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“The Mayflower and Thanksgiving”

November 6, 2005

Twenty-five years ago, I saw a replica of the Mayflower, the vessel that brought the Pilgrims to the shores of the New World. I was struck by the smallness of the ship. The thought of 102 people crowded on a boat 128-feet long enduring an ocean voyage of sixty-six days is mind-boggling.  In the middle of the Atlantic, the small Mayflower encountered a large storm. A tremendous wave broke across the deck of the ship, splintering boards and fracturing one of the main beams. With Captain Christopher Jones shouting orders above the raging sea, a large iron screw jack was employed to lift the broken beam and the sagging deck back into place. Captain Jones decided that the ship’s hull was sound, and the journey continued.

A decade after removing themselves from the Church of England, the Separatists lived as exiles in Holland.  The Puritans, as they were also known, negotiated for three years before obtaining the necessary sponsorship to establish a new colony in the New World.  Only eight Separatist families, seeking religious freedom, were prepared to make the pilgrimage across the ocean.  The sponsor, the Virginia Company, thought the group was too small to survive and recruited volunteers to join the voyage.  The Puritans referred to the recruits as strangers. The passengers, strangers and pilgrims, soldiers and sailors, recruits with their families, and eight Separatist families, made the perilous voyage together.

The Mayflower’s intended destination was the Jamestown Colony. Whether or not Captain Jones knew the ship was off course is unknown, but at sunrise on November 9, 1620, the high ground of Cape Cod was sighted. The Mayflower would have to sail three more weeks to reach Jamestown.  The decision was made to go as far south as the mouth of the Hudson River, just inside the boundary of the Virginia Company’s claimed land. Only a few hours later, another storm roaring out of Nantucket Sound drove the small ship back to the north.  The Mayflower found refuge just inside the tip of Cape Cod, the place now known as Provincetown.

One of the strangers was Steven Hopkins.  His wife had given birth to a son aboard the Mayflower only a few days after the fierce storm that broke the crossbeam.  The infant was appropriately named Oceanus. Steven Hopkins had overheard mutinous talk among some of the strangers.  If the Mayflower landed outside of the Virginia Company’s territory, the strangers declared that the authority of the colony would not be legally binding upon them. William Brewster, the reverend elder, William Bradford, his young follower, John Carver, the first governor of the colony, and Edward Winslow wrote out a short statement of self-government. These four Separatist men persuaded the other men on board to sign the document. Before anyone set foot on solid ground, forty-one men, strangers as well as Pilgrims, had signed The Mayflower Compact.

Over the following weeks the Mayflower continued to explore the inner curve of Cape Cod searching for a suitable harbor. Finally on December 21, the trustworthy vessel found a haven at Plymouth. By Christmas Day, a holiday the Puritans did not observe, construction on the first buildings had begun. While homes were under construction, the people continued to live aboard the cramped Mayflower.

The winter was severe, and disease was rampant. Pneumonia and scurvy decimated the ranks of the colonists. By spring, fifteen of the eighteen wives had died, as had five of twenty-eight children. Nineteen of the twenty-nine hired men and fifteen of the thirty sailors died from hard work in harsh weather. Only five Pilgrim men and eight strangers remained alive. Teenager Priscilla Mullins lost her entire family.

The bereavement and hardships of that winter bound strangers and Pilgrims together. Hardened soldier, Miles Standish, tended the sick alongside Separatist William Brewster. Sneering sailors and praying Puritans now shared their common suffering. 

In April 1621, Governor William Carver died. The Mayflower set sail for the return voyage to Europe, leaving behind the fifty people of Plymouth Colony, more than half of them children. Priscilla Mullins became the bride of John Alden.  Widows and widowers were united in marriage.

Massasoit, Chief of the Narragansett tribe, befriended the Pilgrims. A treaty was signed that kept the peace for fifty-four years.  Native Americans taught the colonists how to hunt and fish and how to grow crops. In the fall of 1621, a three-day feast was planned. We often refer to that feast as the first Thanksgiving.

The people of the Mayflower serve as an example for all of us.  The act of thanksgiving does not depend on everything going well in our lives.  In fact, our deepest expressions of gratitude may be in the midst of our greatest difficulties.  Thanksgiving is not what is on our dinner tables.  Thanksgiving is what is in our hearts.

-Kirk H. Neely 

© H-J Weekly, November 2005

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