If we take a thumbnail look at the history leading up to the first Thanksgiving celebration in America, perhaps we will be more likely to appreciate this year's Thanksgiving.
In about 1570, the Puritan movement emerged in England. The people were called Puritans because they wanted to reform or "purify" the Church of England. They did not want to leave the Church, but reform it from within. After about twenty-five years, with little progress toward reform having been made, another movement, the Separatists, emerged. They were called Separatists because they concluded that it was impossible to reform the Church from within and began to "separate" from the Church and establish independent congregations.
The Separatists were severely persecuted, and in 1608 a small group of Separatists migrated to the Netherlands (Holland), where they enjoyed religious freedom. It was not long, however, until they became dissatisfied, primarily because their children were immersed in Dutch culture and education, gradually forgetting their English heritage. So they decided to go to America.
The Separatists, however, did not have sufficient resources to fund travel to America or for getting started from scratch once they got there. Hence, they turned for help to the Virginia Company, a joint stock corporation chartered by King James I with responsibility for providing the settlers, ships, and supplies necessary for colonizing Virginia.
The Virginia Company made arrangements for thirty-five Separatists to sail from Holland on July 22, 1620, bound for Southampton, England, aboard the Speedwell, to rendezvous with a larger merchant ship, the Mayflower, also chartered by the Virginia Company to take colonists to Virginia. Dividing passengers, supplies, and freight, the two ships set sail together for America on August 15--with approximately thirty passengers on the Speedwell and ninety aboard the Mayflower, a total of 120. But they were twice forced back to the English port at Plymouth because of leaks to the Speedwell.
It was decided that the Speedwell was not seaworthy and that the Mayflower would make the journey alone. Since there was not enough space for all the people on the one ship, several were forced to disembark. Although records are sketchy, it appears that 102 passengers (thirty-five from the Separatist settlement in Holland and sixty-seven recruited from London and Southampton for the venture), forty-eight crew members, necessary supplies, merchandise not related to the passengers, and what was left of their original supply of food and water were crowded onto the Mayflower, which finally left Plymouth, England, for the New World on September 16, 1620, much later and closer to winter than originally planned.
The ship was overcrowded and under-provisioned. Space was so limited that the more hardy passengers took turns sleeping on the open deck and in lifeboats, and many others slept literally two-deep. Only the crew had a galley. The passengers ran terribly short of food and water. Sanitary facilities were woefully inadequate. Dysentery and disease were rampant. Conditions were deplorable!
The voyage across the Atlantic took sixty-five days, longer than anticipated because of stormy weather and the need to make repairs at sea to the Mayflower. During the voyage, one crew member and one passenger died. And one child was born, a boy named Oceanus, after the ocean.
Having been blown off course and suffering from navigational errors, upon getting to America the Mayflower was considerably north of Virginia. Unable to find Virginia, in early-November the Mayflower temporarily anchored at Provincetown Harbor, on the inside tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. During the next weeks, four expeditions of men--on November 11, 15, 27, and December 6--went ashore in search of a suitable site to settle permanently. Such a site needed to include timber, game, fresh running water, a flat expanse of land, shoals of fish, and a harbor. Finally, on December 11, having traveled around the inside shoreline of Cape Cod Bay to the western side of the Bay, they found the place they were looking for and called it New Plymouth. And on December 16, 1620, the passengers began coming ashore at what we now call Plymouth Rock.
The English settlers were devastatingly unprepared for a Massachusetts winter: fifty-eight people died; twenty of them were men. There was practically no food to eat, and at times there were only seven people well enough to care for the dead. When winter ended, of the original102 passengers, only forty-four had survived: twenty-four men and a mixture of twenty women and children.
With the help of Indian tribes agriculturally inclined and willing to assist the Europeans settlers, the Plymouth colonists gained access to the network of trade between the Native Americans and learned about growing crops in New England. According to records, the colonists planted twenty acres of corn and six acres of barley and peas. The weather cooperated, and they had an abundant harvest. And in December 1621, the Separatists from Holland and those who had joined them in their stopover in Southampton, paused for a three-day celebration, feasting and thanking God for their blessings of the past year. They were joined by about ninety of their American Indian friends.
In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated annually. The purpose of Thanksgiving Day is for all of us to think about the past year and specifically to remember the blessing we experienced.
I know these are hard times, full of many trials and tribulations--for individuals, couples, families, and for our country. But if the early Pilgrims, after their horrific voyage to America and the devastating winter filled with death and suffering, were able to find reasons to be thankful, surely we can, too.
I encourage you to submit comments below, sharing with us a few specific reasons you have for being thankful this year. Perhaps that will help others to be thankful. Please--no negative comments: let's just concentrate on reasons for being thankful.
[Resources I found especially helpful are three books: Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973; Bartlett, Robert M. The Pilgrim Way. Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1971; and Bunker, Nick. Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.]