Feb 22, 2023

The Real History of the Pilgrims

Guest post by Dayspring Christian Academy

Fox of Iowa, Bead Work | Boston Public Library- Unsplash.com

How did Thanksgiving come to be celebrated in the United States? Thanksgiving officially became the holiday we celebrate today in 1941. But we must look further back to uncover the true origins of Thanksgiving. If we rewind to the year 1789, we find President George Washington beginning a trend that would ultimately result in the formation of the American holiday. Washington set the stage for American leaders to beseech the American people to set aside a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.

To go even further back in history is to discover a group of people who would lay the foundation on which a fledgling nation would grow and from which a holiday for gratitude and prayer would be created.

Who Were the Pilgrims?

The term “Pilgrims” was not given to this particular group of people until much later. For clarity, the Pilgrims we are referring to in this article are a group of people who met secretly in Scrooby, England in the early 1600’s and sat under the teachings of Mr. Richard Clyfton. At the time, it was the law that every Englishman had to attend services at the Church of England. However, there were two groups of English people who felt their government church needed to be reformed. The first group was the Puritans who felt the Church of England could be changed or “purified” from within. The second group were the Separatists who felt the Church’s condition was beyond remedy. This group was, according to Separatist William Bradford, “hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as fleabitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken and clapped up in prison, others had their houses beset and watched night and day, and hardly escaped their hands; and the most were fain to flee and leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their livelihood.” In short, the Scrooby Congregation endured the horrors of religious persecution.

In addition to it being the law to attend the Church of England, it was also illegal to leave England without the King’s permission. So, when the Separatists decided to flee England, it was at considerable risk. Their first attempt resulted in capture, the loss of their possessions, and prison. Their second attempt resulted in the women being captured while the men successfully made it to the ship they had hired. Eventually, the group did make it to Amsterdam, Holland, and later relocated to Leiden.

Why Did the Pilgrims Come to America?

It is true that the Pilgrims found religious freedom in Holland. However, in Bradford’s account, Of Plymouth Plantation, we find the years in Leiden took a toll on the congregation. In addition to finding their children strongly influenced by the Dutch culture, their labor in the factories caused their children to become old before their time. Bradford also tells us that ultimately, the Pilgrims wanted to share the Gospel with others, so they saw themselves as stepping stones to the advancement of the Christian faith.


The Mayflower Voyage

During their years in Holland, the congregation grew to around 300 people. In 1620, 102 people boarded the Mayflower to make the journey to the new world. To fund the voyage, the congregation indentured themselves to a group of English merchants. The merchants chartered the Mayflower while the congregation purchased the Speedwell. The two ships set sail but had to turn around twice because the Speedwell was leaking. On September 6, 1620, after finally resolving to abandon the failing Speedwell, the Mayflower alone sailed to the New World.

There were many perils to be found on the seas in 1620. Pirates might try to board the ship and take over. Severe storms caused widespread damage and shipwrecks. It was not uncommon for passengers to become ill or fall overboard, both of which could be fatal. The Mayflower was a cargo ship, not at all comfortable for passengers. It was cold, damp, dark, and smelly. On top of the brutal conditions, a voyage that should have taken 33 days took 66 days because of violent storms encountered along the way.

The Mayflower had initially set off for Virginia intending to land near what we would know today as New York City at the mouth of the Hudson River, but storms and rough seas caused them to land farther north. The Mayflower finally made it to Cape Cod Bay, anchoring near what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the middle of November.

The Mayflower Compact

To honor their agreement to settle in the northern parts of Virginia, the ship attempted to sail south. They encountered the dangerous waters of Pollack’s Rip, a place along the east coast of North America where there are more shipwrecks than any other location on the eastern seaboard. Fearing for their lives, they decided to turn back to Provincetown.

In addition to the Separatist congregation, there were other passengers who had come on the voyage to make a life in the New World. This group William Bradford refers to as “strangers.” The strangers knew they did not have to honor the patent, which was the agreement to settle in northern Virginia because they were far from it. This was concerning to the Separatists who understood that the groups needed each other if they were to survive.

The strangers and the Separatists were able to come to an agreement that honored both parties. Today, we call this agreement “The Mayflower Compact.”

