Thoughts of Thanksgiving

One of my favorite books on history is The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall. Here is an excerpt from his account of the first year the Pilgrims lived thru after landing in Massachusetts, culminating in the first Thanksgiving Feast. It is encouraging to see the Lord’s faithfulness to them as well as their willingness to endure hardships in order to follow God.
– Pastor Trevor

The Pilgrims named the site Plymouth not because it happened to be called New Plymouth on John Smith’s map, but because “Plymouth in Old England was the last town they left in the native country; and for that they received many kindnesses from some Christians there.” They asked Captain Jones to stay on as long as he could, for they desperately needed the shelter that only the Mayflower could provide. And the captain agreed; the lives of these humble settlers had touched him deeply. They had borne all cheerfully, even the taunts of the bosun’s mate, never complaining about their conditions or the food or the weather, and they thanked God for the merest blessings. Now that December was almost over, the worst of the winter would soon be upon them. As they laid out the main street, erected a palisade, and began the common house, the building of shelter went slowly, when hands were so cold that they had difficulty keeping hold of axe or adze.

Then, too, this was the time of the “General Sickness,” when bodies, weakened from three long months at sea, finally succumbed to scurvy, despite what was left of the lemonjuice . Often a lingering cold, contracted after wading ashore, trudging through the snow and sleeping on the damp ground (under continuing exertion for there was too much to be done to stop working just for a cold), flared up into consumption or pneumonia.

The Pilgrims started dying. There were six dead in December, eight in January they were falling like casualties on a battlefield. And in a sense, that is what they were: locked in a life or death struggle with Satan himself. For this was the first time that the Light of Christ had landed in force on his continent, and if he did not throw them back into the sea at the beginning, there would be reinforcements.

On January 14, a Sunday, an icy wind was blowing through the cracks of the nearly completed common house, where there lay as many sick as they could crowd in. Suddenly, before anyone knew what was happening, the thatched roof above them was blazing with fire, and the place was filled with smoke. Many started to cry out in terror, as burning embers fell from the roof. Had it not been for the supernatural strength given to some of the sick to take speedy action, they might all have been blown to pieces, for there were open barrels of gunpowder and loaded muskets in the common house. These were quickly rushed outside. Fortunately the timbers in the roof did not catch fire, so the building was saved. Much precious clothing was burned up, however, further exposing the sick to the elements of the New England winter.

But, as they themselves had said, these were not like other men. The more adversity mounted against them, the harder they prayed never giving in to despair, to murmuring, to any of the petty jealousies that split and divide. In contrast to Jamestown, as their ranks thinned, they drew ever closer together. and trusted God all the more. And still the death toll mounted. In February, they were dying at a rate of two a day, even three on some days. The twenty first of February claimed four lives. And at one period, in the whole company there were only five men well enough to care for the sick. One of them was Captain Standish, who tended Bradford among the others, raising his head up and cradling it in his arm, to spoon him a bit of soup.

Standish, Brewster, and three or four others chopped wood, cleaned, clothed, cooked, and tended. They even periodically showed themselves at the palisade, just in case the Indians, whom they had seen in the distance, happened to be watching them. For the same reason, they buried their dead at night, in shallow unmarked graves, so that the red men would not know how many they had lost. In February there were seventeen deaths.

The pitched battle between love and death went on. On board the Mayflower, the seamen, too, began to fall. One promised his companion all his possessions after his death, if only he would look after him while he was still alive. His companion “went and got a little spice and made him a mess of meat once or twice, and because he died not so soon as he expected, [his companion] went amongst his fellows and swore the rogue [had swindled] him. He would see him choked before he made him any more meat! And yet the poor fellow died before morning.” (Shades of Jamestown!)

But gradually, almost imperceptibly, the Light of Christ was gaining the victory. The bosun was stricken ” … a proud young man who would often curse and scoff at the passengers, but when he grew weak, they had compassion on him and helped him. Then he confessed that he did not deserve it at their hands; he had abused them in word and deed. ‘Oh!’ said he, ‘you, I now see, show your love like Christians indeed to one another, but we let one another lie and die like dogs.’ ” March was another killing month; thirteen more died. But that was four less than the month before.

When the worst was finally over, they had lost forty seven people, nearly half their original number. Thirteen out of eighteen wives died; only three families remained unbroken. Of all the first comers, the children fared the best: of seven daughters, none died; of thirteen sons, only three. And the colony, which was young to begin with, was even younger now. But compared with Jamestown’s 80 to 90 percent mortality rate, they came through remarkably well.

