It came, without either wind, or thunder, or any violence, and by degreese in that abundance, as that the earth was thorowly wete and soked therwith. Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corne and other fruits, as was wonderfull to see, and made the Indeans astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them shuch seasonable showers, with enterchange of faire warme weather, as, through his blessing, caused a fruitfull and liberall harvest, to their no small comforte and rejoycing. For which mercie (in time conveniente) they also sett aparte a day of thanksgiveing.

Governor Bradford issued a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving on November 29, 1623.  So the feast held in 1623 was the actual first Day of Thanksgiving and not the one held in 1621.  The Pilgrims had learned that while the land they occupied was community property, each family must be allowed to plant, tend and produce its own crops according to their family’s needs and not the shared needs of a commune.  When the practice of what was essentially socialism or communism was replaced with individualism, the Pilgrims learned the value of hard work and putting their trust in God’s providence.

Discussion Topic:

Do you think the real story of Thanksgiving contains lessons for Americans to learn from today?

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2013.

1 Comment

  1. Love to read about these people..


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