On September 6, 1620, 102 men, women and children from England boarded a small cargo boat called the Mayflower and set sail for the New World. The passengers left their homes in England in search of religious freedom from the King of England. Today they are known as “pilgrims.”
After braving two months at sea, crossing the stormy Atlantic Ocean, the Pilgrims finally landed off the coast of the New World. In the freezing December waters, they anchored the Mayflower and sent a landing party to what is now Plymouth Harbor beach.
To secure the small landing boat against the rain and winds, they tied it to a large rock – Plymouth Rock – and so begins the legend of the original Thanksgiving tale.
The Pilgrims found themselves in a harsh new environment. In the middle of winter, they slowly built a settlement at the site of an abandoned Pawtuxet Indian village. Not used to hunting or fishing, they struggled to find food. Many were starving. The future looked bleak.
Many of the pilgrims did not survive the first winter. By the time spring arrived, they still had not met the Indians. Instead, they lived in fear of their unseen neighbors based on “savage tales” they heard from scouts.
When April arrived, the crew of the Mayflower raised its sails and set off for England, offering to take any Pilgrim who wished to return to England. Faced with the choice of the harsh New World, or the religious intolerance of the King, they all stayed.
One day, a lone Indian man walked into the settlement.
He raised his hand in friendship to the settlers. The Pilgrims welcomed this stranger named Samoset. Samoset introduced the Pilgrims to his chief, Massasoit, and his interpreter, Squanto. Squanto spoke English because he had been captured as a boy by traders who had come to the New World in search of slaves. Squanto was taken to England and lived there many years before returning to the New World. He alone understood that the Pilgrims did not know how to hunt or fish – that they would die without help in the New World.
Squanto and Chief Massasoit extended their friendship to the Pilgrims. They showed them how to catch fish with nets and how to grow corn, pumpkins, potatoes and squash – foods from the New World. The Indians showed the Pilgrims where to hunt turkey and deer, and where to gather nuts and berries. They explained to the Pilgrims that the land was master of those who walked and lived there.
The harvest of 1621 saw the fulfillment of their labors. The Pilgrims had grown barley, corn, pumpkins, and beans.
The settlers labored to gather their bounty; and in thanks for their fortune, decided to honor the land with a special day of thanks and celebration. In friendship and gratitude to Squanto, Chief Massasoit and the Indian people, they invited their new friends to join in the feast.
The Pilgrims spent days preparing for the feast. The men hunted ducks and turkeys, while the women baked food and decorated the table. When the day finally arrived, the Pilgrims were surprised to see not 10, not 20, but 90 Indians approaching the village! They brought with them a bounty all their own.
For three days, the Indians and Pilgrims feasted and gave thanks to the land for the harvest.
It was a celebration of friendship and thanks; but most of all, it was a celebration of freedom. Neither the Indians nor the Pilgrims knew what they had begun, but from this celebration emerged Thanksgiving as we know it today. We have been celebrating it as a uniquely American holiday ever since.
In 1863, President Lincoln officially declared the last Thursday in November a holiday of “thanksgiving and praise”, and so it remains today. Happy Thanksgiving!