Today I’m doing a blog swap with Jess Witkins, a cofounder of the Life List Club and a new friend of increasing importance to me. Enjoy her post about the history of Thanksgiving. Then click on her name above to skip over and read about My Most Memorable Thanksgiving. Now, here’s Jess.
We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving, don’t we? Well, I beg to differ. Most of us only think of Thanksgiving as an extra day off, a time to gorge on fattening foods, and prepare for the real holiday ahead, Christmas.
But to me, Thanksgiving is more than just a family meal together. My great-great-great-great-great (15 times) grandfather came to this country as an indentured servant on the Mayflower. His name was John Howland. Surviving that first horrendous winter, he earned his keep in the community, became a part of the fur trading expeditions, and married fellow Mayflower passenger, Elizabeth Tilley. John and Elizabeth went on to have 10 children, and my family are descendants of the eldest child, Desire. One of the main historical claims to fame that John Howland has is the fact that he and his family survived not only the treacherous first year, where so many of the pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic died due to famine, harsh weather, and disease, he and his family lived full lives and are recognized as some of the most prominent pilgrim ancestors noted. Because they survived.
So to me, Thanksgiving is a year round thing. Whenever I’m going through a stressful situation, or I feel most frustrated or sad, I look to my ancestors. I know I come from a family of survivors. Need some examples? Let me enlighten you on the real history of how the first Thanksgiving came to be.
For starters, when the pilgrims left for New England, there were two ships. The Mayflower and the Speedwell. But the Speedwell never made it. Arranged in a hurry, the travelers were cheated into a poor business deal and sold sails that were far too big for the boat, which caused the support beams to crack, the boat to leak, causing both ships to turn back. Some of these passengers crowded aboard the Mayflower, and some decided life in England was manageable after all and dared not brave the seas again.
So, now we have The Mayflower sailing for Virginia. But they landed in Plymouth, right? Well no on both accounts. The pilgrims did originally set sail for Virginia (and Captain John Smith was almost their guide, though at the last minute, they decided not to trust him). Back then, longitude and latitude did not exist, so the big ship Mayflower was subject to several storms that steered them unknowingly much farther north, where they actually landed in Cape Cod, lived inside the docked ship for several months more until suitable lands were found to set up town, i.e. Plymouth. Ta Da!
Not so fast. Imagine if you will, the voyage. All these families of both Separatist pilgrims and several soldiers and seamen. They hated each other. The ship’s crew made fun of the pilgrim’s poor sea legs every chance they got. The way the Mayflower was built, it’s rather boxy for a boat. The incredible base of it made for a somewhat steady voyage below deck, and my ancestor, John Howland, either got bored, or nauseous, or mischievous, or ill, who knows, but we do know he went up on deck during an awful storm only to be swept overboard! Somehow, he managed to grab hold of a rope and clung to it with such zeal, he managed to keep hold while being dragged 10 feet below the Atlantic’s surface! He was pulled back on board and chided, but survived the ordeal. It’s even noted in Governor William Bradford’s journal.
So speed forward to their first days reaching land. They all stayed aboard the ship for months more as each day roughly 10 men (John Howland among them) sailed off around the shore looking for land to establish. They were quickly depleting their food resources, many of the people began to suffer from scurvy. The beer was actually healthier to drink than the water (a historical trait seen again and again if you travel around, we all owe a big thanks to the boiling process of clean water we now have!) Well, one day, the pilgrims came upon some large unknown mounds in the land. When they picked through them, they found corn. There was also dried meat, and other resources, and unfortunately, there were bodies. The pilgrims had stumbled into a burial ground of the natives. And while some dared only take food to survive, others were greedy and took possessions like jewelry and cookware and weapons.
That is the first reason that the pilgrims and natives began their relationship at odds. Add to the grave desecration the unholy holier than thou judgments of their “savage” ways, the back and forth lies between various native tribes and Englishmen, and you have yourself a very unsteady relationship. But not all was lost. And much of it was remedied by Squanto.
Squanto, a Wampanoag Indian, had been captured years earlier and enslaved by previous Englishmen explorers. He had acted as a guide and learned to speak English. When he was freed and returned to his homeland, he found his entire family had been killed. This situation, however, made him an extreme middleman, and his place in history became that of translator and trusted ally. Through Squanto, the pilgrims made friends (for the most part) with the Wampanoag tribe and their sachem (chief), Massasoit. The Indians taught the English how to farm and fish in their new land. And in return, the pilgrims shared their meager earnings with the Indians as a way of righting the damage done to the burial mounds. They shared their kettles and some even their coats. A friendship had been made.
