Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall (1882)
King James I declared them undesirables. Archbishop Tobias Matthew raided homes and imprisoned their families. Leader William Brewster fled into hiding. The Pilgrims suffered severe persecution. As we consider this holiday Thanksgiving Feast, there is so much we can learn from their story.
Betrayal. The Pilgrims were beset with disappointments and false starts to sail. They intended to leave England in early 1620 with their sister ship the Speedwell. However, after much complication, they attempted a first journey on August 15 but were forced to turn back. It was later surmised the master of the Speedwell sabotaged his ship with a leak to avoid making the journey. Eventually, the dauntless Mayflower departed on its own September 6, 1620.
On board were 102 settlers: 27 adults were Pilgrims, 43 were not. These were called “strangers,” pioneers and servants with not such a religious interest in founding the new colony. The ship worked a crew of 25 or 30, including William Bradford and John Alden. Alden hired on as a barrel-maker at South Hampton. Eventually, he chose to stay with the Pilgrims.
Heaving and rolling in the waves, the little ship on its westerly voyage logged 66 days resisting strong Atlantic storms and turbulent seas. It's return journey months later lasted only half the time. The miracle realized day by day was the ship remained afloat.
“Man overboard!” The waves washed John Howland overboard, and by God's blessing he managed to grab a topsail halyard dragging in the water. The line saved his life and the crew pulled him aboard.
“Land ahoy!” The crew sighted the new world on November 9th off Cape Cod. An attempt to sail on south to their intended destination, the mouth of the Hudson River, failed at the shallows off Pollack Rip in shoals approaching Nantucket Island. With cold winter coming on strong, the adventurers agreed to return to the safety of Cape Cod.
Unsure of the legal rights to settle, they wrote and ratified the Mayflower Compact in the waters of Provincetown Harbor. This allowed them to govern themselves officially as an English town.
Cold and hunger forced the explorers to steal corn from nearby Indian caches to survive. While the men undertook these exploits, Susanna White gave birth to her son, Peregrine White, on board the ship in November. The stealing of Indian corn, however, caused the first hostile encounter in December with local Indians near Eastham.
Fearing further hostilities, the settlers decided to sail into Plymouth Harbor on December 17th. After a few stormy days, the first landing party set foot ashore on the legendary Plymouth Rock, December 21st, 1620, and prayed for God's blessings.
The continued wintry weather severely slowed plans to build shelters. Sickness and death weakened the settlers: men, women, and children. Many of them had not departed the ship for some six months. Slowly, only seven residences and four common houses were initially constructed during that first winter.
The settlers suffered from a mixture of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, compounded by winter cold and the crowded conditions caused by waiting on board the ship. Sadly, 45 of 102 settlers died during that first critical winter. Half the crew had died as well. One baby was still-born during the construction. Of 18 women, 14 died, leaving only four adult women living. As a result, by the following November, 1621, only 53 persons were living to celebrate that first Thanksgiving.
Finally, on March 21, the surviving families left the waiting ship. On April 5, 1621, the crew of the Mayflower departed the colony after spending a four month anchorage in Plymouth Harbor, and they returned to England.
These early Pilgrims paid a great sacrifice from suffering to death to ensure their religious freedom and found the new colony. They endured outward trials with strong inner faith. From darkness to dawn, the Pilgrims persevered to overcome persecution and hardship to give this nation a new birth of freedom.
This Thanksgiving, will we dare to cherish and preserve this heritage of freedom?
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