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The Pilgrims’ saga — an American story

Ask several people what Thanksgiving means and you will get all sorts of different answers. To some it’s a feast. Turkey, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes … and, well, I better stop there, because for someone on a diet, several days before Thanksgiving, all that food imagery can be unnerving.
To others, like my dad, Thanksgiving was about football on TV. The Thanksgiving meal, hopefully, occurred at half time. To others, it’s about family and spending some time together. However, for many, the original founders of the holiday, the Pilgrims, are an afterthought at best. Perhaps that’s because to most of us they seem remote, a bit odd, you know, the funny hats and all, and maybe not all that relevant. However, that’s probably selling the Pilgrims short. The Pilgrim story is more than just a story about a meal — it’s a saga — one that shows the persistence and character of some of our earliest American settlers.

The Pilgrims probably never called themselves by that name. In their time they were known as Puritans and their cause and interests were surprisingly straightforward. They were Protestants, in the Calvinist tradition, who objected to the structure and services of the Church of England. And most notably, they wanted to practice their faith separately. However, this wasn’t tolerated in late 16th-century England, and rather than face persecution, a number of these separatists moved to Holland. They lived there for 12 years. They prospered and held their services in peace, but that said, they were Englishman, and many were worried their children were growing up Dutch and not English.
After considerable debate, these separatists decided that perhaps their future was in the New World and not in the Old. This wasn’t a casual decision, and it wasn’t an easy one. The New World, just 10 years after the founding of Jamestown, wasn’t all that attractive. There was political discord, disease and a continuous hostility with Native Americans. But just the same, the Pilgrims still looked upon America and the New World as their salvation.
Organizing their trip was a considerable undertaking. They obtained the backing of the Virginia Company along with a special joint stock company. They bought two ships. One was the Mayflower, a wide beamed vessel that had been used in the wine trade and another, the Speedwell. Unfortunately, while the Mayflower was sound, the Speedwell wasn’t. She was rotted and unseaworthy. After having set sail on Aug. 15, 1620, the Speedwell was taking on too much water and the decision was made for both vessels to turn back. Sadly, after several years of organizing, they were forced to leave a large number of the settlers behind to a make the voyage at a later date. It was an inauspicious beginning, but things were only going to get worse.
The voyage was harrowing to say the least. Today, the trip, if you take the three-times-a-day British Airways flight from London to Washington, takes about seven hours. You get two meals and can watch your choice of movies. In 1620 the Mayflower had a six-week journey and along the way encountered a late season hurricane. It’s remarkable the ship even survived. When they finally made landfall on Nov. 21, thanks to being thrown off course by the storm, they were hundreds of miles away from the Virginia Colony. Instead of the Virginia Colony, they found wilderness. The situation, in a word, was desperate.
The first thing they recognized was that they couldn’t afford the discord that had plagued the colony at Jamestown. That’s when they drafted an agreement, while still on board ship, called the Mayflower Compact. In this brief statement they agreed that they would vote on decisions in a democratic fashion and that everyone would be bound by the results. It was a remarkable outline of self-government and John Adams would later define it as one of the founding documents of the United States Constitution.
There was no Thanksgiving feast that first year or for several years after. The colony’s ranks would be decimated by disease and difficulties in organizing crops and agriculture. Amazingly though, when given the chance to go back after that first hard winter, no one left.
Over the next three years, the Pilgrims even learned a lesson in free market economics. The investors, rather oddly, wanted the land farmed in common. This bit of 17th century socialism produced what was called the “starving time.” However, when the land was broken up into plots and farmed by individual families, the crop yields increased considerably. By 1623 the Plymouth Colony was a going concern. That’s when the Pilgrims decided to have their first Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrim story isn’t a simple one. It covers several decades, is rife with challenges and disasters. It also has its victories. But most of all, it reveals some of the most admirable traits of these early American colonists. They were humble, committed to their faith, amazingly persistent, resilient and enterprising. So, on Thanksgiving Day, when you’re watching the game, or chowing down to a feast, don’t forget those Pilgrims, so long ago, who started it all.
You may reach David Kerr at
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