The following is a history of the first years of the original English settlers in the colony of Plymouth. The Pilgrims were men, women and children whose commitment to God and His Kingdom were a high water mark for all others.
This trek had begun over 30 years before the Mayflower when barbaric persecution began in England against those who desired to worship God instead of the dead religion of the king and bishops of England. It continued for decades after the first dreadful years when the Pilgrims arrived on the shores of the New World.
Americans are woefully ignorant of the sacrifice, starvation, fortitude and faith of these men and woman who were the first Americans. This day we celebrate as a national holiday should therefore include an understanding of the cost paid willingly by these unknowns as well as a heartfelt thankfulness to the one true God who continues to bless our land even though the heart of this nation has turned far from Him.
I encourage you to read this brief history to your children or to those who you will be with this Thanksgiving. America, our beautiful country, has a brief window of opportunity to turn again to God’s unique calling on this nation. It begins with knowing from where we came and the original calling that God placed on us.
It was the winter of 1620 that the Mayflower brought the Pilgrims to “the New Jerusalem” in sixty-six days of stormy travel. There were one hundred and two Pilgrims who were crammed into a space about equal to a volleyball court. Because of the weather, they were below in the middle deck the entire time. With hatches battened down the stench was horrific, the travel in the mid-deck of the tiny ship cramped and without fresh air or sunlight the entire trip. They subsisted on a diet of dried pork, dried peas, and dried fish which barely kept them alive. Most had succumbed to sea sickness and could hardly eat at all.
They were indentured to business men in London whose final goodbye was to re-write their contract only days before their departure. Initially, the debt was 1,800 pounds but they were so taken advantage of that the seven year note took over 20 years to pay off at a cost of over twenty thousand pounds. They bore the unscrupulous debt to the last pence through the grace of God and their integrity.
Their cause? Freedom to follow God, to take the Light of the Gospel of Peace to the New World where they covenanted together with God and one another to prove the Gospel through sacrifice, humility, repentance and absolute commitment to the Scriptures.
They set sail three times before they finally abandoned one ship and packed everyone as well as the supplies onto the Mayflower and departed for the final time. Having eaten most of their reserves while waiting, they knew that if they were to make a permanent stand in New England, it would be because “God works a miracle.”
It was a bitter cold end of December when they finally disembarked from the Mayflower on to the shore of what would be New Plymouth, so named because it was the name of the town that had been so kind to them on their departure from England. The worst of the winter was about to begin as the weary and sick Pilgrims began to build shelters against the bitter winter that bore down on the ill prepared colony.
This began the time of the “General Sickness” as the travelers succumbed to scurvy, the cold and the lack of nutrition. The Pilgrims started dying.
- Six dead in December
- Eight dead in January
- On January 14, the common house where the sick and dying lay caught fire exposing the sick to more of the bitter winter that had settled on them.
- In February, two a day were dying.
- The 21st claimed four lives.
- March, another thirteen died.
By the time it was all done, forty-seven people, nearly half their original number were dead. Thirteen of the eighteen wives had died. But through it all, they remained faithful to God. They continued to lean on their covenant with God and each other and they pressed forward knowing that the current troubles were not a reflection on God’s love but an opportunity to stay faithful to what God had called them to do.
In the middle of March as the days began to slowly warm, an Indian walked into their camp and boomed out in the King’s english,“Welcome!” ... and then asked for beer! His name was Samoset and so began the remarkable blessings of the God they served. He sent another Indian to them, Squanto, who told them that the place they had landed had belonged to his tribe that had been mysteriously wiped out, most likely by disease. What was left were fields ready to plant along with the superstition among the savage tribes that surrounded them that the land was cursed so no one would venture to go there.
They learned to plant corn, made a peace treaty of mutual aid and assistance with the Indians that lasted forty years, learned to harvest the fish and game, and chose to a man to stay in this new land that they had been delivered to by the grace of God. At the end of that first summer new homes had been built as well as common houses for the settlers. Squanto acted as guide and interpreter to the Pilgrims which was one of the greatest gifts from the Father that they had received.
It was then that Governor William Bradford declared a day of public Thanksgiving to be held in October. The Indian tribe that they had befriended showed up a day early and brought 90 Indians but also 5 dressed deer and more than a dozen wild turkeys. The celebration went on for 3 days. Thus, our National Feast day began as a day of Thanksgiving after one of the most wretched years of our forefathers lives.
The troubles would not end with that first year though. In November, the first ship from England, the Fortune, left off a cargo of 35 more colonists who brought nothing more than the clothes they were wearing... no equipment, no food, no tools, no bedding. The following winter was known as the winter of starving. Very soon after the first Thanksgiving feast all of the colonists went on half-rations and finally eating only 5 kernels of corn each day to survive.
There choice? “Either to give in to bitterness and despair or to go deeper into Christ. They chose Christ. And in contrast to what happened in Jamestown, not one of them died of starvation.”
Why a day of Thanksgiving? When most would shake their fist at God and curse the day they set foot on the shore of the New World why did these Pilgrim’s instead declare a day of heartfelt thanksgiving to God? It was because in all the heart wrenching losses, these men and women recognized God’s blessings and miracles.
This did not happen on some foreign mission field. These things took place in what would become the United States. Our land was founded on the principles of sacrifice to God, commitment to the cause of Christ, and covenants between God and men as well as between families.
William Bradford, the beloved patriot and long time governor of Plymouth, wrote,
“As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light kindled here has shown unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation... We have noted these things so that you might see their worth and not negligently lose what your fathers have obtained with so much hardship.”
May his prayer and hope be realized in our nation over these coming years