The first Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth Harbor nearly 400 years ago, on December 17, 1620. Things started off promisingly. With a little scouting around Plymouth, they found an area with a good harbor, river, and fields already cleared for planting. But it went quickly downhill from there. They arrived in the winter, and were immediately beset by disease and hunger. They began to die. In those first 3 months, 45 of the 102 immigrants died. Inclement weather greatly slowed down construction of their new homes, and most of them were forced to remain on the Mayflower for some time after their arrival.
After four months, half of the Pilgrims had died, and the Mayflower was ready to set sail back to England. Holding firm in their belief that this was their divine mission, not a single Pilgrim returned with it. They joined together, holding all their property and food in common, to be distributed out according to need by their officials. Together, they began to scratch out an existence in the New World.
In March, a Native American named Samoset strode into the Pilgrim camp, welcomed them, and asked for a beer. He explained that the land they were settled on had previously belonged to the Patuxet, but they had all been wiped out by a plague four years earlier, and there was now nobody who would dispute the Pilgrims’ claim of the area. A few days later, he returned to the camp with Squanto, the last surviving Patuxet, who helped teach the Pilgrims how to work the land bequeathed to them by his former tribe.
The first harvest festival occurred that autumn, and although the Pilgrims did not think of it as such, it is now generally regarded as the first Thanksgiving. The first Thanksgiving that they called by that name came in 1623, when they received news of an incoming ship of new colonists and supplies. It consisted of a church service. There was no feast; in fact there was barely any food to feast on at all. When the new colonists arrived, all they could offer them was some fish and water; they did not even have bread to share.
Without a strong link between effort expended in the fields and food taken home, even these dedicated church-goers had neglected their work, and very little food was grown. The system had limped along like this for two and half years, as the colony continued to face potential starvation. Finally, in the spring of 1623, a parcel of land was distributed to each family. They were allowed to keep whatever they grew on it, with the proviso that they were now solely responsible for feeding themselves. And with that, productivity dramatically improved, and the Pilgrims never again faced severe food shortages. By the 1630’s, feasts began to be associated with the Thanksgiving day church services.
About ten years into the colony’s life, a man named Henry Cobb emigrated from England (perhaps on the second Mayflower) and joined the couple of hundred in Plymouth Colony. He was a devout man, and became a Deacon in a few years. As the colony expanded and developed offshoots, he helped set up the town of Barnstable, where he settled on a plot of 7 acres. Between his two wives, he had 14 children in total.
I mention him because he was an ancestor of mine, and probably the first of them to come to America. It is nice to know that my own blood played a part in the country’s earliest days, and even better to know that he was a man of strong religious conviction. What better time than Thanksgiving to commemorate my own Pilgrim heritage?
I hope your Thanksgiving went well. Whether you knew it or not, you were celebrating great bravery, an enterprising spirit, an uncompromising devotion to God, the superiority of capitalism and private property, and the eating of large quantities of food. I can think of nothing more quintessentially American than that.