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Pilgrim's History and Thanksgiving

Updated on November 27, 2019
Chris Samhain profile image

National holidays in the United States are often taken for granted. I want to help change that and provide legitimate information to others.

102 passengers lived on the Mayflower
102 passengers lived on the Mayflower

The Pilgrims

Imagine being told that you had to attend a specific church and that you had to follow a specific belief. This is what was occurring with the Church of England under the rule of King Henry VIII. Between him and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, headed this national church and made it illegal for people to be part of another church.

The group of people we call "the Pilgrims" were part of the Separatist, they wanted to new separate church congregations and this was extremely dangerous thinking at the time. Separatist were harassed, jailed, fined, and generally punished for their believes to such an extent that in 1608 a large group of them moved to the Dutch Netherlands. Leaving friends and family behind and losing jobs and careers.

While in the Netherlands, they lived in Amsterdam and then moved to the city of Leiden. Their jobs were in clothing, carpentry, printing, tailoring and such. Not the most glamorous jobs, but it did make a living. For roughly 11 years, they lived outside of their homeland to have religious freedom. Being afraid of losing their English culture drove them to look for alternatives.

Many people do not realize that the harassment in England was bad enough that the Pilgrims had actually left their country to seek religious freedom for a decade before deciding to establish in the New World.

Making Arrangements For Travel

With the church elders being concerned of the church not lasting a generation because the children appeared to be tempted by the extravagant style of the Dutch, the Separatist made an agreement with the Virginia Company to be allowed to travel to the New World to continue to follow their beliefs and their children to not have another culture's influence on them. The one issue was that the Virginia Company did not have the revenue to finance the group to travel. And thus, the group now known as the Pilgrims entered into an agreement with Thomas Weston to secure funding.

Weston was a successful iron merchant that the Separatist trusted in the beginning. Weston agreed to finance the Speedwell and the Mayflower for travel to America as well as stocking the ships, pay the experienced sailors, build and stock a settlement when they arrived to the New World. In return, the colonist would return materials such as furs, lumber, crops, and other resources for Weston to sell for a profit for seven years. By the end of the agreements, there was a large degree of disillusion in the agreement between Weston and the Separatist. The draw of the New World was too tempting though, so they did finalize the agreement.

Company of Merchant Adventurers of London
Company of Merchant Adventurers of London

Coming to America

Because of this, the Pilgrims would return to Plymouth, England to take the Speedwell and Mayflower to the New World. The Speedwell had to return twice for to England for repairs because of leaks. There is a suspicion that these leaks were deliberately made in order to be excused from the contract of going to the New World.

After changing the passengers and limiting the number of travelers, we have the 102 passengers going to the New World. There were the following as best as we can tell:

  • 25 to 30 crew members
  • Approximately 35 Pilgrims or members of the English Separatist Church
  • Approximately 67 "Strangers" as the Pilgrims termed the non-members

The Strangers were other passengers to the New World, including indentured servants.

Starting their voyage for a fourth time, there was actually an issue with a fracture in one of the structural beams on the Mayflower. The passengers assisted the crew with repairing this with some of the materials that were being taken to assist in building a settlement in the New World.

Already being lower than expected in regards to food stores because of the Speedwell issues, the passengers decided to use their own materials to keep the voyage going and not having to restock the ships supplies and delaying even further.

The Mayflower is suspected to have been 100 feet in length and 25 feet at its widest point. The ship was harder to sail against winds and currents than expected and it took 55 days to sail to the New World, arriving November 9, 1620. But because of the mentioned issues, the Mayflower arrived roughly 220 miles Northeast of where they were intended to land with the Virginia Company's permission.

Attempting to sail to the intended location, which was approved by the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London which Weston was a member of, for several days but being unable to because conditions being uncooperative, the Mayflower returned to the mouth of the Hudson River on November 11th.

Did you realize there were so few "Pilgrims" on the Mayflower?

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Example of an open shallop
Example of an open shallop

Pilgrims First Weeks in the New World

The Mayflower anchored in the harbor at the Cape Cod hook. There they decided to sent an exploration group to search for a suitable settlement spot. Being low on resources and putting additional resources to the task of locating where they were to settle.

