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Indian Aid and a Blessed Thanksgiving

Indian Aid and a Blessed Thanksgiving

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 survivor.Survivors

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 sea.

"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 it thus:

"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 Celebration

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 100:4-5)


Quotations are from Governor William Bradford's manuscript Of Plimoth Plantation (Boston, 1856), and Edward Winslow in Mourt’s 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.


Pilgrim Daughter (Thanksgiving)

Pilgrim Daughter

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 possess.

"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 courages."

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.


Bitter Winter, Better Thanksgiving, the story of Miles Standish

Bitter Winter, Better Thanksgiving,
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 among them.

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 Thanksgiving celebration.

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.