And through it all, their hearts remained soft towards God. Whether they knew that they were being tested, as Bradford later suspected, the high point of their week remained Sunday worship, when the beat of a field drum would summon them to the morning and afternoon services. All on board the Mayflower would come ashore, and join the procession led by William Brewster (their spiritual leader until such time as God provided them with a minister), John Carver the Governor, and the red haired Miles Standish, in charge of defense. As they made their way up the hill, their clothes were not the somber browns and blacks of the pictures that hang in schoolrooms around Thanksgiving time. Miles Standish almost certainly wore his plum red cape, and William Brewster had an emerald green satin doublet which might have been appropriate Sunday garb. For these were Elizabethan Englishmen; it would be their Puritan cousins of a later generation who would hold that “frivolous” clothes connoted a frivolous heart attitude.

The houses that they passed were of mud daub and wattle construction, usually with two rooms around a central fireplace, and a sleeping loft atop one of the rooms. The high peaked roofs were of thatch, and these were especially difficult to make, because the right kind of grass grew more than a mile away. There were five such houses more or less finished, in addition to the common house at the foot of the hill, where many of them had spent the winter.

The service was held in the blockhouse at the top of the hill an imposing building with a flat roof and a trap door so that the house could be defended from the roof. Captain Jones had parted with one of his two huge, fifteen hundred pound cannon called sackers, and one of his brace of twelve hundred pounders called minions, plus two smaller cannon called bases. From this high point, it was possible to enfilade the main street, as well as cover the distant woods.

Inside, on rough hewn log benches, the men would sit on the left, the women on the right. William Brewster would preach, and he had a gift for teaching “both powerfully and profitably, to the great contentment of the hearers, and their comfortable edification; yea, many were brought to God by his ministry.” And elsewhere Bradford comments on the fact that God used Brewster’s preaching as an instrument to bring sweet repentance to their hearts for the sins they might have forgotten about.

If any one event could be singled out to mark the turning point of their fortunes, it would have been what happened on a fair Friday in the middle of March. The weather had slowly been warming, and with the iron grip of winter beginning to loosen its hold on the earth, the first shoots of green would soon be appearing. The men were gathered in the common house to conclude their conference on military instruction, when the cry went up, “Indian coming!”

Indian coming? Surely he meant Indians coming! Disgusted, Captain Standish shook his head, even as he went to look out the window to see a tall, well built Indian, wearing nothing but a leather loincloth striding up their main street. He was headed straight for the common house, and the men inside hurried to the door, before he walked right in on them. He stopped and stood motionless looking at them, as though sculpted in marble. Only the March wind broke the silence.

“Welcome!” he suddenly boomed, in a deep, resonant voice.

The Pilgrims were too startled to speak. At length, they replied with as much gravity as they could muster: “Welcome.”

Their visitor fixed them with a piercing stare. “Have you got any beer?” he asked them in flawless English. If they were surprised before, they were astounded now.

“Beer?” one of them managed. The Indian nodded.

The Pilgrims looked at one another, then turned back to him.

“Our beer is gone. Would you like… some brandy?”

Again the Indian nodded.

They brought him some brandy, and a biscuit with butter and cheese, and then some pudding and a piece of roast duck. To their continuing amazement, he ate with evident relish everything set before him. Where had he developed such an appetite for English food? How, in fact, had he come to speak English? For that matter, who was he, and what was he doing here?

But they would have to wait, for obviously he did not intend to talk until he had finished his repast. Finally, the time for answering questions came. His name was Samoset. He was a sagamore (or chief) of the Algonquins, from what is now Pemaquid Point in Maine. He had been visiting in these parts for the past eight months, having begged a ride down the coast with Captain Thomas Dermer, an English sea captain who was known to the Pilgrims by reputation. He had been sent out to explore the coast for the Council for New England, the company to whom they would now be applying for a patent. Apparently Samoset’s sole motivation was a love of travel, and he had learned his English from various fishing captains who had put in to the Maine shore over the years.