This was urgent enough that Capt. Christopher Jones assisted with the endeavor even though it was not part of his duties to the voyage, but assumptions are that he realized the importance of this task and lent assistance as much as possible.

There were 34 in total for this exploratory team, 24 passengers and 10 of the Mayflower crew, that left the ship on November 27th, 1620. They sailed to shore in an open shallop. This team was not prepared properly and could not sail back to the ship that night, staying ashore through sub-freezing conditions some froze that night having wet shoes and clothing.

William Bradford, who was the second governor of Plymouth, wrote, "Some of our people that are dead took the original of their death here" on that exploration expedition. Sadly, it was during the searching for a settlement spot that Dorothy Bradford, William's wife, accidentally fell overboard and drowned in the harbor.

Exploring, Stealing, Winter, and Death

These people had spent 66 days crossing the Atlantic Ocean and then 133 days living on the ship through the winter. Many of the passengers lived on the middle deck, most likely having cats for mice and rats on board and two dogs that we know of, a mastiff and a spaniel.

During storms their chamber pots could not be taken out, passengers becoming sea sick on the lower decks, not being able to bath for extended periods of time, and other such conditions must have made an incredible stench in those community living area. And during these times, many people believed that too much fresh air was a bad thing, so windows were most likely closed as well.

With the delays at the beginning of the journey due to the leaks in the Speedwell and the longer crossing than expected, the food supplies had been dwindling and were in short supply. This led to malnutrition as well as diseases such as scurvy. With these conditions more than half the passengers died that first winter.

During the first winter, there was an empty settlement found. This was a village from the Native Americans, and with this village there was corn that had been planted and stores of beans and corn as well. There was a note about graves being found and pillage, on a darker side note. Later, there was payment made to the Native Americans and a payment that was satisfactory according to diary entries from the time.

Current research leans towards the deaths of the Native Americans being from Leptospirosis and not from the small pox or plague as some claim. Not to say this is not the fault of Europeans exploring, because Leptospirosis is generally transferred by rat urine, black rat to be more specific - which is a non-native species to North America. For unknown reasons, the black rat's kidneys are the only known animal that can sustain infection by this bacteria. The bacteria is dispensed through urine into water supplies and this is where the Natives would have been infected by it. The abandoned village of Pahtuksut belonging to the Patuxet tribe, named by the Wampanoag, was most likely one of the main reasons that the settlers survived this first winter.

The settlers did know that the Wampanoag were keeping an eye on them. They were scared because of their short supplies and weakened condition to such an extent that they would bury their dead during the night so the Indians would not know how many had died or what their current numbers were. The burial spots would be the location for the first building and watchtower and was appropriately called Burial Hill.

Spring Mending and Safety

The new settlers were isolated that first winter. It was not until March of 1621 that they were introduced to Native Americans. It is true that the local Wampanoag could have killed the settlers that first winter, their population had been harshly decimated over that last several years. Information varies greatly, but it is hypothesized that as much as 66% of their population had died from a population in 1616 of 50,000 to 100,000.

The Wampanoag had seen ships and sailors, traders, fisherman, and trappers before, but this was the first time seeing woman and children and it was assumed that these settlers came in peace instead of war because the Natives would not bring woman and children into conflict.

On March 16th, Samoset, a Monhegan, visited the settlers. Walking by himself into their midst and being stopped by some of them. To the settler's surprise, Samoset spoke broken English and talked with them the whole day. Some of the conversation was about the local area, tribes, and the Patuxet. Informing them that of Massasoit, the great chief of the Wampanoag and the 300 Nemaket he had nearby. As well as, the Nauset who were angry with white-men for the deceit and slaving they had experienced. This information was noted in diaries of the Pilgrims and the disgust of one who would do anything for profit in regards to a captain by the name of Hunt who was responsible.

The next morning, Samoset would leave the settlers and later on the 17th would return with five other Native Americans that had goods for trade as well as some of the tools that the Native Americans had stolen from the settlers. This was the first introduction the settlers would have to cornbread as well, later in the day Samoset would claim to be ill - although it is not known if he was actually ill or claiming it to stay among the settlers. It was several days later on March 21st that Samoset would leave the settlers.

