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  The Story of the Pilgrims IV:
The First Year & the First Thanksgiving


On 19 November 1620, after four months on board, the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod. They tried to make for the Hudson River, but were turned back by tumultuous storms. Now that they had made it to the continent, they were many miles north of the Virginia colony and there was no way they could reach it due to the inclement weather. They finally came to rest in Provincetown Harbor on 21 November 1620, where "they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who brought them over the vast and furious ocean and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof." (While in Provincetown Harbor, Mills ancestor Susanna Fuller White gave birth to a son, Peregrine.) The voyage from Plymouth had taken 65 days.

Once the initial joy faded, the enormity of their task dawned: They had no houses, no stored goods, no knowledge of the country they faced, nor any knowledge of its inhabitants besides fantastic myths of cannibals. The season was winter, harsh and cruel. To their backs was the sea, an impenetrable barrier between them and "civilization." They could not expect any help from England until after the Mayflower returned. Their captain was eager to leave and threatened to dump them all on shore and take off. He also told them he'd brought just enough food for the crew to make the return the voyage; i.e., he would let the colonists starve.

In addition, there were rumblings amongst the Strangers. The colonists had no patent to set up a new colony, and so would be outside the law as soon as they set foot on land. The Strangers declared that this nullified the terms of their agreement and therefore they could act as free agents once on shore.

In response, the men of the company drafted the famous Mayflower Compact, based on the Covenant of the congregation, which submitted the colony to majority rule. It was intended as an interim measure until they obtained royal permission to settle in New England. In a time when all Western European governments were monarchies, the democratic elements of the Compact are startling. The text of the Compact is as follows:
    In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are undersigned, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, defender of the faith, etc. Having undertaken, for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith and honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
(Two Mills ancestors, William Bradford and William White, were among the 41 signers of the Compact. From then on, an annual election was held to select a governor and his assistants for the colony. When Plymouth Colony was taken over by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691 and royal government re-asserted, governors were appointed by royal decree rather than elected.)

Several parties of men were organized over the next few weeks to survey the land and determine a site for the colony. Women and children stayed on board the Mayflower for another two months, unable to step onto the land they'd sailed so far to reach, not knowing if their husbands and fathers and brothers would return from these expeditions into the unknown.

The Pilgrims saw a few Native Americans here and there during the first four months in Plymouth, but in general the Native people kept their distance. The Pilgrims had happened to come ashore in an area to which the Patuxet people belonged. The Patuxet were wiped out by a devastating plague brought by English slavers in 1617 and some of their settlements still had stores of corn and beans which the English helped themselves to. They later "reimbursed" the Wampanoag for the goods and food which they had taken.

The first encounter between the Pilgrims and Native people took place on 18 December. A small scouting party of Pilgrims was attacked by a group of Wampanoag, who were eventually driven off with musket fire. The Pilgrims learned later that two Englishmen, a Captain Thomas Hunt and explorer John Smith, had lured Cape Cod Native Americans into a trap in 1614 and sold them as slaves in Europe. The Wampanoag who attacked the scouting party assumed the colonists were somehow related to Hunt's raids and were prepared to defend themselves this time. The skirmish was brief and led the colonists to call the spot where it occured First Encounter, a name which endures to this day.

The landing in the area which would become Plymouth Colony happened on 21 December. Contrary to myth, the landing was not on Plymouth Rock, and no women or Native Americans were present. (So much for all those glorious oil paintings of "savages" bowing in submission to the White Man.) The confusion over Plymouth Rock can be traced back to 1741, when Elder John Faunce (age 95) referred to the Rock as "the place where the forefathers landed." This probably just implied "often landed," but was construed as "first landed," and the Rock became an instant tourist attraction (and continues as such to this day).

The men of the colony set to building a common building while the women and children continued their residence on the ship. The captain was convinced to stay through to the spring, when the weather would be better for the return crossing. This was fortunate, as the new common house burned to the ground on 14 January 1621 and the ship was the only shelter the colonists had.

Not long after the house burned, the "General Sickness" swept through the group, devastating colonists and crew alike. No one knows what this illness was, though it may have been pneumonia. Regardless, it was devastating. Seven of the company of near 150 remained well enough to tend to the rest, fetching wood for fires, making food, bathing and dressing the sick. Others who were well refused to help, afraid they would catch the disease. The captain at first ordered all the sick to land and refused to give them beer (the group's main beverage)óbut then his crew came down with the same sickness and began to die. The boatswain, who had always cursed and insulted the Pilgrims, caught sick and was ministered to by those he hated, causing him great shame and bringing him to gratitude. Another man cursed his wife when he fell ill, saying it was she who had forced him on this journey. Another man paid a companion and offered him all his goods when he died, and the companion complained the man wasn't dying fast enough. In short, the terrifying epidemic brought out the best and worst in human nature.

Of the original 102 Mayflower passengers, four died before reaching Plymouth. By the summer of 1621 there were another 46 deaths among the passengers, and about 25 deaths among the crew. After the General Sickness, only 12 of 26 men with families and 4 of the 12 single men and boys survived. "All but a few" of the women survived. William White died in the sickness, though Susanna survived. (Susanna must have been a very strong woman, having survived the ocean crossing while very pregnant, then the General Sickness shortly after giving birth to Peregrine.) In order to hide the number of deaths from the Native Americans, the Pilgrims buried their dead in the night on what is now called Copt's Hill. (In 1920, the remains of all the buried who could be found were placed inside a monument on top of the hill.) Bradford calls this period "The Starving Time."

