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Some Reflections On The First Thanksgiving

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

It had been a rough winter. Since September of 1620, the 102 religious separatists aboard the Mayflower had journeyed the seas seeking a new home to freely practice their faith. Others, lured by the potential of prosperity and land ownership in this “New World” were enough to endure the treacherous journey, lasting 66 days. Arriving, eventually, at Plymouth Bay in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims began the work of establishing a village.

Now that the chilling winds of winter had arrived, many colonists sought shelter aboard the ship, where scurvy and contagious diseases were abundant, spreading from family to family. Unfortunately, only a portion of the crew would witness the first New England Spring, as the chilling hand of death claimed nearly fifty percent of the original settlers.

In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from a member of the Abenaki tribe who greeted them in English. Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers, and avoid poisonous plants. Additionally, he assisted the settlers in allying with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which endured for more than 50 years and remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.

In November of 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as America’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival continued for three days.

The familiar story of Thanksgiving has resonated in the hearts of Americans for decades. However, most people are unaware that the first American Thanksgiving did not occur in 1621 with this group of Pilgrims who shared a feast alongside a group of friendly Indians. Actually, the first recorded Thanksgiving occurred in Virginia more than 11 years earlier, and, contrary to popular opinion, it was not a feast.

Thanksgiving celebrations were not uncommon in the early days preceding the European settlements throughout the various regions of North America. Native communities had regularly given thanks for the gifts of nature. In May of 1541, Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led 1,500 men in a Thanksgiving celebration in what is known today as the "Texas Panhandle." Nearly two decades later, French Huguenot colonists gave solemn praise and thanksgiving at a settlement near what is now Jacksonville, Florida. In August of 1607, English colonists joined Abnaki people along Maine’s Kennebec River for a harvest feast and prayer meeting.

However, one particular event ought to be credited as the "first American Thanksgiving." Similar to the winter of 1620, the winter of 1610 in Jamestown, Virginia had reduced a group of 409 settlers to 60. The survivors prayed and pleaded for help without knowing if, when, or how it might come. However, when help did arrive in the form of a ship filled with food and supplies from England, a prayer meeting was held to give thanks to God. It could be well assumed that, after seeing so many of their contemporaries die due to the hardships of the New World, they would not be so possessed to return thanks. Conversely, they organized a prayer meeting—a meeting to simply lift their thanksgiving to God in recognition that, despite adversity and affliction, they still had much for which to be thankful.

Perhaps it is incumbent upon us this Thanksgiving, 413 years later, to do a personal inventory examination and ask ourselves whether or not we extend thanks as we ought. Chances are, we are much less thankful than we realize. And, to be quite candid, we should not have to wait for a specific date on the calendar to have a "thanksgiving session." In keeping with the proper perspective, the question has been well raised, "what if you woke up tomorrow with exclusively the things you thanked God for today?" Despite adversity, do we still willfully return sincere gratitude?

It would be a valid assumption that our culture suffers from, what I refer to as, "consequential thanksgiving." Such means of thanksgiving is demonstrated by our failing to recognize how blessed we are, or how thankful we ought to be until what we possess is threatened to be taken away. As a result, our incessant griping transforms into immediate gratefulness. But, then again, maybe it is in the threatening times that it reminds us that we should continually live with thankful hearts.

This Thanksgiving, similar to those assembled in Jamestown in 1610-11, remember this: Gratitude is a decision. Decide to be grateful, and then pursue a continual attitude of gratefulness. I guarantee it will change your perspective.

"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

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