Keeping a Good Thanksgiving: Part 3

Hello again from all of us at Hold to the Good,

We hope you are enjoying Rev. Buchanan’s Thanksgiving Series! As he is so apt to do, John will now take us on an historical journey to the roots of American Thanksgiving via the social and religious politics of 17th century England and the harrowing adventure of a trans-Atlantic crossing in that most famous of ships: The Mayflower.

Please enjoy and share!

Part 3: And they called themselves, “Pilgrims.”

A good Thanksgiving requires good company, good food and the practice, the discipline of gratitude. Perhaps our very best teachers are those intrepid 17th century Puritans who knew they were “pilgrims” and called themselves Pilgrims – and who gave us our Thanksgiving.

The story of the American Thanksgiving begins in 1620. It’s a great story and it still fascinates and compels me. They were Puritan Separatists. Since the official break with Rome in the 16th Century, over the English King Henry VIII’s divorces and remarriages, among other reasons, the established church was the Church of England, Anglican. Its head was the King of England and his appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and it retained many, if not most of the ecclesiastical customs and liturgies of Roman Catholicism. The Puritans thought the Church of England needed reforming. They wanted a simpler, less liturgical, less structured church. When they actually did it, formed Puritan Congregations in England, the ecclesiastical and political authorities frowned on it. Persecution followed.

One group and their leader, Puritan Pastor John Robinson, picked up and left and moved to Holland, a nation where the Protestant Reformation had produced a rare religious freedom and tolerance. There were several hundred English Puritans living in Leiden. Hard working, honest, they did well in Holland, but they worried that their children were losing their British identity and English language. So they decided to move again, this time to the New World. They purchased a 60 ton ship, less than 50 feet in length, the Speedwell, refitted it and planned to depart Leiden for Southampton, where they planned to rendezvous with a ship secured by another group of Puritans in London. Leaving Leiden was traumatic. William and Dorothy Bradford left their 3 year old son John behind with Dorothy’s parents – perhaps never to see him again.

July, 1620, they left port and set sail. In the meantime, the London party had secured an old but reliable ship named Mayflower – which headed to Southampton to rendezvous with Speedwell. Mayflower was a typical ship of the day – square-rigged and beak prowed with high, castle-like superstructures fore and aft. Rated at 180 tons [(meaning that the hold could accommodate 180 casks of wine – called tuns of wine)] she was 100 feet in length.

The commanding officer was Christopher Jones, part owner of the Mayflower. It was known as a “Sweet Ship” – its primary route was back and forth from France trading English woolens for French wine. There was a lot of spillage during the voyage and the acidic wine helped temper the terrible stench of the bilge – thus a “Sweet Ship.”

First mate and pilot was Robert Coppin, who had sailed to the New World before. Giles Heale was ship’s surgeon, a very important player in the ordeal that lay ahead. On board also was a 21 year old cooper, John Alden, who will enter American lore because of his romance with another passenger, Priscilla Mullin. (“Speak for yourself, John,” she said.)

The two ships left Southampton and immediately Speedwell began to leak and so both ships pulled into Dartmouth, 75 miles west. Repairs began. Now it was August 17 and they were stuck and beginning to be frightened. They were consuming their food and beer much too quickly without making progress.

They departed Dartmouth, got 200 miles out into the Atlantic when the Speedwell developed another leak. Now it was September. They turned around again, made for Plymouth, where the decision was made to abandon Speedwell and crowd as many passengers as possible on the Mayflower.

On September 6, 1620, Mayflower set out from Plymouth. There were 102 passengers on board, 20 to 30 sailors, and two dogs, a spaniel and a large, smelly, slobbering mastiff. As soon as they set sail in the Atlantic, beating against wind and tide, many became seasick. The sailors (who already thought them odd) had great fun taunting them. No one knew yet about the Gulf Stream and so their speed was an agonizing two miles per hour.

There were three pregnant women on board and two births during the voyage. A young indentured seaman, John Howland, became restless during a gale one night, decided to climb the ladder and step out on deck. He was swept into the water as the ship lurched and somehow grabbed the halyard used to lower and raise the topsail. He held on tight, was dragged ten feet underwater but never let go. Several sailors saw it happen, took up the halyard and hauled Howland back in. The story has a nice ending. John Howland not only survived, but married in the New World, and he and his wife Elizabeth raised 18 children and lived to enjoy their eighty-eight grandchildren.

Conditions on board were dreadful. Passengers were quartered in a space between the hold and the main deck in what was a sort of “crawl space” called “tween deck”. It was not quite 5 feet high, about 75 feet long. Passengers constructed thin wall compartments of about 25-30 square feet, which allowed for all their worldly possessions and a bit of privacy. There was a primitive and dangerous wood-burning fireplace, but because of the delays they ran out of firewood and beer – beer being a Pilgrim staple because of poor water quality. And, of course, there were the chamber pots. Needless to say no one bathed for ten weeks. Two crewmembers died during the voyage. Early November they made landfall off Cape Cod and the captain realized that they were seriously off course. Their destination and the land for which they had a license, was near the mouth of the Hudson River. So, they came about and headed south only to encounter unfavorable winds. So they turned around again, sailed around Cape Cod – which by the way was familiar to the First Mate and fishing vessels because of the plentiful fish – sailed to the back side of the Cape and put into safe harbor at Provincetown.

It was now early November 1620. As they neared their destination, the passengers assembled, signed an agreement about how they would live in the new world. We know it as the Mayflower Compact and it is one of the great documents in Western history – and an expression of the then radical notion of representative government.

They went ashore, fell to their knees in prayer, began to explore and some found a way to take their clothes off and bathe, and before long encountered natives – who were not particularly happy to see them. A few skirmishes followed, a rain of arrows – they fired muskets, and made a decision to find another, safer harbor.

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