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November 18, 2020, 8:00 AM

The year was 1620, in September, when the Pilgrims set sail for the new world with the intention of joining the already-established Virginia Colony located along the Hudson River. Due to storms, they arrived further north - in mid-November - to the shores of Cape Cod and spent the next month going from ship to shore, building storage buildings and shelters which would prove inadequate for the New England winter. Because they landed outside the Virginia Company territory, some on board argued they were also outside of the Virginia Company’s contract and its’ regulations. To resolve conflict, the Mayflower Contract was drawn up and signed by forty-one men, establishing the governing system for this new colony. The Mayflower, unlike other settlement ships to the new world, were made up of families, rather than young single men, to establish this new territory.  

These Puritans were Christians who previously broke with the Church of England and were seeking religious freedom to practice their own version of faith. There were 100 people on board the Mayflower, 35 of whom were these radical separationists. For them, the Church of England remained too Catholic, plus they were wanting a stricter reading of Scripture. They viewed themselves as “saints” and non-Puritans as “strangers” who would be doomed to damnation. Leading these pilgrims was William Bradford, but also on board was Miles Standish, a professional soldier.  

After scouting the area, they settled on the western side of Cape Cod, in an area they would name “Plymouth Harbor” after the port in England from which they had set sail. During that first winter, more than fifty of these settlers died due to near-starvation and the cold. Strangely enough an English-speaking native American, named Squanto, came to meet these settlers some time during the winter months and helped to provide some much-needed food. [Six years earlier, Squanto had been captured by John Smith’s crew attempting to make him a slave. He managed to escape on a returning ship going back to England. A year later, he managed to return home to his people only to find most of them dead, due to the plague brought over by the explorers.] Squanto, in the spring, taught the remaining settlers how to plant corn, hunt, and trap beaver. He also served as interpreter between the colonists and the various native American tribes in the area. Our Thanksgiving tradition comes from the first harvest celebration by the Pilgrims as a way of showing their appreciation to these native people who help them survive.

The Plymouth colony would survive for about twenty years in that location before they were blended into the Massachusetts Bay Colony, settled in Boston in 1630. They had a better harbor and grew more rapidly than the Plymouth Colony did. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was also founded by Puritans who had not split with the church of England and were slightly less rigid than the Pilgrims in their interpretation of Scripture. These two new England colonies and those who came after helped to create a lot of the early American ethic and perspective. These folks provided the religious understanding that God was at work in the successful settlement and development of this land, eventually called Manifest Destiny for the Anglo-Saxon settlers over the native inhabitants (who had only been here for the previous 10,000 years).

In this year of COVID, our thanksgiving might be something akin to those first Pilgrims: we are grateful to survive, grateful for those who have helped us in our time of need, and ready to celebrate when it is over! As we approach Thanksgiving this year, maybe we should view our medical folks and first responders as the strangers/friends who have helped us endure and survive this long COVID “winter”. In the meantime, who would you like to come sit at your table (if they could) to be thanked for assisting our families through this time.