Now they asked the crucial question: What could he tell them of the Indians hereabouts? And the story he told gave every one of them cause to thank God in their hearts. This area had always been the territory of the Patuxets, a large, hostile tribe who had barbarously murdered every white man who had landed on their shores. But four years prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival, a mysterious plague had broken out among them, killing every man, woman, and child. So complete was the devastation that the neighboring tribes had shunned the area ever since, convinced that some great supernatural spirit had destroyed the Patuxets. Hence the cleared land on which they had settled literally belonged to no one! Their nearest neighbors, said Samoset, were the Wampanoags, some fifty miles to the southwest. These Indians numbered about sixty warriors. Massasoit, their sachem (or chief), had such wisdom that he also ruled over several other small tribes in the general area. And it was with Massasoit that Samoset had spent most of the past eight months.

Who were the Indians out on the Cape, who had attacked them? These were the Nausets, who numbered about a hundred warriors. The previous summer they had attacked Captain Dermer and killed three of his men. The Nausets hated the white man, because several years before one Captain Thomas Hunt had tricked seven of their braves into coming aboard his ship on the pretext of wanting to trade with them. He had taken them, along with twenty Patuxets, to Spain, where he sold them into slavery.

By the time he was done with his tale telling, it was nightfall. Samoset announced that he would sleep with them, and return in the morning. Captain Standish put a discreet watch on him, but Samoset slept the sleep of the untroubled. And in the morning he left, bearing a knife, a bracelet, and a ring as gifts to Massasoit.

That was the last they saw of him, until the following Thursday when he returned accompanied by another Indian who also spoke English, and who was, of all things, a Patuxet! The second Indian was Squanto, and he was to be, according to Bradford, “a special instrument sent of God for their good, beyond their expectation.” The extraordinary chain of ” coincidences” in this man’ s life is in its own way no less extraordinary than the saga of Joseph’s being sold into slavery in Egypt. Indeed, in ensuing months, there was not a doubt in any of their hearts that Squanto, whose Indian name was Tisquantum, was a Godsend.

His story really began in 1605, when Squanto and four other Indians were taken captive by Captain George Weymouth, who was exploring the New England coast at the behest of Sir Ferdinanda Gorges. The Indians were taken to England, where they were taught English, so that Gorges could question them as to what tribes populated New England, and where the most favorable places to establish colonies would be. Squanto spent the next nine years in England, where he met Captain John Smith, recently of Virginia, who promised to take him back to his people on Cape Cod, as soon as he himself could get a command bound for there. Actually, he did not have too long to wait. On Smith’s 1614 voyage of mapping and exploring, Squanto was returned to the Patuxets, at the place Smith named New Plymouth.

Sailing with Smith’s expedition on another ship was Captain Thomas Hunt, whom Smith ordered to stay behind to dry their catch of fish and trade it for beaver skins before coming home. But Hunt had another, more profitable cargo in mind. As soon as Smith departed, he slipped back down the coast to Plymouth, where he lured twenty Patuxets aboard, including Squanto, apparently to barter, and promptly clapped them in irons. He proceeded down to the Cape, where he scooped up seven unsuspecting Nausets. All of these he took to Malaga, a notorious slave trading port on the coast of Spain, where he got 20 pounds for each of them (fourteen hundred dollars a head). No wonder the slave trade was such a temptation! Most of them were shipped off to North Africa, but a few were bought and rescued by local friars, who introduced them to the Christian faith. Thus did God begin Squanto’s preparation for the role he would play at Plymouth.

But Squanto was too enterprising to stay long in a monastery. He attached himself to an Englishman bound for London, and there met and joined the household of a wealthy merchant, where he lived until he embarked for New England with Captain Dermer in 1619. It was on this same trip that Dermer had picked up Samoset at Monhegan, one of the more important fishing stations in Maine, and dropped them both off at Plymouth. At which time Dermer wrote to a friend (presumably on the New England Council): “I will first begin with that place from whence Squanto, or Tisquantum, was taken away, which on Captain Smith’s map is called Plymouth, and I would that Plymouth [England] had the like commodities. I would that the first plantation might be here se ated…”

When Squanto stepped ashore six months before the Pilgrims arrived, he received the most tragic blow of his life: not a man, woman, or child of his tribe was left alive! Nothing but skulls and bones and ruined dwellings remained.

Squanto wandered aimlessly through the lands he had played in as a child, the woods where he had learned to hunt, the place where he had looked forward to settling, once his career with the English was finished. Now there was nothing. In despair he wandered into Massasoit’s camp, because he had nowhere else to go. And that chief, understanding his circumstances, took pity on him. But Squanto merely existed, having lost all reason for living.

