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Our History: Was first Thanksgiving celebrated by pilgrims?

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A pilgrim (note the lower case "p") is defined as "one who travels to a shrine out of religious motives." Pilgrimages have been a common feature of many cultures from ancient times to the present.

The nucleus of the group whom we know as the founders of Plymouth Colony came from a band of Puritans who lived in a small village not far from York in England who opposed the episcopal jurisdiction, and the rites and discipline of the Church of England. Most were farmers and artisans, not well-educated nor men of means, save for Elder William Brewster who had studied at Cambridge and was prominent in local affairs.

As a group they suffered the disfavor of conformists and were subject to ecclesiastical investigation, though not actively persecuted. Eventually they migrated to Holland in small groups, and by 1608 most had reached Amsterdam.

Life in Holland was not an easy transition, and many feared that the influence of Dutch culture was changing their British ways. War with Spain was impending, and the English emigres began to consider a move to the New World.

In 1620, after earlier failed negotiations, a group of London merchants offered financial support and a charter was obtained from the Virginia Company. When the voyage was finally voted on, half of the original group opted to stay home.

A small vessel, the Speedwell, was to bring the group to England to join the vessel, the Mayflower, for the trip to America. When the Speedwell proved unseaworthy it returned to port and her passengers and cargo were crowded onto the Mayflower. Those coming from England who were not separatists were dubbed the "strangers," while those from Holland were known as "saints." The "saints" retained control of the voyage and played the major role in the emigration which ended at Plymouth in December 1620, and they continued to do so when the colony was founded.

It appears that the designation "Pilgrim Fathers" for those who made that first journey aboard the Mayflower was not attributed to them until a much later date.

The Mayflower roamed up and down Cape Cod Bay for weeks, with provisions dwindling and weather worsening. They finally chose Plymouth as the best they could find. As Governor William Bradford wrote, "For summer being done, all things had a weather-beaten face...a wild and savage hue."

That first winter brought widespread famine and disease. Among the chief killers was probably scurvy, the scourge of the sailor, the result of vitamin C deficiency. This wasn't a problem during the during the voyage - undoubtedly because of the ship's stores of cabbage and unpasteurized beer - but now they had to subsist on salt meat and ship's biscuits, which were in short supply. They had not yet Indian friends to teach them the trick of drinking a tea of evergreen needles which explorer Jacques Cartier had learned from the Canadian Indians in the 1540s.

After four courageous years, Governor Bradford was able to write that the colony "had never felt the sweetness of the country till this year....it pleases the Lord to give the plantation peace..and so to bless their labors as they had corn sufficient and some to spare to others."

References and images of the early Americans as "Pilgrims" seem to have origins in the 19th century. A decade after the American republic came into being in 1783, the Plymouth settlers were first referred to as Pilgrims by the Rev. Chandler Robbins in a sermon given at Plymouth, who used a phrase from Governor Bradford's history written in 1646: "...but they knew they were pilgrims" (a quotation from Hebrews Ch. 11, verse 13.) Bradford had, we note, used the lower case "p." Until the 19th century the term "pilgrim," was used to designate any early group of settlers.

In the 1820s the Plymouth tale became a symbol for the beginnings of the young nation. A Pilgrim Society was founded in 1819, and a Pilgrim Hall built soon after that. Plymouth Rock which had lain unnoticed for more than a century, went through many changes before becoming the popular monument it is today.

The colonists who landed at Plymouth who are viewed to today as a national symbol of the triumph of dedication to the ideals of piety, fortitude, and hard work, it seems, never perceived themselves as "Pilgrim Fathers."

Posted 7:08 pm, October 10, 2011
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