We celebrate Thanksgiving this year on November 22, the fourth Thursday of the month, as dictated in the United States.
A day for expressing thanks was first proclaimed by George Washington in 1789. Thanksgiving was made an official federal holiday in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln saw it as a pathway toward reconciliation between North and South.
Giving thanks for the good things that happen to us has been a tradition almost since time began. Most of the world’s population expresses appreciation to the Supreme Being to whom they hold allegiance. For Washington and Lincoln, it was Almighty God.
America today is made up of people who hold many faiths. While they may disagree on what to call that Being, and on how to express their belief, they agree that there is one guiding force. A few disavow that idea; they have that right under our Constitution.
A big part of celebrating Thanksgiving is sharing.
While we celebrate our good fortune, we recognize that others are not so well off. Many people are homeless. Thousands just this month have seen their homes destroyed by wildfire. There are victims of crime who have needs. There are the disabled who cannot accomplish what others do. Americans during this season make it a point to remember the less fortunate and do what we can to make their lives better. Happily, there are many ways to do so.
As we observe the holiday this year, let’s look back four centuries to the first Thanksgiving celebration on this continent.
It was a three-day event in October of 1621 at Cape Cod in Massachusetts when the 53 survivors of the Mayflower voyage invited 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe to join in feasting and games.
To understand the full meaning of that celebration, one has to understand the struggles that led to it.
The three-mast vessel Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, on Sept. 6, 1620. Her skipper was Christopher Jones, 50, an experienced captain. There were 102 passengers and about 30 crew aboard. The lookout sighted Cape Cod on Nov. 9, 64 days later.
The ship had been chartered by Thomas Wheaton who was associated with the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London.
His aim was to establish a settlement in the New World to grow tobacco and trade for furs, all for the profit of his associates. Introduced in England by Sir Walter Raleigh several decades earlier, tobacco was in great demand. Wheaton hoped to cash in.
Would-be settlers for the new colony were not hard to find. Among the 102 passengers were 37 Puritans who had been living in exile in Holland. They differed with the Church of England and wanted to withdraw. The remainder were a variety of tradesmen, craftsmen, indentured orphans and others looking for a new life.
While the voyage itself lasted for more than two months, their odyssey began well before. They had expected to cast off several weeks earlier, hoping to avoid winter storms. While waiting, the passengers were quartered aboard. The ship measured about 100 feet from bowsprit to stern and was approximately 25 feet abeam. They were crowded into cabins that measured 25 by 15 feet in size. The ceiling was only five feet high. Each passenger occupied enough space to hold a single bed.
The ship had been equipped with supplies enough to last the voyage and to last over the winter in the new settlement. Those supplies dwindled severely during the delay. Meals were rationed as the Mayflower finally made her way across the Atlantic. Rough seas caused seasickness. If that was not enough, scurvy began to show up as fresh food was exhausted.
Even though land was sighted, the captain found that his intended destination was still hundreds of miles to the south. He attempted to continue on but was deterred by storms. The decision was made to anchor at Cape Cod and build cabins ashore.
Landing in late November, the settlers found the weather much colder than to what they were accustomed.
They were not properly equipped. When they went ashore their feet were wet, their clothing soaked and all were chilled through and through. It took time to build cabins and have warm shelter.
William Bradford, one of the separatists, was to become governor of the colony and years later wrote a book detailing the colony’s early days. He was to say that the experience was to be the downfall of nearly half of the passengers. Of the 102, 49 would not make it until the following October.
The settlers had been warned that Natives could be hostile and that unfriendly representatives of other nations might be encountered. The settlement was guarded by 17 canons that fired 3.5-inch balls. Captain Miles Standish was a military man who was in charge of security under the Mayflower Compact that was signed by the passengers. The Compact was to be the governing document for the settlement.
Hostility arose after some of the party explored the surrounding area. It appeared to be an abandoned Native village. Several man-made mounds were seen. When these were excavated, some were found to contain corn that had been stored. Others were graves, with human remains found.
In a spot that came to be named First Encounter, Natives rained arrows down on a group of settlers. Response shots from firearms frightened off the attackers who withdrew. Later, a young boy wandered off and was captured by a band of Indians.
Here a Native known as Squanto proved to be a valuable ally.
As a youth, he had been kidnapped and taken to Spain where he was sold into slavery. After four years he escaped and made his way to England where he learned the language. He made his way to Iceland and then back to his homeland, only to find that his tribe had been wiped out. He then made his home with the Wampanoag, whose great sachem was Massasoit.
Squanto acted as interpreter taught them to plant corn. He was said to have shown them how to plant the seeds, then after they sprouted, to plant peas alongside and later add squash seeds. The peas clung to the corn stalks and the squash spread out, reducing the need to weed around the corn.
When the settlers discovered the missing child’s presence at a distant village, Squanto arranged a meeting with Massasoit. Trinkets were given as tokens of friendship and a good relationship developed. Compensation for the corn that was taken and for disturbing the graves was demanded and assurances were given that the settlers wanted to live in peace.
When the crops were harvested in October, the Natives were repaid in kind for the stolen corn that had helped feed the newcomers over the past winter.
To show their appreciation, the settlers invited Massasoit and his people to join in the celebration. After so many tribulations had been overcome and with an abounding crop to tide them over, there was much for which to give thanks.