THE MAYFLOWER AND PILGRIMS
The Pilgrims were a group of English protestant “Separatists” who first sought freedom from religious persecution by the Church of England by moving to Leiden, Holland, and about ten years later by relocating to North America where they hoped to establish a colony in Northern Virginia. They were joined on their journey across the Atlantic by other English families and individuals, not Separatists, many of whom had skills and trades needed by the Pilgrims to establish a colony, and who were themselves simply seeking the opportunity for a better life.
The Pilgrims engaged two aging sailing vessels, the Mayflower and the Speedwell to transport them with their supplies to Northern Virginia, where they had obtained a charter from the English king. The group left Southampton England in August 1620, but were forced to return to port after the Speedwell proved to be unseaworthy. One hundred and two passengers then crowded aboard the Mayflower in September 1620 and set out again, having to leave a number of their fellow pilgrims and vital supplies in England. The crossing was slower than expected and the Mayflower was driven off course and arrived far north of their Northern Virginia destination in November 1620, at the start of a harsh winter. The Pilgrims decided that further travel to Northern Virginia at that time of year was dangerous and unwise, and began exploring Cape Cod seeking a safe harbor and suitable place to establish their colony.
The Mayflower Compact
Before leaving the Mayflower, the Separatists and the other voyagers drafted, and all 41 free adult males signed, a document that established the legal and political structure of the new colony. That historic documentis considered to be the first to set forth the democratic self governance principles on which the the United States Constitution was based a century and a half later, and is known as the Mayflower Compact:
The Pilgrims selected a site on the western shore of Cape Cod in Massachusetts which they named Plymouth and where they established their colony. During that first winter, 51 of the 102 colonists died from the severe cold plus an influenza type of illness known as the “great sickness”, and left the remaining colonists weakened and without adequate food and supplies. During the spring of 1621, however, members of the peaceful native Wampanoag tribe, helped the colonists to adapt and grow enough food to survive. Although the colonists struggled and endured hardships for the first few years at Plymouth, they prevailed and established the first permanent colony in New England.
The First Thanksgiving
At the time of the fall harvest in 1621, Massasoit, the great sachem of the Wampanoag tribe and 90 of his people arrived with meat, fowl, fish and crops and helped the Pilgrims prepare for the upcoming winter. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoags joined together for a great three day harvest feast and a time of thanksgiving for the blessings bestowed on them. Almost two and a half centuries later in 1863, during the American Civil War, President Lincoln, who was urged to follow the tradition of the Pilgrims’ first thanksgiving, proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving. This tradition was followed by every succeeding president, until Congress in 1941 established Thanksgiving as an official national holiday.