The Thanksgiving Story
Thanksgiving. besides symbolizing a time when many of us gather together to feast on turkey, cranberry sauce, and apple pie, what does the word truly mean? America’s revered holiday was founded by a group of struggling Pilgrims during the fall of 1621.
Religious separatists left England for the New World in order to build a society where they could be free to worship God the way they chose.
Unfortunately, this pilgrim group delayed the start of their cross-Atlantic voyage until September and, due to the difficulties of travel at that time, they didn’t arrive until December. In the process, they had been blown some 500-600 miles off course, landing in Massachusetts rather than in Virginia as they had hoped.
Because of this huge mistake, they were completely unprepared for the harshness of New England winter. Things became so desperate that 18 of the women denied themselves food so their children could eat. Thirteen of those women died that winter. In all, nearly half of the original 102 colonists who sailed on the Mayflower perished due to malnourishment, disease, or exposure before the coming of the Spring. Of the 54 who survived, not quite half were under the age of 16.
The Pilgrims’ daily existence was a life-or-death battle to overcome constant hunger, sickness, and exposure to the elements. Crudely assembled houses made of mud daub were their only shelter from the icy New England weather. Because they were not yet knowledgeable about their new environment’s agriculture, planting gardens in the hostile conditions proved virtually fruitless. Every meal was portioned out meticulously. The death toll, a constant reminder of their fragility, rose steadily. At one point only five men were well enough to care for the sick. Those who died were buried in unmarked graves because the Pilgrims were afraid to let the Native Americans know how few people were left alive in their group.
That spring, the Pilgrims planted 3 crops: English peas, barley, and Indian corn. The peas had been planted too late. Although they blossomed beautifully, the hot summer sun parched the young blossoms and the plants died. In addition, one of the Pilgrims described their barley crops as “indifferent.”
Only the Indian corn survived. However, it produced a mere 20 acres. By the way, their corn was nothing like the corn we’re used to today. Instead, the ears were only about 2 to 3 inches long with kernels of different colors. In other words, their lives depended on those miniature corn cobs that we use just for decoration today.
Despite their tribulations, the Pilgrims thanked the Lord every day, petitioning Him for rehabilitation. One morning, during an ordinary Sunday worship service, the Lord sent tangible evidence that He had heard their prayers. Their church service was interrupted by an unexpected guest, an Algonquin Indian chief who assessed their hopeless situation and returned with a helper named Squanto. The Pilgrims, who had warred with Indians before and lived with a continuous fear of being attacked by them, were astonished by their new friends’ eagerness to provide much-needed assistance. Squanto, a Patuxet Indian who spoke perfect English, taught the Pilgrims how to hunt game, trap beavers, and plant Indian corn, a staple that would eventually save their lives.
When the harvest yielded more than the Pilgrims could eat, Governor William Bradford, their elected leader, declared a day of public thanksgiving. He invited the chief of a friendly neighboring Indian tribe to join in their tribute of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims were excited to celebrate with their honored guest, but were completely shocked when he arrived with ninety other Indians.
Although God had provided abundantly, their food supply would not accommodate a group of this size, and they had no idea how to feed their visitors. Despite their quandary, all worries were soon dismissed. To their amazement and ever-increasing thankfulness, the Indians had brought with them five dressed deer and a dozen fat, wild turkeys. Over time they taught the women how to make pudding, maple syrup, and an Indian delicacy — roasted kernels of corn called popcorn.
But the Pilgrims’ trials were far from finished; their plentiful autumn was followed by a particularly treacherous winter. Unfortunately, the weather proved to be the least of their ailments. In November a ship called The Fortune dropped anchor in their harbor. Aboard the ship were thirty-five more colonists who had brought with them no provisions — no food, no extra clothing, no equipment for survival. Additionally, the oppression of the physical environment had become almost unbearable after a twelve-week drought dried up their crops and withered their spirits. The newcomers’ arrival had drained already inadequate food rations and there was no obvious resource for sustenance. At their lowest point, the Pilgrims were reduced to a daily ration of five kernels of corn apiece. In utter desperation they fell to their knees and prayed for eight hours without ceasing.
Again God heard their supplications; fourteen days of rain followed. A second Day of Thanksgiving was declared. The neighboring Indian chief was again their honored guest; he brought with him one hundred and twenty braves. The Pilgrims feasted on game and turkey as they had during their previous celebration, only this time one dish was different. The first course, served on an empty plate in front of each person, consisted of five kernels of corn, a gentle reminder of God’s faithful provision for them.
The Pilgrims’ humble response to their affliction is evidenced by their many writings which express deeply thankful hearts. We can learn countless lessons about sincere thankfulness from their example.
Think of how little 5 kernels of corn would be... Use this image as a point of reflection to consider all the ways that God has blessed us. Be reminded of just how much we have - how much we have in God. When we look at our gifts, be sure to thank the Giver. God says we are to live a life of gratitude and thanksgiving. “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thess. 5:16-18).
There are only 2 primary sources for the events of autumn 1621 in Plymouth: Edward Winslow writing in Mourt's Relation and William Bradford writing in Of Plymouth Plantation. They are easy to look up. Note: I have not cited any sources for this telling of the story and obviously incorporated other historical renditions.