And the following day, Samoset returned with Squanto, short for Tisquantum, who was one of the few survivors of the Patuxet tribe. This was because he was enslaved and taken to Spain where he escaped and five years later would return to the New World his tribe being wiped out while he was gone due to disease. While enslaved he had learned English and this allowed Squanto to communicate more clearly with the settlers. This visit was the beginning of communications between the settlers and the Wampanoag, Massasoit was actually waiting close by with 60 of his men and his brother and ended up meeting with the settlers. This event was described as such in the journal of William Bradford:

“…Captain Standish and Master Williamson met the king (Massasoit) at the brook, with half a dozen musketeers. They saluted him and he them, so one going over, the one on the one side, and the other on the other, conducted him to a house…where we placed a green rug and three or four cushions. Then instantly came our governor with drum and trumpet after him, and some few musketeers. After salutations, our governor kissing his hand, the king kissed him, and so they sat down. The governor called for some strong water, and drunk to him, and he drunk a great draught that made him sweat all the while after; he called for a little fresh meat, which the king did eat willingly, and did give his followers. Then they treated of peace, which was:

1. That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people.

2. And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him.

3. That if any of our tools were taken away when our people are at work, he should cause them to be restored, and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the likewise to them.

4. If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, he should aid us.

5. He should send to his neighbor confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.

6. That when their men came to us, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them, as we should do our pieces when we came to them."


The settlers knew that they were weakened and needed the help, and the Wampanoag thought the settlers may be able to help them if the Pequot and Narragansett tribes decided to attack the Wampanoag. The Wampanoag having only several hundred warriors left because of disease while the Pequot and Narragansett tribes had thousands of warriors and had been untouched by the spread of European disease and Leptospirosis. Since these often followed the path of the traders.

Squanto helped guide and teach the Plymouth (Plimouth) settlers some of which were the Pilgrims
Squanto helped guide and teach the Plymouth (Plimouth) settlers some of which were the Pilgrims | Source

Eventually that spring, Squanto would move to the settlement and teach the settlers how to plant corn, fish, and survive in this area. Becoming essential in the events leading up to what we currently enjoy as Thanksgiving.

Military Aid Becomes Thanksgiving

The end of 1620 and the beginning of 1621 had been a deadly time for what would become the Plymouth Settlement (Plimouth). Learning how to plant maize, fish, hunt, and the local area thanks to the treaty between themselves and the Wampanoag and the knowledge that was shared to them by Squanto. The harvest was especially good that year, and at the end of harvest the settlers went out fowling. Which may have meant turkey, but is more likely to have been duck and/or geese. The four men who went out shooting, shot enough that Ousamequin, often named Massasoit - although Massasoit is actually a title meaning Great Sachem, brought 90 warriors to investigate what was happening and prepared to aid the settlers in battle.

When they arrived, there may have been misgiving as 90 warriors approached what the settlers believed to be a celebration because both communities may have had a treaty between themselves but they did not socialize often. But the settlers, led by the Pilgrims, invited the Wampanoag to stay and feast with them. And although there are claims the settlers had shot enough fowl to feed them for a week - it was enough to feed the settlers for a week which was only 51 of them.

Ousamequin sent some of his men out to hunt and they returned with five deer. So in September what we American's declare our first Thanksgiving was served with:

  • Fowl
  • Venison
  • Corn
  • Bread and/or porridge
  • Beans
  • Shellfish

Besides the unknown fowl and venison, most of the other foods are guess-work and knowing the edibles about the location for the time period. But we do also know that there was no sugar, the settlers ran out during the first winter.

The Meaning of Thanksgiving

There is controversy for what Thanksgiving is to people across the United States. There are those who have changed Thanksgiving into the Day of Mourning. But Thanksgiving is a very simply thankfulness to be alive and well and thanking the Divine or God for this.

There have been horrible things done through-out history, to the Native Americans, the Pilgrims, Jews, and most every group of people and individual in history. Thanksgiving should not be about ignoring history, but it should be about focusing on the good and giving thanks for those things.

Acknowledging what is good in your life and what you are thankful is needed in order for our lives to be better and celebration is often a community event to be social with friends and family and have some reprieve against the harshness that can be life.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Chris Samhain

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