But new worlds and new peoples have a history of new diseases, and typhoid ravaged both parties painfully. The act that entrusted Massasoit to the pilgrims for good was the fact that Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow came to the sachem’s house when he was ill and fed him soup and took his own knife and scraped the tongue of the chief to rid him of the fungus. This great act of kindness helped Massasoit to live until old age.
After the first winter, the pilgrims had suffered many losses. Almost every family had lost at least one member due to the fatal conditions they were living in. Elizabeth Tilley was an orphan at the age of 13 (maybe 15 depending on the source), losing both her parents the first year. But when spring came, and a harvest was grown, they set about to have a feast. The first Thanksgiving was never called Thanksgiving, rather a harvest celebration more likely, but it lasted three days, with only two pilgrim women and three young girls doing the cooking (one of them being Elizabeth Tilley). The pilgrims invited the Wampanoag sachem and with him he brought his wives and 50 of his most established warriors. The Indians brought with them deer, probably a turkey (though this wasn’t as common), seafood, and other offerings. Together they shared stories and began a friendship and alliance that would last several years.
Later, John Howland’s son, Jabez, built one of two remaining houses in Plymouth that still stands from the days when the pilgrim himself lived in it. I visited this house last summer, as well as the living history museum, Plimoth Plantation. The plantation reenacts life as the settlers would have known it and spans across many acres to include the native village of the Wampanoag tribe and the pilgrim colony in the year 1627. One of the houses represented in the colony, is that of John Howland. When I walked onto the grounds of the colony and interacted with the people portraying these historical pioneers, I can’t describe to you the feeling. It was a sense of great hope and great guilt, of wanting to know where my people come from, what they went through, and what I must learn from it.
Yes, thanksgiving must be everyday for me. If I let myself forget it, I feel I’ve let my ancestors down. When I was at the plantation, I purchased many gift items for myself and my family, such as cookbooks of historical meals from the first harvest to now, a pilgrim doll for my niece and goddaughter, the book The Mayflower, which I’m reading again this month, and the Mayflower Society’s genealogical record of the Howland family. But my favorite gift is a small charm necklace of the Mayflower ship. I think it cost me $4.50. I wear it on days I need a little extra strength. If John Howland could survive a voyage across an ocean, a near drowning, unchartered new worlds, new and different people, and live a long life with his family despite all the hardships, then I can certainly survive whatever comes my way.
Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours!
Do share, what are you most thankful for this holiday season?
Bio: Jess Witkins claims the title Perseverance Expert. She grew up in a small Wisconsin town as the much youngeryoungest sibling of four, she’s witnessed the paranormal, jumped out of a plane, worked in retail, traveled to exotic locations like Italy, Ireland, and Shipshewana, Indiana, and she’seaten bologna and lived to tell about it! She deals with it all and writes about it! Come along on her midwest adventures; Witkins promises to keep it honest and entertaining. Go ahead,SUBSCRIBE, you know you want to.
Follow on Twitter: @jesswitkins
I’m impressed, Ihave to admit. Seldom do I ccome across a blog that’s
both equally educative and entertaining, and without a doubt,
you have hit the nail on the head. The issue iis something that
too few men and women are speaking intelligently about. I’m very
happy I stumbled across this during my hunt for something relating to
We went to Plymouth many years ago. I loved all the tours in that area.
Very cool history and lineage!
Cool! I’m glad you liked it. I agree the museum is one of the best and most interesting places I’ve been. You could easily spend hours there, and it’s a gorgeous site to boot!
Awesome story and amazing you can trace your descendants like that. You had to have guts to get on a ship and cross the Atlantic back then, even before you consider setting up a new colony with whatever you can find when you get there (here). No wonder they wanted to give thanks for surviving!
You know, that’s a good reminder for me, Nigel. I’ve been a bit whiney now that winter is here and there’s snow outside. The pilgrims spent months on the same cramped ship with numerous members getting sick. I certainly needed a little perspective today, so thanks for that reminder!
Wow – I got more out of reading this post than I did out of many, many history lessons over the years, Jess. Happy Thanksgiving!
