The date was November 11,1620 when the Mayflower arrived off the coast of what is today Massachusetts. This was not their plan, however, here they were. This small group of people from England originally planned to join the Virginia Company’s chartered land into what is today Manhattan but a storm had different plans. The Mayflower, the ship the Puritans sailed on, was blown off course into uncharted territory. They landed at the worst time of the season as winter was setting in.
Why did they come? The king of England in 1609 was King James I and the people of England were ordered to attend the Anglican Church of England. Many Puritans used the Geneva Bible which they believed to be a purer translation of the Bible. They opposed Catholic practices. They disagreed with the blending of Catholic and Protestant influences in the Church of England and King James’s belief of divine right to rule. King James authorized the King James Version of the Bible and banned the Geneva Bible in England. Puritans refusing to attend the Church of England were persecuted. They decided to secretly leave but they did not come to America first.
William Brewster and John Robinson led a group of Puritans to Leiden, Holland. In Holland they had religious freedom. They lived here for over 10 years but felt that their children were becoming too Dutch and that their religious ideals were too unrestricted.
William Bradford led the group of separatists onto two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower heading for the New World . The Speedwell began to leak not far off the English coast and had to return to England. The crew of @ 100 Puritans and workers all squeezed onto the Mayflower and headed for the charted land of the Virginia Company.
Plans changed as a storm blew them further north and they settled in what is today Plymouth, Massachusetts. Since they were out of the ruling authority of the Virginia Co. , the crew created their own set of laws called the Mayflower Compact. They scouted the coast and settled inland on December 16,1620 still living on the ship they began to build their village. The passengers were weak and sick. Out of 102 people, only 52 survived the winter.
In March 1621, help arrived from an unlikely group. Squanto and Samoset provided the settlement with knowledge to grow crops and where to hunt and fish. They were instrumental to the survival of the colony. The English signed a contract with the leader of the Wampanoags, Massasoit. This contract provided the settlement with protection against other hostile tribes.
In the fall of 1621, the settlement celebrated their first harvest with a three day feast. They gathered together and enjoyed food and games. They did not eat turkey and mashed potatoes but water fowl, venison, lobster, clams, fruit, pumpkin and squash. This, however, was not a thanksgiving to a Puritan. A day of thanksgiving to a Puritan was purely a religious event, a day in church thanking God for their blessings. This would not have been combined due to their strict religious customs.
In 1777, the Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving. The tradition was kept on and off until 1815 where it appeared to be lost. During the United States Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, in an attempt to unite a war torn nation,declared two Thanksgiving days. One in August commemorating the victory at Gettysburg and the last Thursday in November. Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date of Thanksgiving to the next to the last Thursday of the month of November to spur holiday shopping during the depression. Congress finally declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1942 setting the date to the fourth Thursday in November.
So why do we think of the Pilgrims as the first Thanksgiving? The discovery of William Bradford’s lost journal describing life in Plimouth brought new interest to the story of the English and the Wampanoags coming together celebrating a harvest. The story became twisted/ blended over the years in order to be used to teach children about the first settlers of the region and the freedoms they fought for.
Like many stories from the past, events get changed to serve a purpose. The true story of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags still tell a story. A story of a grateful group of people that relied on natives and prayer to survive in a new land. Their story is one of hardship, death, disappointment, opportunity and survival. Their story is not really that of the First Thanksgiving but traditions are not always established based on facts but are often rooted in inspiring circumstances.