Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims

Indian Aid and a Blessed Thanksgiving

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

Jennie A. Brownescombe (1850-1936), The First Thanksgiving (1914)
Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850-1936), "The First Thanksgiving" (1914), Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts. Larger picture.
If it weren't for Indian deaths, the Pilgrims would have been hard-pressed to settle in Plymouth that cold winter of 1620. In a brief skirmish, the Pilgrim's muskets had slain no natives, nor had any arrows struck Englishmen. Disease had been the killer. The Pilgrims discovered corn fields cleared in the forests, now deserted. What had once been a bustling village of Patuxet Indians nearby, stood empty, ravaged by disease four years earlier, leaving but a single survivor.

Survivors

The Pilgrims, themselves, lived on the edge of survival that first winter. They had begun well enough. After 66 days crossing the stormy Atlantic, 104 Pilgrims beheld the New World, including a baby boy, Oceanus, born at sea.

"Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land," wrote Governor William Bradford, "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."

But within four months, scurvy, pneumonia, and a virulent strain of tuberculosis had cut down whole families of Pilgrims. As the sickness raged, only six or seven persons in the whole company were strong enough to tend the sick and comfort the dying.

Six died in December, then eight in January, seventeen in February. Of March, Bradford wrote, "This month thirteen of our number die ... scarce fifty remain, the living scarce able to bury the dead." Of eighteen married women, only three remained. Baby Oceanus died.

Indian Aid

But in April, when it was time to put in gardens, the Indians whom they feared came to their aid. One day, unannounced, the tall, powerful warrior Samoset strode into their camp, armed with a bow and arrows, nearly naked except for a leather string around his waist "with a fringe about a span long, or a little more," the embarrassed Bradford recorded. To the Pilgrims' surprise, Samoset greeted them with the word, "Welcome!" He had learned some English from fishermen in his native Maine. Later, he introduced the Pilgrims to Massasoit, chief of the neighboring Wampanoag tribe, and to Squanto, last known survivor of the Patuxets.

Though the Wampanoag braves towered over the short Englishmen, and outnumbered their tiny militia 60 to 20, they reached a treaty of peace that stood for forty years until Massasoit's death.

Squanto, who had been kidnapped and lived for a while in England, spoke their language, too. He taught the Pilgrims where to trap eels and how to plant corn. The Pilgrims, who had pilfered Indian corn the previous December, may not have been deserving. But this unexpected help made the difference for them between survival and starvation. Settler Edward Winslow described it thus:

"We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom."

Nevertheless, the harvest was good and the Pilgrims' food ration increased substantially. By fall, eleven houses lined the street of Plymouth Colony, seven private homes and four common buildings. The dying had stopped, and trade had begun with the Indians.

A Thanksgiving Celebration

To celebrate, the Pilgrims invited Massasoit to a harvest festival, and a hunting party shot enough waterfowl to feed the company for a week. But when Massasoit arrived, he was joined by ninety ravenous braves. For their contribution the Indians went out and returned five deer. It was a three-day feast of venison, roast duck, roast goose, clams and other shellfish, succulent eels, white bread, corn bread, leeks and watercress, with wild plums and dried berries — all enjoyed with wine newly made from grapes that grew wild in the forest.

It was a feast of thanksgiving, of thankfulness to God. Edward Winslow wrote to friends in December, "Although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

The goodness of God was often on their minds. Though the Pilgrims had suffered great loss and hardship, they also were aware of God's great blessing: the produce of the land, peace with the natives, the joy of life, and homes snug for winter.

"Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,
and into his courts with praise.
Be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting;
and his truth endures to all generations." (Psalm 100:4-5)


Quotations are from Governor William Bradford's manuscript Of Plimoth Plantation (Boston, 1856), and Edward Winslow in Mourtís Relation: A Relation or Journal of the English Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England, by certain English adventurers both merchants and others (London, 1622). Wordings have been changed to modern spellings. I also relied heavily on George F. Willison, Saints and Strangers (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945), a scholarly and popular retelling of the history of Plymouth Colony.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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