The compact bears a resemblance to a sermon given to the Separatists by their pastor, John Robinson, before their departure. It lays forth the establishment of a civil body politic and a means to establish “just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices” for the general good of the colony.

This is what would become known as the Compact form of government, which is the basis for the American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution.

The First Winter in Plymouth

November in New England meant that the people of the new colony would not be able to plant crops for the following year. It meant that they did not have shelter against the brutal New England weather. The captain of the Mayflower had mercy on them and agreed to stay anchored in the harbor until they could get their shelters built. After several exploration trips, the company agreed to settle in a place with a view of the harbor, home to a spring of fresh flowing water, with land that had already been cleared for crops. The town is now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts.

However, they found themselves in terrible conditions. Sickness came upon both the company and the sailors. With as many as 2-3 people dying every day, the company was reduced to half. Additionally, they had only brought enough food for the voyage. As the sickness ravaged the people, they buried their dead in the darkness of night to hide how much of their company was gone. Despite their cold, starving, and frail state, when the Mayflower finally departed in April of 1621, not a single Separatist returned to England with it.

The Pilgrims' Relationship With Native Americans

Samoset was the first Native American the Pilgrims encountered. He spoke some English, and was able to tell them of another man, Squanto, who would become their close friend. Squanto had been kidnapped by English traders, enslaved, and lived as a servant in England. He eventually escaped and returned to his home, only to find his people had perished from a plague. Squanto facilitated a meeting with the Great Sachem, Massasoit, who was the leader of the Wampanoag tribe. Squanto came to live within the colony and taught the people how to plant corn and other crops, hunt, and more. In his journal, William Bradford speaks highly of his friendship with Squanto, calling him a “special instrument of God for their good.”

Edward Winslow, also a Separatist, cultivated a deep friendship with Massasoit. In fact, in 1623, Massasoit fell ill. Despite being told that the chief had already passed away, Winslow proceeded into the chief’s house. Winslow then gave him medicine, scraped the inside of his swollen mouth, and gave him a drink. Eventually, Massasoit was able to eat some soup Winslow prepared, and went on to make a full recovery. Massasoit remained a close friend of Winslow and an ally of the colony until his death.

Ultimately, the Separatists and the Natives were able to form a peace treaty that lasted over fifty years. The treaty was to the benefit of both parties, each seeking to honor the other.

The treaty was simple. It said:

·       That neither he (Massasoit) nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our (the Pilgrim) people.

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

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

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

·       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.

·       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.

·       Lastly, that doing this, King James would esteem of him (Massasoit) as his friend and ally.

The Legacy of Pilgrims is More Than Thanksgiving

After surviving the first winter of illness, cold, and starvation, the Pilgrims were able to produce their first harvest and chose to set aside a day to celebrate the providential hand of God. There is not much written on that first feast that we refer to as Thanksgiving. What we do know comes mostly from Edward Winslow’s writing, Mourt’s Relation. In it, Winslow describes a successful hunt that yielded enough food to feed the colony for almost a week. It was at this time that Massasoit and 90 of his braves joined in the celebration, bringing with them 5 deer as a gift.

William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation, while not discussing the feast we call thanksgiving, describes their harvest of 1621 as small, but with an abundance of cod, bass, and other fish, as well as fowl and venison. After the loss of so many of their companions, Bradford rejoiced at their renewed health and strength, saying the company had “all things in good plenty.”

So, while the primary sources we have don’t go into great detail about the feast, we do know that the Pilgrims were both thankful for what they had and gave all credit to God who had provided for them. 

The Bottom Line

What can we learn from that first Thanksgiving and the courageous Pilgrims from Scrooby, England? Throughout American history and especially in the Pilgrim’s story, we can see God working, bringing forth His plans and purposes. Additionally, the Pilgrims showed love, care, and respect to the Natives, whom they viewed as their equals. We can show that same Christian care and brotherly love to our neighbors, too. Lastly, we must seek out the truth of America’s rich history from primary sources so that we can learn from it, distinguish what is true, and share it with others so that we never forget the price that was paid for our liberty.

Dayspring Christian Academy is a Christian school that provides Christian education to Lancaster, PA and its surrounding areas. Learn more about The Pilgrim Story and view this self-paced course for students by visiting Dayspring Christian Academy today.

Tags pilgrims • mayflower • christian history • history • american history

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