A Short History of Thanksgiving Day: Part 4 – Thanksgiving in New England


By T. V. Antony Raj


The 'Mayflower' by Donald Swan FRSA. Six days out on her voyage to America she was overtaken by a tremendous storm. The painting shows the topsail being lowered.
The ‘Mayflower’ by Donald Swan FRSA. Six days out on her voyage to America she was overtaken by a tremendous storm. The painting shows the topsail being lowered.


At the beginning, the sailing was smooth, but later they met with strong winds and storms. One passenger, John Howland, was washed overboard in the storm. He caught a topsail halyard trailing in the water and was pulled back on board. When they were more than half the way to their destination, a storm caused a main beam to crack, and the possibility of turning back was considered. However, they managed to repair the ship and continued their voyage.

At sea, one passenger and crew member died and a child was born and named “Oceanus”.

After sixty-five days at sea, land was sighted on November 9, 1620. It was the Cape Cod within the New England territory, now called Provincetown Harbor.


Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall, 1882 - Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA
Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall, 1882 – Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA


Captain Christopher Jones made an attempt to sail the ship around Cape Cod towards the Hudson River, also within the New England grant area, but they encountered shoals and difficult currents around Cape Malabar (the old French name for present-day Monomoy). He then decided to turn around and anchored on November 11 (Old Style) / 21 (New Style) at the harbor at Cape Cod hook, what is today known as Provincetown Harbor.

The Wincob land patent they had was from their abandoned dealings with the London Company. So, in fact, the colonists arrived without a patent because the charter of the Plymouth Council for New England was not completed by the time the colonists departed England. Some of the passengers, aware of the situation, suggested that without a patent in place, they were free to do as they chose upon landing, and ignore the contract with the investors.


Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899.
Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899.


To address this issue, a brief contract, known later as the Mayflower Compact, was drafted. This contract in which they agreed to join together in a “civil body politic” that promised cooperation among the settlers “for the general good of the Colony unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

This contract was ratified by majority rule, with 41 adult male passengers signing for the 102 passengers.

At this time, John Carver, the most respected and affluent member of the group who was instrumental in chartering the Mayflower, was chosen as the colony’s first governor. Carver’s signature appears first on the Mayflower Compact, the seed of American democracy and the world’s first written constitution.

Landing of the passengers postponed because of the delay in exploring the area. The shallop or pinnace, a smaller sailing vessel, partly dismantled to fit aboard the Mayflower for the voyage was damaged in transit. However, the male passengers waded to the beach in small parties to fetch firewood and attend to long-deferred personal hygiene.


Captain Miles Standish


While the shallop was being repaired, exploratory was undertaken by parties led by Myles Standish, an English soldier the colonists had met while in Leiden, and Captain Christopher Jones.

Up to this time, William Bradford, aged 30, who would soon be elected governor, had yet to assume any significant leadership role among the colonists. Bradford volunteered to be a member of the exploration parties.

In November and December, these parties made three separate ventures from the Mayflower on foot and by boat, finally locating what is now Plymouth Harbor in mid-December and selecting that site for settlement.

During one of the exploratory jaunts, the parties came across an old European-built house and an iron kettle, left behind by some other ship’s crew, and a few recently cultivated fields, showing corn stubble of the previous month.

They partially uncovered an artificial mound near the dunes and found it to be a Native grave. On venturing further they came across a similar more recently made grave. The colonists fearing that they might starve, removed the baskets of maize and other provisions placed in the grave. They placed some of the maize into an iron kettle they found nearby, and reburied the rest.

William Bradford later recorded in his book, “Of Plymouth Plantation,” that after the shallop had been repaired,

They also found two of the Indian’s houses covered with mats, and some of their implements in them; but the people had run away and could not be seen. They also found more corn, and beans of various colours. These they brought away, intending to give them full satisfaction (repayment) when they should meet with any of them, as about six months afterwards they did.

And it is to be noted as a special providence of God, and a great mercy to this poor people, that they thus got seed to plant corn the next year, or they might have starved; for they had none, nor any likelihood of getting any, till too late for the planting season.

They explored the bay and found a suitable place for settlement, now the site of downtown Plymouth, Massachusetts. The location featured a prominent hill (now known as Burial Hill) that was ideal for a defensive fort. There were numerous brooks providing fresh water.

When the exploring party made their way back on board, Bradford learned of the death of his wife, Dorothy. The day after he had embarked with the exploring party, Dorothy had slipped over the side of the Mayflower and drowned.


Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers (Engraved by W.H. Simmons after a picture by Charles Lucey)
Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers by Charles Lucey.


The Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Bay on December 20, 1620 and the colonists set their foot on New England.


'The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth' (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe
‘The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth’  by Jennie A. Brownscombe (1914).


William Brewster led them in prayer with Psalm 100:

A psalm of thanksgiving.

Shout joyfully to the LORD, all you lands;
serve the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful song.

Know that the LORD is God,
he made us, we belong to him,
we are his people, the flock he shepherds.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
his courts with praise.

Give thanks to him, bless his name;
good indeed is the LORD,
His mercy endures forever,
his faithfulness lasts through every generation.

During the next several months, the settlers lived mostly on the Mayflower and ferried back and forth from shore to build their living quarters. The settlement’s first fort and watchtower were built on Burial Hill.

The entire crew of the Mayflower stayed in Plymouth through the winter of 1620-1621. During that time, about half of them died. The crewmen that survived returned on the Mayflower which sailed for London on April 5 1621.

The first colony of the English was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

The colony established in 1620 by the Separatists was the second successful English settlement and is considered the oldest continuously inhabited English settlement in what was to become the United States of America.

During that first winter of 1620-21, more than half of the colonists died as a result of poor nutrition and inadequate housing that proved fatal in the harsh weather. Leaders such as William Brewster, William Bradford, John Carver, Edward Winslow, and Miles Standish, kept the remaining settlers together.


William Bradford (Courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum)
William Bradford (Courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum)


Upon the death of John Carver in 1621, William Bradford was unanimously chosen as governor. Brewster became the senior elder of the colony, serving as its religious leader and as an advisor to Governor William Bradford who served for eleven consecutive years, and was elected to various other terms until his death in 1657.


Grave of Governor William Bradford on Burial Hill
Grave of Governor William Bradford on Burial Hill


It was William Bradford who first used the word ‘pilgrims’ for the Mayflower passengers years later in his Of Plymouth Plantation. After he finished recounting his group’s July 1620 departure from Leiden, Bradford used the imagery of Hebrews 11:13–16 about Old Testament “strangers and pilgrims” who had the opportunity to return to their old country, but instead longed for a better, heavenly country. Bradford wrote:

So they lefte [that] goodly&pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, nere 12 years; but they knew they were ,pilgrimes&looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest ,cuntrie and quieted their spirits.

For over 150 years after Bradford wrote this passage, no one had used the word ‘Pilgrimes’ to describe Plymouth’s founders, except when quoting Bradford. In 1669, historian Nathaniel Morton retold Mayflower’s story, and likewise did historian Cotton Mather in 1702. Both paraphrased Bradford’s passage and used Bradford’s word pilgrims. At Plymouth’s Forefathers’ Day observance in 1793, Rev. Chandler Robbins recited this passage from Bradford.


Cover of the book The Times of Their Lives - Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony by written by James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz
Cover of the book The Times of Their Lives – Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony by written by James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz


The following passage from book “The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony” co-authored by James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz provides food for thought to the perennial question “who were the Pilgrims?

So who were the Pilgrims? This question has been a vexing one for modern historians, and depending on the source consulted, different definitions emerge. Were they all of the Mayflower’s passengers, or were they only the minority of religious dissenters among the group? Does the term refer to those who came on four other ships, the Fortune, Anne, Little James and Charity which arrived during the first seven years of the Colony? Might the term apply to all of the residents of Plymouth Colony during its existence as a separate colony until 1691? There is no modern consensus regarding this matter, and little wonder, for the people of Plymouth never perceived themselves as a group who would at the end of the eighteenth century come to be known as Pilgrims. However, if we change the tense of the verb in the question from were to are, a reasonably concise definition can be offered. The Pilgrims are a quasi-mythic group of people who are looked upon today as the founders of America, and whose dedication to hard work and noble purposes gave rise to our nation as we know it. What most of us know about them we learned as early as grade school, especially around Thanksgiving time. Stern and godfearing, possessed of the loftiest motives, the women dressed in somber attire with white collars, and the men also dressed in grey and black, with buckles on their hats, belts, shoes, and for all we know, even on their undergarments. Some modern Plymouth residents refer to them as the “Grim Pills.” This is the image with which we are all so familiar, but its origins lie more in early nineteenth century America than in the reality of a time two hundred years earlier.


← Previous – Part 3– Preparing to Sail to New England




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