Sir Walter Raleigh’s first attempts at settling the
were disastrous. The English, who were now trying to gain a foothold on the New World, were succumbing to the same greed that had
earlier blinded the Spaniards. Starvation, disease, hostile Indians, and other
hardships, including a whole colony lost (the Lost Colony of Roanoke), led to
dampened enthusiasm for New World expeditions.
It would be nearly 20 years after
Raleigh’s initial ventures before
enough English interest could again be sparked for more New
World adventure. In 1602, one of Raleigh’s
captains, Bartholomew Gosnold, sailed to what is now Maine with 32 men. Fearing the natives,
disease, and the coming winter, they returned to England less than four months after
Undeterred, Gosnold obtained an exclusive charter from King James I to form The Virginia Company with the purpose of establishing permanent settlements in
America. He and his fellow adventurers on December 16, 1606 again
sailed for North America.
Despite recruiting “sermons” that contained messages of evangelical outreach, and the preamble of the Company’s charter, written by King James I, which contained the words, “…propagating of Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God, and may in time bring the infidels and savages, living in these parts, to human civility and to a settled and quiet government,” the lust for gold was, again, what drove the men of this expedition.
Evidence of this fact was that this first expedition sent by The Virginia Company contained exclusively men, 144 of them. Among them were no women or families, nor were these men heads of households going to prepare a homestead. Also, among these 144 was only one minister. In the words of David Marshall and Peter Manuel, these 144 men “were interested in one thing: getting their gold chamber pots and returning to
as soon as possible.”
On May 14, 1607, headed by a seven-man council, which included John Smith, these 144 men settled
Because of their misguided efforts it was a disaster from the beginning. These
men battled the elements, disease (including malaria), Indians, starvation, and
one another. The lone minister on the adventure, Robert Hunt, did his best to
keep the others focused on God. His sermons went mostly unheeded; however, he
persevered. By February of 1608 only 38 of the 144 remained alive.
News of what was really happening in
Virginia began to get back
To counteract this news The Virginia Company increased its propaganda campaign.
They were successful for a while, and therefore investors continued to invest
and settlers continued to settle. According to Marshall and Manuel, “The death
rate in Virginia that second year
was—incredibly—even higher than the first: out of every ten people that
embarked for the New World, nine would die!”
The death rate did not abate with time. Marshall and Manuel add, “For example, of the 1,200 people who went out to
in 1619, only 200 were left alive by 1620. Why this horrible continuing death
rate? There is no logical explanation, except one: year after year they
steadfastly refused to trust God—or indeed to include Him in any of their
The next settlers to cross the
would not make the same mistakes. They were not seeking wealth and prosperity,
but a new home. They believed that America was their spiritual destiny. The
Pilgrims (dubbed “Separatists” by the Church of England), and the Puritans who
followed them, knew better than to undertake anything without God.
Aboard the Mayflower were 102 passengers, less than half of whom were of Pastor John Robinson’s Separatist flock. After a grueling two-month voyage, on November 11, 1620, they dropped anchor in Cape Cod, and heeding the advice and wisdom of their pastor, the Pilgrims drafted a compact that would embody the same principles of government upon which American democracy would rest. It read,
In the name of God, amen. We whose names are under-written…Having undertaken, for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and honor of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic…constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony…the 11th of November…Anno Domini 1620.
John Carver, who had chartered the Mayflower, was chosen as the first governor of the colony. His was the first signature on the Mayflower Compact, which is considered by many to be the world’s first written constitution. William Bradford would soon replace Carver as governor and would serve in that capacity for 31 years. On December 21, 1620, the Pilgrims settled at what would become known as Plymouth.
|A replica model of the Mayflower. Created by Norbert Schnitzler.|
Though their efforts were “for the glory of God,” the Pilgrims were not immune to the many hardships of an untamed
long, many started dying. William Bradford’s wife Dorothy was among the
casualties as she fell overboard and drowned. (Initially, while dwellings were
being built, the Pilgrims lived mostly aboard the Mayflower.) Due in part to a brutal winter, dozens would die in
those first few months, including 13 of 18 wives. In spite of hardships, the
Pilgrims were undeterred and drew ever closer to God.
The months turned into years and saw the Pilgrims develop good relations with the local natives including Massasoit, a wise and welcoming chief of the local tribes, Samoset, and especially Tisquantum, or Squanto.
