How do we know about the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, and when did we know it? Americans learned for the first time about the Pilgrims from their own writings in 1841 in Alexander Young’s “Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.” This book published part of the lost writings of William Bradford and a 1621 letter from Edward Winslow.
These writings had been published in a 1622 long-lost recruiting pamphlet in England but not in America. Because Winslow’s letter described the 1621 Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, Young declared that the Pilgrims had held the first Thanksgiving in America. This led to an explosion of interest in the Pilgrims and ultimately a widespread branding of the Pilgrims with Thanksgiving.
In the digitized historic newspaper database GenealogyBank.com, I recently found a newspaper article crediting the Pilgrims for Thanksgiving 25 years earlier than previously thought and another that paid homage to them. Richard Pickering, a Plimoth Patuxet historian, told me I’d found new information, “breadcrumbs to the explosion” of interest in the Pilgrims that came after 1841.
These new findings reveal the pride that New Englanders had in the 1620 Pilgrims and the importance they’d placed in passing down Thanksgiving to new generations. These articles also convey Thanksgiving’s universal meaning and support The Federalist’s 1620 Project.
“This day is our annual public Thanksgiving,” a writer for the Salem Gazette began in an article published Nov. 28, 1816. Then the author credited the Pilgrims with Thanksgiving. “If our pilgrim forefathers, who instituted this religious festival, could give thanks, in a mere temporary hut in the midst of baroness, that they were permitted to ‘suck nourishment from the treasures in the land,’ how much more should their descendants, who inherit from them a land now ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ enter with a voice of Thanksgiving and praise?”
The same could be said today. The losses we have experienced because of COVID-19 help us better understand the Pilgrims, who lost two to three people a day at one point. Only 52 of the 102 Mayflower Pilgrims survived the first year. Their courage and faith to give thanks despite their hardships can encourage us to give thanks in 2020.
The other newspaper also resonates today because it shows how the 1620 Pilgrims’ boldness, risk-taking, and faith shaped America, which is the purpose of the 1620 Project.
The Vermont Intelligencer reported in 1817 that New Englanders living in Philadelphia had gathered for a Thanksgiving feast in November 1816. This was a novel event for Pennsylvanians, and lawyer Nathaniel Chauncey gave a speech. Originally from Connecticut, he saw a need “to counteract certain prejudices against the first settlers of New England.” Below are some excerpts.
“The occasion which has called us together is particularly interesting to the natives of New England. Their annual Thanksgiving awakens in the aged, a train of the most tender recollections, and offers to mature reason, 1,000 arguments of praise,” Chauncey began. “The charities of life were thus strengthened and consecrated by their union with religion. Gratitude to God, and love to man, were woven into a texture, which time will never separate.”
Then as now, gratitude and praise required an object. Chauncey, the grandson of Rev. Charles Chauncey, the second president of Harvard College from 1654 to 1672, emphasized the importance of religion in the people’s giving of thanks.
Explaining that they were trying to start Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania, Chauncey drew attention to those “who established our feast of love,” saying, “It has descended to us from our ancestors; it was instituted by the settlers of New England.”
“These men have been much traduced — their virtues have been forgotten, and the faults of the age in which they lived, have been imputed to them as their peculiar blemish,” he declared of their slander. “Sir, they were men of whom the world was not worthy. In their character were combined the hero, the sage, and the saint.”
In a lesson that bears repeating today, Chauncey explained that the settlers’ valor flowed out of morality. It wasn’t mere brutishness nor blissful ignorance. “Their courage was not that insensibility to pain, which has been given alike to the strong man and to the strong brute — nor that blindness to danger, which arises from stupidity or passion — but it was a grand moral quality,” he explained.
“They had that energy, which, though its subject may be alive to pain, and sagacious to discern danger, presses forward, in spite of both, to the accomplishment of its purposes. They possessed also a still higher courage.”
It is no surprise then that the settlers’ courage was inextricably tied to their faith. “But the men of whom I speak showed the courage of piety. They had drank largely of a spirit which God had created eternal, invincible, and immutable,” Chauncey said, detailing several European martyrs.
“Sir, our ancestors were living martyrs,” he said, noting they had endured exile, danger, disease, hunger, cold, and nakedness. “Under the dictates of conscience, they bore fines and imprisonment and plunder and the risk of life to their native country, anxiety and indigent in Holland, and in the New World the terrors of a desolate wilderness.”
“The adventurers who landed at Plymouth, half died in the first season from accumulated hardships. But the survivors would not return. They had taken their lives in their hands, and they were prepared for death and its most terrible form,” Chauncey continued. “These men were soldiers of the Cross, their courage was united with justice and clemency. It was not their plan to rob and exterminate the possessors of the soil. The tract on which they first settled had been depopulated by pestilence, and their other acquisitions were gained by purchase or in wars, which self-defense rendered unavoidable.”
Laying the groundwork with principles that would eventually compose our nation’s founding documents, the settlers “hoped to establish a state in which liberty and pure religion should be enjoyed by millions, through a succession of ages. And here they displayed wisdom and foresight, correspondent to their moral greatness,” according to Chauncey.
“They cherished and transmitted to posterity the grand principles of representative government,” he continued, noting that New Englanders had established it despite their meagerness.
“Let us cherish the remembrance of their virtues. Permit me, Sir, to propose, the memory of the settlers of New England.”
Hear! Hear! In Thanksgiving 2020, let us remember the 1620 Pilgrims.