The little corn field up on the hill behind the meeting house hid the graves of more than half of the 101 passengers who had crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower. Though it was with a mixture of sadness and gladness that this handful of people gathered that first Plymouth Thanksgiving, they had almost proven that they could be self-sustaining.
The First Thanksgiving in Plymouth
These pilgrims had also come a long way in establishing a colony based upon their experiment in religious freedom and a government based upon the concurrent precepts of equality, justice and democratic representation.
A tidy little town had been planted along what is described in Mourt’s Relation as “a very sweete brooke under a hillside.” There were 11 buildings along Leyden Street, seven being private domiciles and four serving as common buildings housing the group’s bachelors, as well as provisions and weapons.
It was amazing. Despite that first bitter winter’s hardships and a spring epidemic of scurvy and pneumonia, “when they were but six or seven sound persons” to erect buildings and work in the fields, much progress had been made. (Mourt’s Relation)
First Plymouth Marriage and First Plymouth Duel
The pilgrims had witnessed the colony’s first marriage when Edward Winslow, a widower of less than two months, wed Susanna (Fuller) White, a widow of three months. How come so fast? They both had losses, which meant heartache and pain, and were probably there to comfort each other. The widow White also needed someone to look after her interests and provide for her.
The colony’s first and last duel, a face off between Edward Dotey and Edward Leister, had also occurred.
Plymouth had made peace with a half dozen neighboring Indian tribes and learned from them important knowledge about the New England climate, as well as planting and raising successful crops.
The Thanksgiving Tradition
Before its second Thanksgiving, Plymouth would be welcoming more settlers and be experiencing both more illness and more growth. Their Thanksgiving celebration was usually held in October, close to when the crops had all been harvested. Its occurrence was related more to the cycles of the moon than to a specific annual date on the calendar.
Thanksgiving was repeated every year in the Plymouth Colony and soon became a tradition throughout New England. Thanksgiving, however, cannot be said to have originated with the Plymouth pilgrims. A similar observance of thanks for the bounty of the harvest was also observed in the older Virginia Colony.
Thanksgiving moved west in the covered wagon era as thousands of descendants of the Plymouth pilgrims and Jamestown colonists moved westward beyond the mountains after the Revolutionary War, expanding the American frontier further west until it reached the Pacific Ocean.
Thanksgiving became an official national holiday in 1863 when a war-weary President Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of November as a time for public thanksgiving.
Can enough thanks ever be given for those hardy colonists who peopled the Atlantic seaboard of America in the 1600s, risking all to gain all when it came to religious freedom and a just and fair governmental system?