Thanksgiving


The first Thanksgiving was held in 1621 in Plimouth. That is how they spelled it back then so don’t correct me. Anyway, there were only about 50 white people at the meal and no one knows how many native Americans but probably at least an equal number. Those 50 settlers were giving thanks for having survived that first winter which took 50 of their brethren. But they were also thankful that the local natives were instrumental in assisting them in farming and fishing techniques. Most of those settlers had professions other than farming or fishing and knew little of either.

But can you imagine living in America those first few decades? Between the Plimouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony there were only a handful of towns, Boston, Salem, Ipswich, and Newbury being a few. A quick look at any map shows these towns all sit on the ocean. And each had its own port. Two things were certain in the minds of the early settlers: they would need to harvest the ocean and they would need a supply line from England.

Landing in those few towns was easy. But as soon as they traveled inland things became extremely difficult very quickly. The natives were not unhappy with their new neighbors but neither spoke the other’s language so to ask a question of the natives, like, where is there a large body of water inland that we might settle near, simply was not happening. That meant exploration. And remember, there were no roads, no maps, no knowledge. There may have been trails the natives used but where did they go?

The Pilgrims who settled Plymouth did not grow in size at the same rate as their brothers to the north did. For one thing, they were still persona non grata in England and for those still not in America, arranging travel was a challenge.

The Puritans, on the other hand, were mostly middle class Englishmen in somewhat good standing and could come and go in England as they pleased. The King, Chares I, was just as happy to see them go as they had proven to be a thorn in their side. They openly challenged the beliefs of the Church of England which, at the time, was quite the sin. But these Puritans were more than capable of bringing more than the shirts on their backs to the New World unlike the Pilgrims.

By 1636, however, a schism in the Boston Puritans arose when several of the men asked to see the charter which John Winthrop had held close to his chest. Once they read it, and discovered they could not be compelled to believe as Winthrop believed, something he had done, they quickly moved across the Charles River and founded Cambridge and a quaint little school was started to guarantee their form of religion was properly taught. They were the first Congregationalists, no central leadership, no hierarchy. And that little theological college took on the name of its founder, John Harvard.

Now when the Puritans first arrived in the New World, they first settled in what is today Charlestown. But all the water was brackish, not fit to drink or cook with. By chance they ran across a fellow who was living on the peninsula across the Charles River, William Braxton, who claimed he had a fresh water well. And so the move was on. But this amplifies the very basic needs of the settlers and the difficulty surrounding such needs. The Pilgrims had had a similar experience ten years prior when the first stopped at the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown today, and were unable to locate drinking water. While most of the Pilgrims left the Mayflower’s tight confines for the shores of Cape Cod, a small group of others went in search of drinking water and hence came to Plymouth.

Traditionally the first thing settlers did was to build their church and then continue on to small dwelling surrounding the church. But where did they get the lumber, the nails, and the other materials needed to construct any building? New England abounds with trees which meant they needed a brook, for power, and a saw mill built next to it.

One thing is certain about both groups, they were happy to be in this new world, a world where they decided what their religion would be, a world where they made all the laws, all the rules and through a democratic process in the earliest days, they decided upon their leadership. The Virginia Colony, the Plimouth Colony, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony all had one thing in common, a charter. And it was from those charters that each colony first developed its laws and later each wrote a constitution for the colony which defined their form of government.

The Thanksgiving tradition died out pretty quickly in those early years. It was not celebrated as a national holiday until 1863 when Lincoln declared it such. The first president to broach the question, however, was Thomas Jefferson who said that it was a religious feast and that there must remain an absolute separation of church and state. I think it wise to remember that it was the travails of those early settlers, their mettle and hard work, that kept us together and gave us a land to be proud of and to be thankful for.

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