Aid and a Blessed Thanksgiving
Indian Aid and a Blessed
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
If it weren't for Indian deaths, the Pilgrims would have
been hard-pressed to settle in Plymouth that cold winter
of 1620. In a brief skirmish, the Pilgrim's muskets had
slain no natives, nor had any arrows struck Englishmen.
Disease had been the killer.
The Pilgrims discovered corn fields cleared in the
forests, now deserted. What had once been a bustling
village of Patuxet Indians nearby, stood empty, ravaged
by disease four years earlier, leaving but a single
The Pilgrims, themselves, lived on the edge of survival
that first winter. They had begun well enough. After 66
days crossing the stormy Atlantic, 104 Pilgrims beheld
the New World, including a baby boy, Oceanus, born at
"Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought
safe to land," wrote Governor William Bradford,
"they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of
heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious
ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and
miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and
stable earth, their proper element."But within four
months, scurvy, pneumonia, and a virulent strain of
tuberculosis had cut down whole families of Pilgrims.
As the sickness raged, only six or seven persons in the
whole company were strong enough to tend the sick and
comfort the dying. Six died in December, then eight in
January, seventeen in February. Of March, Bradford wrote,
"This month thirteen of our number die ... scarce
fifty remain, the living scarce able to bury the
dead." Of eighteen married women, only three
remained. Baby Oceanus died.Indian Aid
But in April, when it was time to put in gardens, the
Indians whom they feared came to their aid. One day,
unannounced, the tall, powerful warrior Samoset strode
into their camp, armed with a bow and arrows, nearly
naked except for a leather string around his waist
"with a fringe about a span long, or a little
more," the embarrassed Bradford recorded.
To the Pilgrims' surprise, Samoset greeted them with the
word, "Welcome!" He had learned some English
from fishermen in his native Maine. Later, he introduced
the Pilgrims to Massasoit, chief of the neighboring
Wampanoag tribe, and to Squanto, last known survivor of
the Patuxets. Though the Wampanoag braves towered over
the short Englishmen, and outnumbered their tiny militia
60 to 20, they reached a treaty of peace that stood for
forty years until Massasoit's death.
Squanto, who had been kidnapped and lived for a while in
England, spoke their language, too. He taught the
Pilgrims where to trap eels and how to plant corn. The
Pilgrims, who had pilfered Indian corn the previous
December, may not have been deserving. But this
unexpected help made the difference for them between
survival and starvation. Settler Edward Winslow described
"We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian
corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and
according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our
ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in
great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors.
Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a
good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent
good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared
they were too late sown, they came up very well, and
blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom."
Nevertheless, the harvest was good and the Pilgrims' food
ration increased substantially. By fall, eleven houses
lined the street of Plymouth Colony, seven private homes
and four common buildings. The dying had stopped, and
trade had begun with the Indians. A Thanksgiving
To celebrate, the Pilgrims invited Massasoit to a harvest
festival, and a hunting party shot enough waterfowl to
feed the company for a week. But when Massasoit arrived,
he was joined by ninety ravenous braves. For their
contribution the Indians went out and returned five deer.
It was a three-day feast of venison, roast duck, roast
goose, clams and other shellfish, succulent eels, white
bread, corn bread, leeks and watercress, with wild plums
and dried berries -- all enjoyed with wine newly made
from grapes that grew wild in the forest. It was a feast
of thanksgiving, of thankfulness to God.
Edward Winslow wrote to friends in December,
"Although it be not always so plentiful as it was at
this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so
far from want that we often wish you partakers of our
plenty."The goodness of God was often on their
minds. Though the Pilgrims had suffered great loss and
hardship, they also were aware of God's great blessing:
the produce of the land, peace with the natives, the joy
of life, and homes snug for winter.
"Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,
and into his courts with praise.
Be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting;
and his truth endures to all generations." (Psalm
Quotations are from Governor William Bradford's
manuscript Of Plimoth Plantation (Boston, 1856), and
Edward Winslow in Mourts Relation: A Relation or
Journal of the English Plantation settled at Plymouth in
New England, by certain English adventurers both
merchants and others (London, 1622). Wordings have been
changed to modern spellings. I also relied heavily on
George F. Willison, Saints and Strangers (New York:
Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945), a scholarly and popular
retelling of the history of Plymouth Colony.
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
We searched for the ghost of fifteen-year-old Constance
Hopkins in the bowels of the reconstructed ship
"Mayflower II," rolling gently aside a pier in
Plymouth harbor. Where volunteers dressed in period
costume answered tourists' questions, Constance had once
huddled, miserably cold and damp, as fierce storms
buffeted the ship.
"According to the usuall manner," the old
records relate, "many were afflicted with
seasicknes." As the ship had only the crudest of
conveniences and no sanitary facilities of any kind
except the traditional bucket, the air in the narrow,
crowded quarters below deck must have been nauseating at
worst and at best simply staggering.
