In 1620, the Mayflower, a leaky wine ship, set sail for the New World. From the very beginning, there was variety among the 102 passengers, half of whom were “strangers” of dubious piety and morality. Although the Pilgrims on board were united by religious community, the rest, who came from all over England, had little in common.
The passage was a miserable one. Huge waves constantly crashed against the ship's topside deck until a key structural support timber fractured. The passengers, who had already suffered agonizing delays, shortages of food and of other supplies, now were called upon to provide assistance to the ship's carpenter in repairing the fractured main support beam. There were two deaths.
On November 27, 1620, after being seasick for three months, they finally found land. But it was winter. They remained on board the Mayflower, suffering an outbreak of a contagious diseases described as scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis. The first winter was terrible: half their number perished from malnutrition and disease.
But in the end, they did it. From that modest start, and saved by tutoring in agriculture from local Native Americans, they not only survived but thrived.
One year after landing, in the fall of 1621, 50 survivors and 90 Native Americans gathered at New Plymouth in Massachusetts. According to Edward Winslow, who had buried his wife that March, “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling so that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor.” The survivors and the Native Americans celebrated for three days—an event immortalized in American history.
Why had anyone come in the first place? Their reasons were manifold. The Pilgrims wanted to worship freely. Most simply wanted to find land where they could make a living. Despite their diversity, the early migrants to America tended to conform to a single recognizable type: the intrepid, resilient, undaunted pioneer. In every colony, similar challenges were met with the same determination and optimism.
The true story of the first Thanksgiving is richer and more edifying than the familiar holiday version. When the Pilgrim William Bradford said, “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had…being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty,” he was bearing witness to the fact that, in their first crucial year, they had barely survived.