The account of the first Thanksgiving, written by William Bradford of the Mayflower, was lost for nearly a century. His record began in 1608 when he with the Pilgrims left England, and found refuge in Holland. It continued with the voyage to the New World in 1620, and on until his death in 1657. The manuscript, called “Of Plymouth Plantation” disappeared during the Revolutionary War, and was finally found in London in 1855 and returned to Boston in 1897.
Thanksgiving with the Wampanoag Indians
William Bradford was an eyewitness to the events that occurred. He was 12 when he joined the Separatist congregation, 18 when he left England for Holland, and 30 when he sailed on the Mayflower for the New World in 1620. He was a religious man and a scholar, well versed in the learning of his day. He read the Bible and works by Milton and Locke, and other great spirits of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Statue of William Bradford at Plymouth Plantation
He searched the Bible and was convinced that the Lord had a special purpose for bringing him and his family and friends to the New World. We are especially proud to be his descendants now in the 12th generation in America. He was appointed governor of Plymouth Bay Colony when their first revered Governor Carver died shortly after arriving at Cape Cod. These are his words written to inspire those who follow for centuries:
“Lastly (and which was not least) a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way there unto, for the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work”
From his record we learn that he and many others were dissatisfied with the religious dogma of the day and desired to separate themselves from the Church of England having concluded that it was “no true church.” They had been previously associated with the “Puritan” sect which sought to purify the Church from within. When they learned that religious freedom had been established in Holland, they decided to make a complete change and separate themselves by moving to the city of Leiden in Holland in 1609.
There they were free to practice the true religion without persecution. Others joined them over the next few years until 1620 when a plan was put forward to sail to the New World. They lived in Holland for 11 years and found that many of their children were losing the ideals they sought for. They were speaking Dutch and a worldly influence was creeping into their lives. A site was selected and their minister and leader John Robinson arranged for their passage to the northern parts of the colony of Virginia in the New World.
Two ships were secured, and some travelers would be picked up in England and travel with them as well. When time came to leave, some decided they weren’t ready and wanted to wait until they saw how the first group fared. Others called “strangers” were allowed to accompany them. The ships names were the Mayflower and the Speedwell.
Voyage of the Mayflower
They finally departed on the 22nd of July 1620 from Leiden, Holland. Soon after their departure, the captain of the Speedwell found that his ship was leaking and needed repair. Both ships returned to Plymouth, England. They determined that the ship was not seaworthy, so all those that really wanted to go were compacted together in one ship – the Mayflower. They departed the second time September 6, late in the year for such a voyage. They had good winds at first, which gave them encouragement, but then encountered fierce cross winds and storms which caused much misery and discomfort for much of the journey.
The Mayflower by artist William Bradford in the 18th Century
Their arrival at Cape Cod:
“Being thus arrived at Cape Cod the 11th of November 1620, and necessity calling them to look out a place for habitation” they began looking for a place to set up living quarters.
“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.”
“What could now sustain them but the spirit of God and his grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers, rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness…’”
Pilgrim Fathers First Landing by Mike Haywood
They all agreed on a set of rules they would follow after they arrived. They referred to themselves as pilgrims and saints. They signed a document which bound them together into a “civil body politic” It was the first such constitution adopted in America and became known as the “Mayflower Compact” because it was signed on the Mayflower before stepping onto the shore of the New World. Many of the principles later adopted in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States came from the Mayflower Compact.
The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor
Because of the harsh weather much of the winter was spent on board the ship while attempts were made find a location to “construct small cottages for their habitation, and consulted of laws and orders and their civil and military government.”
Their first winter:
“In these hard and difficult beginnings they found some discontents and murmurings arise among some, and mutinous speeches and carriages in others, but they were soon quelled and overcome by the wisdom, patience and just and equal carriages of things by the Governor and better part, which clave faithfully together in the main.
“But that which was most sad and lamentable was, that in the 2 or 3 months time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts, being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inaccommodate condition had brought upon them, so as there died some times 2 or 3 of a day, or in the aforesaid time, that of the 100 and odd persons, scarce 50 remained. And of these in the time of most distress, there was but 6 or 7 sound persons, who to their great commendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them, in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named, and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren. A rare example and worthy to be remembered.
Two of these 7 were Mr. William Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Miles Standish, their Captain and military commander, unto whom my self and many others were much beholden in our low and sick condition. And yet the Lord so upheld these persons, as in this general calamity they were not at all infected either with sickness or lameness. And what I have said of these, I may say of many others who died in this general visitation. And others yet living, that while they had health, yea or any strength continuing, they were not wanting to any that had need of them. And I doubt not but their recommence is with the Lord.”
After winter had passed and they were able to build houses and plant crops, and those remaining regained their health and strength. Over the summer they learned to plant crops, explored the coast and became acquainted with two exceptional native men to whom they were indebted for their survival and that of the colony. The first was Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag confederacy, who ensured their political and social survival in the New World, and the second was Squanto, the last survivor of his tribe who showed them how to survive in the wilderness.
Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag, saved the Plymouth Colony from starvation and war by forging critical political and personal ties with the leaders of the colony.
Squanto taught the Pilgrims many things.
He died after their second year in Plymouth. He was captured and taken to England for 5 years where he learned English. He returned to Plymouth in 1619 to discover that his whole tribe had died of Smallpox and other diseases.
William Bradford wrote of Squanto after his death in 1622: “Here [Manamoick Bay] Squanto fell ill of Indian fever, bleeding much at the nose, which the Indians take as a symptom of death, and within a few days he died. He begged the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishman's God in heaven, and bequeathed several of his things to his English friends, as remembrances. His death was a great loss.”
Their Harvest and the First Thanksgiving:
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength, and had all things in good plenty, for as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod, and bass, and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was not want, and now began to come in store of foul, as winter approached of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides water foul, there was great store of wild turkeys of which they took many besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned, but true reports.”
The First Thanksgiving by Jennie Brownscombe