In the middle of March 1621, just as the Pilgrims were coming out of the devastatingly harsh winter, a guard alerted his comrades with the cry of “Indian coming!” Wearing only a loincloth as he walked into the Pilgrims’ camp, Samoset astonished the English onlookers with a hearty “Welcome!” Then speaking surprisingly clear English, he followed his friendly greeting with a request, “Have you got any beer?”
The Pilgrims informed their friendly guest that they were out of beer, and offered him brandy instead. After a hearty snack of brandy, biscuit, butter, cheese, pudding, and roast duck, Samoset was ready to answer questions. In spite of their difficult and deadly plight, Samoset’s words gave the Pilgrims great cause to thank God.
Having learned his English from the various fisherman who had fished the shores of Maine, Samoset revealed that the area currently occupied by the Pilgrims had been the territory of the Patuxet. The Patuxets were a large, hostile tribe of natives who had viciously murdered every white man who landed on their shores. However, four years prior to the Pilgrims’ arriving in America, a mysterious plague killed every member of the Patuxet tribe. Convinced that the widespread death and devastation was the work of a great supernatural spirit, neighboring tribes had avoided that area occupied by the Patuxet ever since.
On March 22, 1621, Samoset returned to the Pilgrims with Squanto, who spoke even better English. Squanto’s life is an amazing tale of God’s provision that very closely resembles the account of Joseph from Genesis, chapter 37. In 1605, working for the recently formed East India Company and searching for a northwest passage to India, Captain George Weymouth explored the New England coast. While exploring the coast of Maine, Weymouth captured five Patuxet Indians, one of whom was Squanto.
The Indians were taken to England where they spent nine years and were taught English. While in England, Squanto met Captain John Smith, who promised to return him to the Patuxets. In 1614, Smith kept his promise and returned to the New England area of America with the Indians. However, in order to survey and explore, Smith departed what he called New Plymouth. Soon after Smith’s departure, Captain Thomas Hunt, who had sailed with Smith on another ship, lured 20 Patuxets aboard his ship and slapped chains on them. They were transported to Spain where most were sold into slavery and shipped to North Africa. However, some, including Squanto, were purchased and set free by friars. These friars introduced Squanto and his fellow Indians to Christianity. Squanto and his new-found faith would play a vital role in American history.
Squanto remained in Europe for several years. In 1619, having joined an exploratory expedition along the New England coast, Squanto left Europe in order to return to his homeland.
In 1620, six months prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival, Squanto arrived back in New England and soon returned to the shores of his home. Upon arriving at his village, he was shocked to discover that no one was there to greet him. Virtually every member of the Patuxets had died, perhaps from smallpox brought by the European ships. Broken and dismayed, Squanto aimlessly wandered the woods where he had grown up.
He ended up in the camp of the Wampanoag people, who were led by Massasoit. Taking pity on him, Massasoit welcomed Squanto and gave him a new home. However, without a tribe or a family, Squanto’s existence seemed without purpose. He remained a broken man until he got word of a peaceful but pitiful band of Europeans who were riddled with disease and starvation on the shores near his homeland.
Soon after Samoset introduced Squanto to the Pilgrims, a meeting with Massasoit was arranged. Massasoit, Samoset, Squanto, and dozens of Wampanoag warriors traveled to Plymouth to meet the Pilgrims. With Samoset serving as the interpreter for Massasoit, the meeting was extremely fruitful. A peace treaty and a treaty of mutual aid were struck with Massasoit that would last for decades.
Massasoit and his party returned home, but Squanto remained with the Pilgrims. Being a man without a tribe, personally witnessing the desperation of the Pilgrims, and already having adopted their faith, Squanto took pity upon his new-found English friends and wanted to help them succeed in their New World. He taught them how to fish for eels and alewives, plant corn and pumpkins, refine maple syrup, trap beavers, hunt deer, and other skills essential to their survival.
Squanto was instrumental in the survival of the Pilgrims—so much so that, according to William Bradford, the Pilgrims considered Squanto “a special instrument sent of God for their good, beyond their expectation.” Massasoit also was an amazing example of God’s providential care for the Pilgrims. Like Powhatan had been at Jamestown, Massasoit was probably the only other native chief on the northeast coast of America who would have welcomed the white man as a friend.