Constance and her younger brother were responsible to
keep track of their three-year-old sister who was always
scampering among the various families camped side by side
in the hold's cargo compartments. It was all their mother
could do, great with child, to brace herself as the
"Mayflower" heaved in the heavy Atlantic
storms. As Constance watched a tiny brother was born on
the high seas, christened "Oceanus."
Since the "Mayflower" had left England nine
weeks behind schedule, the New World's harsh weather
threatened their very survival. The men went ashore in
December to construct rude shelters; women and children
spent the winter aboard ship anchored in the bay. Winter
took its toll. Journal entries feature the same
melancholy theme week after week, for months on end:
"... Aboute noone, it began to raine ... at night,
it did freeze & snow ... still the cold weather
continued ... very wet and rainy, with the greatest gusts
of wind ever we saw ... frost and foule weather hindered
us much; this time of the yeare seldom could we worke
half the week."
That winter more than half the heads of households
perished. Aboard ship only five of eighteen wives lived
through the ravages of scurvy, pneumonia, and
tuberculosis. An entry for March 24th reads:
"Dies Elizabeth, the wife of Mr. Edward Winslow.
N.B. This month thirteen of our number die. And in three
months past dies halfe our company ... Of a hundred
persons, scarce fifty remain, the living scarce able to
bury the dead."
My daughter Annie, a descendent of Constance, tried to
imagine the terrors of that winter for a young teenage
girl. When not lying sick herself, she would doubtless be
tending whimpering children, preparing food for their
stricken mothers, and comforting the increasing number of
orphans aboard the "Mayflower."
But spring finally came, and by the third week in March
the weakened survivors rowed ashore in the longboat to
take up residence in New Plimoth.
How could the Pilgrims talk about thanksgiving in the
midst of life's most difficult trials? we wonder. Why not
just curse God and die? They gave thanks for God's
presence in their adversities because they knew that
struggles did not have to make them bitter; struggles
could make them better.
These remaining Pilgrim daughters and sons, mothers and
fathers, placed their trust in their God and laid the
enduring foundations of a nation. Thanksgiving Day, 1621,
did not just celebrate wild turkey and Indian corn; it
celebrated the human spirit reaching out to God in
gratitude for the blessings the Pilgrims still did
"Yea, though they should lose their lives in this
action," ancient documents say, "yet they might
have comforte in the same ... All great & honourable
actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must
be both enterprised and overcome with answerable
No, the Pilgrims did not lack for courage.
Our family poked around in a windswept burying yard until
we found the tombstone of Constance Hopkins Snow, age 72
years. And as my wife and daughter laid a bunch of hedge
row wildflowers on her grave, we stood for a moment of
silence, meditating on our brave and very personal link
with that first Thanksgiving.
Winter, Better Thanksgiving, the story of Miles Standish
Bitter Winter, Better
the story of Miles Standish
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
"Then the sicknes begane to fall sore amongst them,
and the weather so bad .... the Gov/r and cheefe of them,
seeing so many dye, and fall downe sick dayly, thought it
no wisdom to send away the ship...."
Capt. Miles Standish had been much at his wife Rose's
bedside. As much time, that is, as he could spare from
stalking game, guarding against savages, and felling
trees to construct crude homes on shore.
A bitter wind whistled through chinks and cracks in the
Mayflower, anchored in Plymouth harbor that winter of
1620-21. Rose's chills would turn to uncontrollable
shaking. Then just as suddenly, her body would be ablaze
with fever. Herbs from the surgeon's chest did little to
relieve her. By spring only five wives remained out of
the eighteen who had sailed to Plymouth. Rose was not
Thanksgiving? What was that? The golden dreams of a New
World that Miles and Rose had cherished together had
evaporated into hollow hopes. And yet that fall Capt.
Standish joined other bereaved Pilgrims in the first
The real test of thankfulness is whether we can give
thanks from the heart for what we do have, despite the
wounds and pains of yesterday's struggles. Ours is not
some fair-weather faith, but a resilient trust in in the
midst of pain. The Pilgrims lived close to the edge of
survival. Perhaps that is why they were so thankful.
How about you? Does your material bounty cause you to
neglect thanks? When your clan gathers this Thanksgiving
will a prayer of thankfulness be forgotten between moist
turkey and pumpkin pie? Will your children see you bow
your head to give thanks, or merely ask for another
helping of dressing and cranberry sauce?
Children will be watching, you know. And their little
faith is being formed by what they see. Your family's
Thanksgiving celebration will instruct them about
thankfulness, for good or ill.
Will they see you too wealthy to be thankful? Too
independent to need God any more? Too bitter, perhaps? Or
will they watch you truly give thanks for God's blessings
on this special day? And maybe as they watch, they'll
catch a hint that mom and dad and grandmother, in spite
of painful seasons they have faced, have seen these
bitter winters bear fruit in better thanksgiving.