That is, this was his condition until Samoset brought news of a small colony of peaceful English families who were so hard pressed to stay alive, let alone plant a colony at Patuxet. They would surely die of starvation, since they had little food and nothing to plant but English wheat and barley. A light seemed to come back to Squanto’s eye, and he accompanied Samoset, when the latter came to Plymouth as Massasoit’s interpreter. For the chief himself had come with all sixty of his warriors, painted in startling fashion.

Edward Winslow was elected to meet Massasoit, and make him a gift of two more knives and “a pot of strong water.” What Massasoit really wanted was Winslow’s armor and sword, but before he could make this clear through his interpreters, Winslow began to discourse smoothly and at length, making a long speech which said nothing, in the finest diplomatic tradition. Eventually Massasoit nodded, smiled, and went to find Governor Carver.

He was ushered into one of the partially finished houses, to a fanfare of trumpet and drum, which pleased him immensely. Next, they drank a toast to Massasoit, who lifted the pot of strong water himself and took an enormous draft, which made his eyes water and caused him to sweat profusely.

But out of the meeting came a peace treaty of mutual aid and assistance which would last for forty years and would be a model for many that would be made thereafter. Massasoit was a remarkable example of God’s providential care for His Pilgrims. He was probably the only other chief on the northeast coast of America who (like Powhatan to the south) would have welcomed the white man as a friend. And the Pilgrims took great pains not to abuse his acceptance of them. On the contrary, the record of their relations with him and his people is a strong testimony to the love of Christ that was in them.

When Massasoit and his entourage finally left, Squanto stayed. He had found his reason for living. These English were like little babes, so ignorant were they of the ways of the wild. Well, he could certainly do something about that! The next day, he went out and came back with all the eels he could hold in his hands which the Pilgrims found to be “fat and sweet” and excellent eating. How had he ever caught them? He took several young men with him and taught them how to squash the eels out of the mud with their bare feet, and then catch them with their hands.

But the next thing he showed them was by far the most important, for it would save every one of their lives. April was complanting month in New England, as well as Virginia. Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to plant com the Indian way, hoeing six foot squares in toward the center, putting down four or five kernels, and then fertilizing the corn with fish. At that, the Pilgrims just shook their heads; in four months they had caught exactly one cod. No matter, said Squanto cheerfully; in four days the creeks would be overflowing with fish.

The Pilgrims cast a baleful eye on their amazing friend, who seemed to have adopted them. But Squanto ignored them and instructed the young men in how to make the weirs they would need to catch the fish. Obediently the men did as he told them, and four days later the creeks for miles around were clogged with alewives making their spring run. The Pilgrims did not catch them; they harvested them!

So now the com was planted. Pointing spokelike to the center of each mound were three fishes, their heads almost touching. Now, said Squanto, they would have to guard against wolves. Seeing the familiar bewildered look on his charges’ faces, he added that the wolves would attempt to steal the fish. The Pilgrims would have to guard it for two weeks, until it had a chance to decompose. And so they did, and that summer, twenty full acres of com began to flourish.

Squanto helped in a thousand similar ways, teaching them how to stalk deer, plant pumpkins among the com, refine maple syrup from maple trees, discern which herbs were good to eat and good for medicine, and find the best berries. But after the corn, there was one other specific thing he did which was of inestimable importance to their survival. What little fishing they had done was a failure, and any plan for them to fish commercially was a certain fiasco. So Squanto introduced them to the pelt of the beaver, which was then in plentiful supply in northern New England, and in great demand throughout Europe. And not only did he get them started, but he guided them in the trading, making sure they got their full money’s worth in top quality pelts. This would prove to be their economic deliverance, just as corn would be their physical deliverance.

There were, nonetheless, moments of sadness in the midst of all these encouraging developments. In the course of planting the corn, Governor Carver was suddenly struck down with what was probably a cerebral hemorrhage. He died in three days without ever recovering consciousness. His replacement by unanimous vote: William Bradford, who would be re elected annually for the next thirty six years of his life, except for the five years when he explicitly requested that they choose someone else.

Immediately after Carver’s death, something else happened which could have thrown the colony into despair. The time had come for Captain Jones to leave for England. Fearful for the Pilgrims’ future, Jones had begged them to come back to the mother country with him. The offer was tempting, and many of them had good cause to accept it. The sickness had ravaged them: only four of the couples who had arrived on the Mayflower still had each other, and a number had lost children. Yet not one of the Pilgrims responded to Jones’s entreaties.