In early April of 1621, with supplies running dangerously low, the Captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones, decided he could remain in America no longer. On April 5, 1621, the Mayflower returned to England. As the ship disappeared over the horizon, almost certainly a nervous uneasiness came upon more than a few Pilgrims who remained in the New World. Their last ties to their former home were gone. They, perhaps, felt more alone than at any point of their amazing journey.
The summer of 1621 was beautiful and, thanks in no small measure to the help of Squanto, bountiful. Governor Bradford declared a day of public Thanksgiving to be held in October. Massasoit was invited. Surprising the Pilgrims, he showed up a day early with 90 of his tribe. To feed such a crowd, the Pilgrims would have to go deep into their food supply. However, Massasoit did not show up empty handed. He had instructed his braves to hunt for the occasion, and they came with several dressed dear and fat turkeys. The Thanksgiving turned into a three-day celebration filled with feasting and games.
|The First Thanksgiving, by Jean-Léon Gérôme.|
A few weeks after the first Thanksgiving and about a year after the Pilgrims arrived in the New World, the Fortune sailed into Plymouth on its way to Virginia. The main cargo was an additional 35 colonists and a charter granted from the New England Company. There was tremendous celebration over the new charter; however, unlike the Indians, the new colonists arrived virtually empty handed. They had no extra clothing, food, or tools. The Pilgrims would have to adjust their winter food rationing plan severely.
The winter of 1621-1622 was as difficult as feared. The Pilgrims entered what has been described as their “starving time.” Some reports reveal that at times, food rations for each person were a mere five kernels of corn per day. Miraculously, that winter not one Pilgrim died of starvation.
There was no Thanksgiving celebration in 1622. When the spring planting season of 1623 rolled around, the Pilgrims realized that to fend off further hunger and rationing, a corn harvest at least twice as large as last season was necessary. However, a lackluster work ethic prevailed among them. This was mainly because the contract entered into with their merchant sponsors in London required everything the Pilgrims produced was to go into a common store and be shared. As Rush Limbaugh has often pointed out on his radio broadcast that celebrates Thanksgiving Day, the Pilgrims were languishing under socialism.
The leaders of the colony then decreed that for the additional planting, individual plots of land would be split, and the yield could be used at the planters’ discretion. Thus, as the concept of private property was introduced, the Pilgrims seemed infused and invigorated with new hope and purpose. As Marshall and Manuel point out, “The yield that year was so abundant that the Pilgrims ended up with a surplus of corn, which they were able to use in trading that winter with northern Indians, who had not had a good growing season.”
On November 29, 1623, two years after the first Thanksgiving, Governor William Bradford made an official proclamation for a second day of Thanksgiving. In it Governor Bradford thanked God for their abundant harvest, bountiful game, protection from “the ravages of savages…and disease,” and for the “freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.” Well over a hundred Natives attended, bringing plenty of turkey and venison along with them.
The Pilgrims, and the Puritans who followed them, had the proper perspective. As Bradford would so discernibly note, “As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light kindled here has shown unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation…We have noted these things so that you might see their worth and not negligently lose what your fathers have obtained with so much hardship.”
On June 11, 1630, aboard the Arbella, John Winthrop, the leader of the first Puritans, wrote A Model of Christian Charity, which became a model for future constitutional covenants of the Colonies. It reads:
We are a Company, professing ourselves fellow members of Christ, (and thus) we ought to account ourselves knit together by this bond of love…For the work we have in mind, it is by a mutual consent through a special overruling providence, and a more than an ordinary approbation of the Churches of Christ to seek out a place of Cohabitation and Consortship under a due form of Government both civil and ecclesiastical…
Thus stands the cause between God and us: we are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a Commission; the Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles…
We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when He shall make us a praise and glory, that men of succeeding plantations shall say, ‘The Lord make it like that of New England.’
For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
As we sit down this Thanksgiving Day, we should recognize and remember, as did the Puritans and the Pilgrims before them, the One who is most deserving of our thanks. Let us not lose sight of Him who is the giver of all good things. Scripture says that, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” He created us and everything around us. He gave us life, and through His Son, salvation. As the Psalmist notes, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.”
Have truly happy and memorable Thanksgiving.
Copyright 2016, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor is the author of the brand new book The Miracle and Magnificence of America