This coming Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. A national holiday set aside for giving thanks to God for the abundance that we enjoy here in America. As every school age child knows, this holiday was started by the Pilgrims after they settled in America. But, was it really? Actually, no it wasn't.
In August of 1620, a group of Separatists (A religious group that was in conflict with the Church of England.) set sail from England for the New World. Their destination was northern Virginia where there were Separatist settlements already. After months of sailing they finally spotted land in November but the stormy weather had blown them far off course. They landed at Plymouth Rock. It is recorded that "Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element".
The leader of the Separatists was William Bradford. Bradford kept a detailed journal. After writing about their gratitude to finally be safely on land again, he wrote that they arrived at a cold, barren, desolate wilderness. There were no friends to greet them and no houses to shelter them. Before the ship sailed, Bradford had set up an agreement, a contract (called the Mayflower Compact), that established just and equal laws for all members of the community. The original contract the Pilgrims entered into with the merchant-sponsors in England called for everything they produced to go into a common store, and each member of the community was entitled to one common share. All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belonged to the community as well.
That first winter almost half of the 102 settlers died from either starvation, sickness or exposure. More would have died had it not been for the help of the Indians in the area. The local Indians were the Massasoit, members of a confederacy of Indians known as the League of Delaware. The Massasoit's religion required them to help those who come with empty hands. It was because of the generosity of the Massasoits that the settlement survived that first year.
Fortunately the harvest in 1621 was a bountiful one. The remaining colonists decided to have a celebration and invited the Indians who had helped them. It was similar to the traditional English feast signaling the end of harvesting. Governor William Bradford sent "four men fowling" after wild ducks and geese. We don't know if they had any turkey as we know turkey. The term "turkey" was used by the Pilgrims to mean any sort of wild fowl. There was venison – the Indians brought five deer. There was no bread or pastry because of the lack of flour but there was a sort of fried bread made from the corn they had grown. The feast also included fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams and plums. The celebration lasted three days.
There was no harvest feast the next year. The following year, 1623, brought a severe drought. The pilgrims gathered in a prayer service, praying for rain. When a long, steady rain followed the very next day, Governor Bradford proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving, again inviting their Indian friends. It was many years before another feast was held.
The original Mayflower Compact didn't work out well in the settlement. Governor Bradford wrote "The experience that we had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years...that by taking away property, and bringing community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing...for this community was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense...that was thought injustice." They learned that this 'common system' did not work, that the people had no incentive to work any harder than anyone else.
(Even before the words "socialism", "communism" or "commune" existed, the Pilgrims tried those forms of government, and they didn't work any better then than they do now.)
Governor Bradford decided to assign a plot of land to each family for them to work. They were permitted to market their own crops and products. Bradford wrote "This had very good success for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been." Soon the pilgrims had more food than they could eat themselves. They set up trading posts and exchanged goods with the Indians. The profits were used to pay off their debts to the merchants in England that had bankrolled their journey to the New World. (Sounds like capitalism to me.)
There wasn't another Day of Thanksgiving proclaimed until June of 1676. The Indians were not invited this time. In fact, part of the reason for the 'thanksgiving' was the recent victory over the "heathen natives".
The first Thanksgiving celebrated by all 13 colonies was in 1777. It celebrated the victory over the British at Saratoga. George Washington declared a national Day of Thanksgiving in 1789. Finally in 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. It wasn't until 1941 that Congress finally sanctioned Thanksgiving Day as a legal holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.
Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation:
Top of this page
Front Page Archives
Contact: ken.s+sunacom.com (replace "+" with "@")