Thanksgiving: Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the Pilgrims’ Landing at Plymouth Rock

Thanksgiving Day, November 26th this year, is an annual holiday in which we thank God for our blessings. It’s a source of nostalgic family memories of past Thanksgiving dinners, as well as remembering those who have passed away.

This year, 2020, is the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival to Plymouth Rock. Remember the song, “The year 1620 the Pilgrims came over …”?

Well, 1620 was 400 years ago.

Who were the Pilgrims? They called themselves the “Saints,” not the Pilgrims, but I’m going to use the term “Pilgrims” in this blog post.

They were English Separatists who had separated from the Church of England to form their own group.

They became shareholders for the Council for New England, a joint stock company with the goal of financing English colonies. The colonists had to earn enough in the colony to pay back their voyage and make a profit for the company.

They were joined by other English people who weren’t part of their sect (the “Strangers”). Myles Standish, the colony’s military commander, was in this group.

Crossing the Atlantic on the Mayflower, they sighted land in early November and explored the coast until choosing a location for their colony, embarking at Plymouth Rock, now in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, on December 21st.

The first winter was extremely difficult and about half of the colonists perished.

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth”

With the arrival of spring, and with the help of some friendly Indians, they had greatly improved their situation enough to celebrate the famous Thanksgiving feast in November of 1621.

And, note, there are immigration lessons to be learned from the Pilgrims.

In 1621, another ship arrived to the Plymouth colony bringing new settlers (called the “Particulars”). But the Plymouth Rock colony wasn’t ready to absorb them, and their arrival resulted in a scarcity of resources, causing the colony to go on half-rations for a few years thereafter.

Remember the controversy over the Trump Administration’s enforcement of the public charge rule?

Well, it was the Plymouth Colony that established America’s first public charge law. (As reported by Mary Grace Patterson: “In 1639 the Pilgrims of Plymouth passed a law for the removal of foreign paupers.” Sister Mary Grace Patterson, The Ethical Aspects of the National Origins Act, Loyola University, 1944, page six.)

That put the onus on ship captains who could be fined for bringing paupers and criminals to the Plymouth colony.

So, there’s nothing new about a public charge rule, and it’s not un-American!

Did you know the Pilgrims dressed more colorfully than usually portrayed? Since their garments were recorded in probate documents, there is much that is known about this fashion footnote. (Click here and here.)

Interested readers can find more information about the Pilgrims at these websites: Caleb Johnson’s Mayflower History, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, the Plymouth Colony Archive Project, and the England-based Pilgrim Fathers UK Origins Association.

It’s estimated that about 35 million people (mostly but not entirely in the U.S.) are direct genetic descendants of the Mayflower colonists.

Nine U.S. presidents are Mayflower descendants: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, James Abram Garfield, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

Other famous Americans who are Mayflower descendants include politicians Jeb Bush and Sarah Palin; actors Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere, Sally Field, Marilyn Monroe, and Humphrey Bogart; the first American in space Alan Shepard; George Eastman (Eastman Kodak Company founder); Dr. Spock; singer Bing Crosby; aviatrix Amelia Earhart, generals George McClellan and Leonard Wood; literary giants Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and Noah Webster of Webster’s Dictionary fame.

We’re not all genetic Mayflower descendants. The Wall family lived farther south in colonial Virginia. But all Americans are their heirs.

The Pilgrims brought with them their Christian faith, their English culture, and their will to work hard and build a new society. We learn from them, and, rightly, honor them as among the first founders of our nation.

In the words of Jane E. Groves Riddell Hurt, Governor General of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, “Members take pride in our family, but the truth is, the Pilgrims belong to all of us.”

Allen Wall

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