- Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2011 00:00
- Published on Wednesday, 23 November 2011 00:00
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Most Americans would be hard pressed to explain why the Pilgrims, to many a strange icon of American history to begin with, are so important in our celebration of Thanksgiving. Most of us learned their story in elementary school. We were taught that they were Puritans who fled England in search of religious freedom. On the way to the new world their ship went off course, ended up in cold, distant New England, then a wilderness, and had to make do on their own.
They had little to eat, were ravaged by disease, many died, but through their own tenacity, and the help they received from the Native Americans, things got better. And that became the basis of that wonderful image of the “First Thanksgiving,” when the settlers and the Indians, ate together. It’s an enduring legend.
It’s also a legend that with some adjustment is probably true. And that in itself is remarkable. But, there is more to the Pilgrim tale than some tough times followed by a big meal. They were a remarkable people and with what many would later call the American spirit they overcame incredible odds, and as one historian has put it, by doing so, with such fortitude and courage, “… became a part the American narrative.”
The Pilgrims, as we have come to call them, were Puritans and with their disdain for elaborate church services and their views that Christianity was built on a personal relationship with God, and not the teachings of a larger church organization, the Church of England actively persecuted them. Some went to Holland, and some stayed in England. But before long the notion of leaving Europe for a brand new land, where they could build their own way of life, caught on. They pooled their life savings, bought two ships, recruited soldiers, builders, millers, and other people with useful skills to come with them, and made plans for the big crossing.
They bought two ships. However, they must have bought one of them at the nautical equivalent of a modern day fly-by-night used car lot. Because when it was surveyed by professional mariners it was found to be rotted and unseaworthy. They had to abandon it. That left just the old wine carrier the Mayflower. The Mayflower had never made this kind of journey, she plied a coastal trade, but she was solidly built, roomy, and that’s just what the Pilgrims needed.
The journey took almost two months and if there was a squall or storm somewhere out in the North Atlantic they managed to find it. During one ferocious storm the ship suffered severe structural damage. It should have sunk, but thanks to the masterful application of the screw from a printing press, the broken beam was pushed back into in place and the ship survived. It was a remarkable feat of mechanical innovation. That uncanny ability to innovate is still a trait that many of us pride as being uniquely American.
However, some of their genius, and some of that emerging American spirit they would come to represent, came later. As they approached land fall, they found themselves several hundred miles north of their intended destination. They knew they were on their own. New England in the early 17th century was a wilderness. And in a prescient appreciation for the need for sound decision making, as a body, they crafted a one paragraph “compact.” The Mayflower Compact is simple. They agreed to make decisions, which all would abide by, on the basis of majority vote. John Adams, who helped craft both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, considered it one of America’s founding documents.
The first years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were grim. By the time they arrived there was little time left to plant crops, and what they did plant, didn’t grow. Their investors also had the notion that the settlers should farm their crops in common. It was a bad form of early socialism and for several years crop yields fell well short of what was needed to sustain the colony. However, when they collectively said, “…to heck with our investors’ directions,” and broke up their holdings into individual farms, the yields, at a minimum, doubled and tripled. That was arguably the point when the Pilgrims, feeling that they had at last, beaten the odds, celebrated their first Thanksgiving.
But, there is much more to the story than that. While most settlers in the New World eventually ended up in open conflict with the Native Americans, the situation for the Pilgrims was different. Naturally, relations with the Indians weren’t always smooth, but the Pilgrims, with their inherent sense of fairness, and their own appreciation of what it was like to be badly treated, dealt with the Indians in an open, friendly, and fair manner. During the dominance of the first Pilgrim arrivals, which would last about 25 years, relations with the Indians, were by any standard, unusually good. That’s something that would rarely be repeated in our nation’s history.
Finally, the Pilgrims brought with them a powerful belief in the place they decided to call their home. When asked the next year, after that first terrible first winter, who wanted to go back to England, no one signed up. It may have been hard, they may have been hungry, but they saw the New World as a modern day “promised land.” They knew it was something special. And while 400 years have past since that first Thanksgiving, that vision of America, so prized by the Pilgrims, and others that followed them, has never dimmed, and, while tested sometimes, it’s still a powerful part of the American character.