The Pilgrims first sighted land off Cape Cod on November 9, 1620, after spending sixty-five days at sea. They rejoiced, singing Psalm 100, a traditional song of thanksgiving. But as William Bradford recorded in Of Plymouth Plantation, it was winter when, “all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face.” “They had no friends to welcome them, nor inns to refresh. What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men?” There certainly was a native population, but its fullness and ranks were severely depleted when the Pilgrims landed because a great plague had swept the area from 1616 to 1619, in which thousands of Indians perished.
Food was scarce, and they had to build shelter in a hurry before winter set in. Weather conditions then were more severe. Nathaniel Philbrick relates in his book Mayflower that the era was in the midst of a little ice age. Forty-five of the 102 settlers died of sickness that first winter. The others survived because of a strong faith in God, who consoled them, and in the inspiration of their leaders; men such as their chosen governor, William Bradford, Edward Winslow, and others. Bradford reminded them that “all great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages.”
Many myths surround the pilgrims. They did not exclusively wear black attire. They wore colorful clothing and were not gloomy. The general impression that they were past middle age or older is wrong. Only four had reached their fifties; the oldest was fifty-seven. Four were in their forties, and the rest in their twenties and thirties. Neither did they force their religion on others. They merely asked to be left alone to live their Christian faith in an uncultivated corner of the earth.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The Pilgrim or Separatist was distinct from the later Puritan migration to Boston a decade later. They were a plainer, simple people. In the words of Bradford, “not aquinted with trades nor traffic, but used to a countrie life, and the innocente trade of husbandry.”
For over fifty years, the Plymouth colony worked at peaceful relations with the Indians, making a point of paying them back for the seed corn they took that first winter.
The colonists were startled one spring day 1621 when they were greeted by an Indian named Samoset, who emerged from the woods speaking broken English. He told them of the recent plague that wiped out the area they inhabited, which was named Pawtucket, which the natives abandoned. He spoke of the ruling chieftain Massasoit and of another Indian named Squanto, who spoke perfect English.
Massasoit arrived later and, with the help of Squanto as translator, made a peace treaty with Plymouth Plantation. Massasoit could have perhaps destroyed the English settlers. But he saw need of an alliance for his own self-interest, “because he hath a potent adversary the Narragansetts, that are at war with him, against whom he thinks we may be some strength to him for our firearms are terrible unto them.”
Squanto stayed with the colony, teaching them how to plant and fertilize the poor soil there with fish. The colony grew fond of this curious Indian who had lived in Spain and London after being abducted into slavery by English traders. Squanto had been rescued by Franciscans friars in Spain who baptized and freed him. How ironic that the Separatist who loathed the Roman Catholic Church should be nurtured by one baptized into that Faith.
Edward Winslow took a particular interest in Native Americans; he took care to study the Wampanoag language, their customs, and their way of life. New England Indians treasured the past and peopled the landscape with tales of ancestors who came before them. Winslow wrote how they dug and kept up memorial holes in the ground, marking where great events had occurred, and kept these holes in neat order, “so that many things of great antiquity are fresh in memory.” “So that when a man travelleth,” as Winslow wrote in his journal, “his journey will be less tedious, by reason of the many historical discourses that will be related unto him.”
Both Pilgrim and Indian recognized a mystery to human existence and an otherworldly dimension to reality. Both believed in a Creator. And if someone told them creation was all by chance as a result of a big explosion, both would look at you with pitying incredulity. For both peoples recognized they were dependent creatures and saw the necessity of giving thanks to a supratemporal reality. Sadly, modern man is reluctant to give thanks and believes the mystery of life and all the ills and suffering of human existence will eventually fall before the advances of science.
How alike are we of the Roman Catholic Faith today to the settlers of Plymouth Plantation! For we too are pilgrims struggling in a heathen land with an alien people chasing their gods of worldly power and material pleasure.
Yet we remain thankful.
The first Thanksgiving took place after the first harvest of the Plymouth colony in 1621. Today Thanksgiving is our national holiday—a day unique to the American experience and something of that spirit of thanksgiving still survives.
William Bradford compared that spirit to a candle flame. “As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light kindled here has shown unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation…. We have noted these things so that you might see their worth and not negligently lose what your fathers have obtained with so much hardship.”
Editor’s note: this article first appeared in Crisis Magazine on November 24, 2016.