So glad you enjoyed it Pam. I agree, we don’t spend much time on this lesson in school, and whatever we do get seems to be so simple a story. You know the one told while you’re making hand turkeys? LOL. There’s so many layers to this fascinating time in history.
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Amazing story. I think we can all learn that Thanksgiving should be an everyday event for all of us! Happy Thanksgiving. Your ancestors are proud!
Thank you for the very kind compliments Karlene. I have good days and bad days like we all do, but that’s why it’s so important to keep perspective on the struggles life throws at us and I do take comfort in those that have gone before me and proved such endurance and faith.
Always knew there was something special about you Witkins 😉
Thanks for the history lesson, I did not know quite a few of the details you shared, like the burial mound thefts. Interesting stuff for weird history and archeo buffs like me.
Very cool that you were able to visit the ancestral home. Have a great Thanksgiving 🙂
You and your kids would LOVE the Plimoth Plantation museum. It’s highly researched and well noted. The actors of the English settlement keep true to their characters’ dialect (since the passengers with a mix of from Holland and England) and they actually upkeep the property with the tools and practices from the times. So the other portion of the site includes the craft area with more people teaching tailoring, woodwork and native weapons/clothing. In fact, you can actually pay to have your family camp there! Imagine it, you can spend a night living just like the pilgrims of the 17th century! Pretty cool. One of these days I think it’d be really fun to go back and share in the Thanksgiving dinner they host at the museum. Check out the link to the site, it’s awesome!
Ok Lempp, I had to make a follow up comment. Exactly what part of the story made you think there was something “special” about my family? If it’s because we’re survivors and pioneers of the world, then I accept your compliment, but if it has anything to do with the obviously genetic clumsiness of my people, then I politely decline your verbage of “special.” 😛
The first one, your family. And you, individually. Given your adventures traveling and such it is obvious that you have the pioneer spirit living in you. Fearless, adventurous, all the qualities that make for a great explorer. Be at peace, my friend, you are special 🙂
I totally agree with Gene. You are special – and an especially good friend.
Great guest post – and an enlightening history of the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving. I learned a few things! And too cool that you’re an actual descendant.
Almost makes me want to move east instead of west, but your seafood is better. 🙂
How wonderful that you have that geneology, Jess! Really interesting history. Thanks for sharing it!
Great article Jess. I am envious. I have not been able to trace many of my roots. We are more recent Americans. Thanks for the reminder of what those wildly optimistic pilgrims faced once they pulled away from the dock in England.
I have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. For all our world’s problems the world is a better place today than the one I was born in. That might be hard to detect on any given day but if we look back over time today we have much to be hopeful for.
We have yet to walk far enough away from that first landing but we are are indeed walking forward.
Happy Thanksgiving to all.
Amazing, Jess! I always wished my family had been in this country since those days, but it was a couple of hundred years more before they emmigrated here. That is so cool that you great grandfather was a Pilgrim. He’s a source of pride and inspiration, for sure. I love that his home is still standing!
I’m thankful that even with all its problems, I live in this country. I’m also thankful for your ancestors and others who came here, made a good life and paved the way for others to do the same.
Great post, Jess. David, I’m going over to Jess’ to visit your post now!
Thank you for your kind words Marcia. I agree that our country had and continues to have its problems, but we must remember the times where we’ve all come together and celebrated or helped one another because that’s what humanity is about. Have you ever thought about traveling to the country(ies) your family is from? I bet you could find many interesting places and stories and it seems like something you certainly would love doing.
I would have to try some research first. My Mom was an orphan and the orphanage burned many years ago, so no info there. My Dad’s parents never spoke of where their parents came from. I know my Grandmother was Irish and my Grandfather was Italian, but no idea where in those countries to begin looking. Not even sure I could find any info on the internet. Maybe Ellis island records. It’s definitely something to think about. I have a cousin wh has traced us back to my great-great-grandparents as far as lineage goes, but no info on birthplaces.
Thanks for honoring my site this post, Jess, and for the information you’ve giving us about the first days of the New England settlement.
Thanks for offering the chance to swap posts with you David! This was a fun piece to write and sparked a meaningful conversation with my mom on the phone when I told her about it. Someday, I’d love to take her to Plymouth and see and sense the same roots I did. Despite all their flaws, the story of the pilgrims crossing to the new world and their first years after is an amazing story. Happy Thanksgiving!