Today, nearly every school-age child knows the story of the Pilgrims and the Thanksgiving holiday, but there was a time when that history was largely unknown outside of Plymouth, Mass.
Nine years after he arrived in Plymouth with the Pilgrims, Gov. William Bradford began what he called his “Scribbled Writings,” which later became the history “Of Plimoth Plantation” that recorded events that happened from 1620 to 1647.
For the next 100 years, the book was kept in the Bradford family until it was given to a minister of the Old North Church in Boston.
It wasn’t until 1855 that the restored manuscript made its way to London for printing, and a first-hand account of the Pilgrim’s adventure could be told.
History records the first harvest festival celebrated by English settlers actually occurred 43 years before the now-famous Pilgrim’s feast in Plymouth in 1621.
In 1578, English immigrants to Newfoundland brought in their harvest, followed by the same kind of celebration by the Popham colony in Maine in 1607.
Last, but not least, the Virginia settlement known as Berkeley’s Hundred chose Dec. 4, 1618 as a day of thanksgiving for the safe arrival of newcomers to the colony.
The history of the voyage of that Mayflower says that 102 men, women and children set off for a land they’d never seen, and crossed an unforgiving Atlantic Ocean in a wooden ship 90 feet long and 25 feet wide, trusting the God they worshipped to give the ship’s crew the wisdom to deliver them safely.
Through the vicious gales of September that buckled Mayflower’s beams, the ships’ master, Christopher Jones, broke with tradition by sailing directly across the Atlantic to deliver his passengers to their new home.
By his foresight, they were able to devise shelter before the worst of the winter could claim more victims for its own, eventually naming the tributary that flowed into Plymouth harbor the Jones River.
One of those children who survived the voyage and had the distinction of being born aboard the Mayflower was Peregrine White, whose name meant “Pilgrim.” She lived to be 83.
John Alden and 18-year old Priscilla Mullins, whose entire family perished in that first winter, have become two of the most well-remembered passengers of the Mayflower’s voyage, and their courtship was the subject of Longfellow’s famous poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Alden, who had joined the Mayflower company as a cooper and was brought along to make sure the beer barrels didn’t leak, married Priscilla soon after their famous conversation where she asked “why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”
The answer to how their lives turned out can be explained by their procreative track record, where the two love-birds parented 11 little Pilgrims in their lifetime. Alden lived to be 88 and outlived his wife by two years. In memory of them and their offspring, Forefather’s Day has been celebrated in Plymouth each Dec. 11 since 1769.
Another well-known name from the Thanksgiving story was Squanto, the sole survivor of the Pawtuxet tribe that laid claim to the Plymouth lands. He befriended the Pilgrims, taught them native farming techniques, and in general acted as a liaison between the white settlers and neighboring tribes.
Telling the other tribes that the Pilgrims had buried the dreaded “Indian sickness” in the ground, he told them that they could just as easily free it if they gave them trouble. Squanto bragged that he could keep the Pilgrims friendly, and accepted many bribes to do so, and since he offered no objection to the Pilgrims settlement on Pawtuxet lands, they were allowed to live there for many years.
All through that first hard winter, the sight of the Mayflower at anchor in Plymouth harbor reassured the Pilgrims of a last link with their homeland.
In April 1621, the Pilgrims had completed their Common House as well as seven small dwellings, and later that spring, the Mayflower pulled up anchor and sailed back to England. At the same time, the sweet pink arbutus flower bloomed with the promise of spring. In memory of the sailing of the ship, the settlers called the blossoms “mayflowers.”
Long before the arrival of the Pilgrims, Indian natives to the Cape Cod area used red berries they called “ibimi” both as a vegetable dye and for its healing properties. The Pilgrims developed a taste for the tangy fruit, and like enterprising European settlers the world over, promptly gave it another name, calling it a “crane-berry” because the blossoms resembled a crane’s head.
The crane-berry eventually became the cranberry, and they realized its most important characteristic was the vitamin C it supplied to 17th century sailors to prevent scurvy, which took its toll on the Pilgrims during the long trans-Atlantic trip.
According to the only eyewitness account of the first Plymouth Thanksgiving, Edward Winslow recorded that “our governor sent four men on the fowling, that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” He said hunting was good and that enough wild game was found to last almost a full week.
That first terrible winter in Plymouth, when so many of the Pilgrims died of starvation and the cold, revealed a surprisingly low children’s mortality rate. Historians discovered that during the brutal winter, the selfless care of Pilgrim mothers kept their children alive, despite the fact the women were sick and starving themselves.
Records show that of the 18 women who sailed on Mayflower, only six survived until the following spring.
After the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving feast in 1621, poor crops and new mouths to feed meant no repetition of the celebration until a long, much-needed rain two years later prompted Gov. Bradford to declare Nov. 29 as a day of thanksgiving.
Until the mid-19th century, the date of Thanksgiving was somewhat erratic, observed at different times in different places. In 1705, the date was changed from the first to the second Thursday in November because Colchester, Conn. had not received its molasses in time to sweeten its pumpkin pies.
But the person credited for helping to establish the holiday officially was Sarah Hale, who before, during and after the Civil War, used her position as editor of Godey’s “Lady’s Book” to influence voters and lobby Congress.
Finally, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving to be observed annually.
For those who’d like a closer look at how it was to be a Pilgrim, the replica Mayflower II is in the harbor at the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Conn. As seaworthy as her predecessor, Mayflower II followed the original route in 1957 in a voyage lasting 53 days.
The restoration of the wooden ship, which was originally built in 1955-56, has been carried out over the past three years with the purpose of preparing it for the 400th anniversary next year of the Pilgrims’ arrival in 1620.
Kate Shehan of Plimouth Plantation said that Mayflower II will sail alongside “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution, in Boston to kick off a free six-day maritime festival called Mayflower Sails 2020 at the Charlestown Navy Yard.
She said the ship will return home to Plymouth Harbor on Memorial Day weekend 2020.
Information for this story came from Kay-Tee Productions.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.