We hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration, with family and friends if possible!
We can all seek out and be thankful for the good things in our lives. Let’s look at the story of the Pilgrims and see what they were thankful for in 1621 after their arduous trip to America.
Looking for religious freedom
In 1620 the Pilgrim settlers arrived on the Mayflower in the New World! But their voyage wasn’t simply a trip from England to North America. The journey of these settlers had begun 12 years previously. The story of how English Puritans settled in America is much more convoluted than their 66-day voyage over the Atlantic Ocean might seem.
The story begins in the early 1600s, when a congregation of English Protestants got tired of the way they were treated in England. Protestants believe in Protestantism, a branch of Christianity which split off from the Roman Catholic Church. (‘Protestantism’ started as a ‘protest’ against Catholicism.)
But these weren’t just Protestants – they were separatist Puritans, or Brownists (named after Robert Browne), who wanted to separate from the official Church of England because they disagreed with many of its teachings. (They sometimes called themselves ‘Saints’, but the group wouldn’t commonly be called ‘Pilgrims’ until centuries later.) The practice of their religion was illegal in England.
First in Holland and then in America
The Puritans wanted to be able to practice their religion however they chose, which they couldn’t do in England. So in 1608, a group of them left Nottinghamshire, England. Their destination was not North America. Rather, they traveled to Leiden, Holland. Holland was tolerant of a variety of religions, unlike England at the time.
Upon arriving in Leiden, the Pilgrims set up a congregation there, but they had problems fitting into Holland’s culture. Most of them refused to learn Dutch, and they felt that Holland was filled with vices. The pious Puritans might have learned to live with this, but Spain was threatening war on Holland. Catholic Spain had a reputation for religious intolerance, so they wanted to stay well out of Spain’s way. But where could they find a land where their religion wouldn’t be challenged? They thought going to the end of the known world would work well.
The congregation began planning another move, this time setting their sights on North America. The New World had barely been settled by Europeans, and the Protestants knew nothing of the Native American tribes. The Protestants viewed America as being an empty land, where they could establish their church without competition. Because yes, they did want religious toleration. But it was more that they wanted toleration for their religion.
Back to the voyage of the Mayflower. England was just a stop-over for the Puritans; they needed to get permission from the King of England to start a colony, and they planned to stay just long enough to find a ship to get them across the Atlantic. Or, actually, they found two ships: the Speedwell and the Mayflower. These were both normally merchant ships. They also weren’t going to be full of immigrating Protestants: most of the people on these ships were just normal colonists.
When the Speedwell and the Mayflower headed out of Southampton, England in August 1620, there were only about 40 religious Puritans on board (around 60 others were regular passengers, plus 30 crew members).
…except the two ships quickly headed back to England. The Speedwell had sprung a leak and was unable to continue (it had already leaked and been fixed multiple times). The group still wanted to cross the Atlantic to the New World, so nearly everyone (and their supplies) were stuffed onto one ship: the Mayflower! It was an awful two-month voyage, which took place from September 6th through November 11th, 1620 (old-style dates). This was a ship that was equipped to handle cargo, not passengers. There was barely any room, food was in short supply, and illness spread quickly. Most of the passengers got seasick as the ocean was very stormy.
You can imagine how thankful they were when land was finally spotted!
Yet, arriving in North America wasn’t the end of the story. The Mayflower had actually landed in the wrong place – Cape Cod, at what is now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. They had only gotten permission to establish a colony further south, in Virginia. But they stayed where they were!
Since they were not subject to the laws of Virginia, the colonists decided to draw up an agreement on how to run their new colony. This agreement was called the Mayflower Compact. The colonists agreed to be ruled by the English monarch and to make local decisions democratically. This was a landmark document: the first charter of self-governance in North America.
The Puritans dove into this new life without any clue about it. They didn’t know how to farm in the New World and arrived at a horrible time of the year: right before the winter. The colonists stayed on their ship for the winter, as they had little housing and dwindling food. It was a disaster; only about half of the colonists survived through the winter.
Their temporary housing sailed away in April when the Mayflower left, sailing back across the Atlantic Ocean. The colonists scrambled to build a colony. Practically the only reason they lived was because of a Native American tribe, the Wampanoags. The Wampanoag tribe came across the colonists and essentially took pity on them, teaching them how to farm as well as how to hunt.
The first Thanksgiving
It’s easy to see how the legend of Thanksgiving came about: of a bountiful feast shared by the Pilgrims with the Native Americans. But it was the Wampanoags who had mostly cultivated the food, as well as essentially welcoming the colonists to their home. Still, this doesn’t take away from the meaning of the event.
The first Thanksgiving was celebrated some time in the fall of 1621. Because the harvest had turned out well, the colonists, together with more than twice as many Native Americans, held three days of festivities, food, and games.
Links to Fun Activities
Thanksgiving theme page
Thanksgiving Theme Page — crafts, decorations, worksheets, activities, and printouts
Selected Thanksgiving crafts
A sampling of small books to print
Some Thanksgiving worksheets
Name tags and place cards