Something special had been born among them in the midst of all the dying they had shared the love of Jesus Christ in a way that only happens when people are willing to suffer together in His causes. This was what they had come to the wilderness to find, and now none of them wished to leave it.

But now, by the twenty first of April, the captain decided he could not stay a day longer. The Mayflower’s own supplies had gotten so low that he had barely enough food to get back, though he would return with only half the crew with which he had left Southampton. The entire settlement would have gathered on the rocky shore to say good bye, and one can imagine Jones shaking hands all around, ending with William Bradford. Then he was in the boat, and his men were rowing out to the Mayflower.

The day was overcast, gray clouds scudding before a damp chilling offshore breeze. On shore, the little gathering could hear his first mate’s commands and the chant of the seamen, as they turned the anchor windlass and slowly raised the anchor. The breeze caught the Mayflower’s sails, and she began to move, pointing her bow toward the harbor entrance.

The echoes of the last good byes died out, and an apprehensive silence fell over the Pilgrims. As the small ship sailed away toward the horizon, the full weight of their situation settled in on them. Gone now was their last link with England, and there might be no new ones. Given the tone of their parting with Weston, they could not count on the Adventurers sending another supply ship. They were alone.

Brewster and Bradford and others would have been sensitive to the dangers of these lurking fears gaining control of their hearts. Fear and discouragement, Brewster knew, were two of Satan’s most potent weapons. These could be dealt with best by the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. So passages of Scripture like Isaiah 41:8 10, read aloud in the blockhouse would have lifted their hearts:

But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest comers,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
fear not, for I am with you,
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

In May, as the weather began to warm up and the wild flowers were coming into full blossom, the little community had an occasion for real joy: their first wedding! Edward Winslow had lost his wife in the General Sickness, and Susanna White had lost her husband. They both felt that God did not intend for them to carry on alone, in spite of the short length of time their spouses had been gone. And so Governor Bradford joined them in holy matrimony, and there was a wedding feast with much gaiety and laughter a cleansing and healing gift from the Lord.

That summer of 1621 was beautiful. Much work went into the building of new dwellings, and ten men were sent north up the coast in the sailing shallop to conduct trade with the Indians. Squanto once again acted as their guide and interpreter. It was a successful trip, and that fall’s harvest provided more than enough com to see them through their second winter.

The Pilgrims were brimming over with gratitude not only to Squanto and the Wampanoags who had been so friendly, but to their God. In Him they had trusted, and He had honored their obedience beyond their dreams. So, Governor Bradford declared a day of public Thanksgiving, to be held in October. Ten Massasoit were invited, and unexpectedly arrived a day early with ninety Indians! Counting their numbers, the Pilgrims had to pray hard to keep from giving in to despair. To feed such a crowd would cut deeply into the food supply that was supposed to get them through the winter.

But if they had learned one thing through their travails, it was to trust God implicitly. As it turned out, the Indians were not arriving empty handed. Massasoit had commanded his braves to hunt for the occasion, and they arrived with no less than five dressed deer, and more than a dozen fat wild turkeys! And they helped with the preparations, teaching the Pilgrim women how to make hoecakes and a tasty pudding out of cornmeal and maple syrup. Finally, they showed them an Indian delicacy: how to roast corn kernels in an earthen pot until they popped, fluffy and white popcorn!

The Pilgrims in turn provided many vegetables from their household gardens: carrots, onions, turnips, parsnips, cucumbers, radishes, beets, and cabbages. Also, using some of their precious flour, they took summer fruits which the Indians had dried and introduced them to the likes of blueberry, apple, and cherry pie. It was all washed down with sweet wine made from the wild grapes. A joyous occasion for all!

Between meals, the Pilgrims and Indians happily competed in shooting contests with gun and bow. The Indians were especially delighted that John Alden and some of the younger men of the plantation were eager to join them in foot races and wrestling. There were even military drills staged by Captain Standish. Things went so well (and Massasoit showed no inclination to leave) that Thanksgiving Day was extended for three days.

Surely, one moment stood out in the Pilgrims’ memory William Brewster’s prayer, as they began the festival. They had so much for which to thank God: for providing all their needs, even when their faith had not been up to believing that He would do so; for the lives of the departed and for taking them home to be with Him; for their friendship with the Indians so extraordinary when settlers to the south of them had experienced the opposite; for all His remarkable providences in bringing them to this place and sustaining them.