During this time the Native Americans kept an eye on the Pilgrims but did not allow any contact to be made. So it was something of a shock when, on 16 March 1621, an Algonquin Sagamore named Samoset walked boldly into the company at work building houses and began speaking to them in English. Samoset was from Permaquid Point, Maine, and had learned some English from Anglo fishers and traders in the area. He hired himself out as a guide and cultural interpreter to the English and worked his way across to Plymouth. Samoset told the group that he knew of a Patuxet who could speak better English than he and that he would bring him and others to them.

In the next few days the colonists were visited by several representatives of the Wampanoag, the main Native people in the area. The Wampanoag returned some tools they had stolen from the Pilgrims and told them their great leader Massasoit was on his way (PBS's Colonial House says the Wampanoag are a matriarchal nation, but I need to do more research to understand the role of the sachem and tribal elders in the society). Several days later, the sachem Massasoit arrived with his brother, sixty warriors, and Squanto, the Patuxet whom Samoset had mentioned.

Squanto was the sole survivor of the Patuxet people, having been abducted by Hunt in 1614 to be sold into slavery in Spain. He had jumped ship and gone to England where he found employment on a trip to Newfoundland and other parts, before returning home in 1618, only to find all his people dead. Without Squanto's help and guidance, the Plymouth Colony would not have survived. The English considered him "a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation." He acted as interpreter between the colonists and Massasoit, taught the Pilgrims how to fish and plant corn, how to live in harmony with the land, "and never left them till he died" in 1654. The Pilgrims would have starved without his help. In addition to Squanto, another Wampanoag named Hobbamock came and lived with the colonists "and was of great assistance to them." Plymouth Colony notes that the Separatists enforced strict sexual morals, including upon the Native Americans who lived with them.

The encounter with Massasoit, the Wampanoag's sachem, resulted in a treaty of friendship which lasted until the reign of Metacom (better known as "King Philip"), Massasoit's son. The treaty was for mutual defense and laid out justice for both sides. (The Pilgrims later had dealings with the Pocassets and Massachusetts as well.) Massasoit was eager to ally with the colonists because the plagues brought by English slavers had devastated his domains but left the Naragansett to the west mostly untouched. He wanted the Pilgrims on his side to strengthen his position against the Naragansett. And indeed, in the summer of 1621, after the arrival of more colonists aboard the Fortune, the Naragansetts sent a warning to Plymouth Colony in the form of a bundle of arrows wrapped in a rattlesnake skin. After checking with his council, Governor Bradford returned the skin, but filled with powder and shot. While rumors continued, no attack came. In general, relations between Plymouth Colony and Native Americans were good, in part because Plymouth was always careful to buy the land they wanted from the Native Americans, whereas other colonies simply took it over by force.

The Mayflower returned to England on 05 April 1621. Not one of the colonists left to go back with it. All through the summer the Colony began to rebound, finishing their small encampment, gathering food, and tending crops. The colonists regained their strength and found the land provided them with plenty.

At summer's end, when harvest was in, Governor John Carver called for a special celebration. The colonists began to gather food for a traditional English "harvest home." This festival was held throughout England at harvest's end to give thanks for the bounty and celebrate the end of the most intense period of work for farmers. The Pilgrims' celebration had a special poignancy, of course, as a counterpoint to years of terrible hardships and a testament to the creation of the kind of religious environment they desired.

The Native Americans traditionally celebrated a harvest festival similar to the harvest home. The Pilgrims invited Massasoit, who came with 90 of his people and whose hunters contributed five deer to the celebration. The Pilgrims gathered corn, wild turkey, ducks and other fowl, fish, and venison. The first Thanksgiving lasted about a week, with three days' straight of feasting with the Wampanoag. The time was filled with prayers, dances, shooting matches, wrestling, and other games.

There is no specific indication of when the first Thanksgiving was held; it is unlikely that it was held as late as November. It was held after the harvest was gotten in and before the arrival of the Fortune in November. It also was not a day specifically set aside for religious worship. The Pilgrims lived so that prayer, the Bible, and the church were part of their everyday lives. The first Thanksgiving included a blessing on the harvest and thanks to God, but it was also a party rather than a serious religious meditation, with five or six days of recreation. The invitation of the Wampanoag was not just about being neighborly; it was also to recognize the special role which the Native Americans played in ensuring the Pilgrims' survival.

(Note: PBS' Colonial House says the Wampanoag were not invited to the "first Thanksgiving" but showed up after hearing muskets being shot off in the colony, the implication being that they turned up ready for violence. Colonial House also notes the celebration was "never repeated," implying it was an aberration that the Wampanoag were there. The information for the first statement may come from Edward Winslow's recollection of the event, where he mentions that "...amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three days we feasted and entertained." However, it could be just as likely the Wampanoag showed up ready to help the Pilgrims defend themselves in a presumed battle, since they had already signed a mutual defense treaty. Likewise, the statement that the "First Thanksgiving" was "never repeated" doesn't illuminate much: was there a "Second Thanksgiving" or did the colonists keep harvest celebrations more low-key after that? If the implication is that relations between colonists and Wampanoag were very strained, that does not fit with the facts of continued trading and assistance during the early years of the colony.)

Part V: After the First Year >
< Part III: The Crossing to America


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