The First Thanksgiving
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Nearly four hundred years ago, a great many people in England were very unhappy because their king would not let them pray to God in the way that they wanted to. The king said they must use exactly the same prayers that he did; and if they would not do this, they were often thrown into prison, or perhaps driven away from their homes.
“Let us go away from this country,” said the unhappy Englishmen to each other. So they left their homes, and went to a country called Holland. It was about this time that they began to call themselves “Pilgrims.” Pilgrims are people who travel to find something they love, or to find a land where they can be happier; and these English men and women were journeying, they said, “from place to place, toward heaven, their dearest country.”
In Holland, the Pilgrims were quiet and happy for a while, but they were very poor; and when the children began to grow up, they spoke Dutch like the children in Holland, and some grew naughty and didn’t want to go to church any more or worship God.
After much talking and thinking and writing, they made up their minds to come to America. They hired two ships, called the Mayflower and the Speedwell, to take them across the sea. But the Speedwell was not a strong ship, and the captain had to take her home again before she had gone very far.
The Mayflower went back, too. Some of the Speedwell’s passengers were given to her, and then she started alone across the ocean.
There were one hundred people on board – mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and little children. They were very crowded; it was cold and uncomfortable; the sea was rough, and pitched the Mayflower about, and they sailed for two months over the water.
The children cried a lot on the journey, and they wished they had never come on the terrible ship that rocked them so hard. But they did have something to amuse them, for in the middle of the great ocean a Pilgrim baby was born. They called him “Oceanus,” for his birthplace.
At last, the Mayflower came in sight of land; but if they had been thinking of grass and flowers and birds, then they must have been very disappointed, for it was November, and there was nothing to see but rocks and sand and hard bare ground.
Some of the Pilgrim men, with Captain Myles Standish leading them, went on shore to see if they could find any houses or white people. But they only saw some Indians, some native people, who ran away from them. They only found some Indian huts and some corn buried in holes in the ground. They went back and forth to the ship three times, until at last they found a nice place to live, where there were “fields and little running brooks.”
Then at last, all the Pilgrims, exhausted from their journey, landed from the ship on a spot that today we call Plymouth Rock, and they began to build the first house on Christmas Day. But when I tell you how sick they were and how much they suffered that first winter, you will feel very sad and sorry for them. The weather was cold, the snow fell thickly, the wind was icy cold, and the Pilgrims had no one to help them cut down trees and build their houses. They didn’t have very much food either. Some of the native Indian people helped them, but it wasn’t enough.
So first one got sick, and then another, until at one time, half of them were sick. Captain Myles Standish and the other soldiers nursed them as well as they could; but before spring came, half of the people had died and gone at last to “heaven, their dearest country.”
Eventually, the sun shone more brightly, the snow melted, the leaves began to grow, and sweet spring had come again.
Some of the friendly Indians had visited the Pilgrims during the winter, so Captain Myles Standish, with several of the men, decided to return the visit.
One of the kind native people was called Squanto. He came to stay with the Pilgrims in the spring, and showed them how to plant corn, and peas, and wheat, and barley.
When the summer came and the days were long and bright, the Pilgrim children were very happy, and they thought Plymouth was really a lovely place to live indeed. All kinds of beautiful wild flowers grew at their doors, there were hundreds of birds and butterflies, and the great pinewoods were always cool and shady when the sun was too bright.
When fall came, the Pilgrim men gathered the barley and wheat and corn that they had planted, and found that it had grown so well that they would have quite enough food for the winter that was coming.
“Let us thank God for all of it,” they said. “It is He who has made the sun shine and the rain fall and the corn grow.” So they thanked God together in their homes and in their little church.
“Then,” said the Pilgrims, “let’s have a party to give thanks, and let’s invite the Indian people too!”
So they had the first Thanksgiving party, and a wonderful one it was! Four men went out hunting for one whole day, and they brought back so many wild ducks and geese and wild turkeys that there was enough meat for almost a week. There was also deer meat, of course, for there were plenty of large deer in the forest. Then the Pilgrim women made the corn and wheat into bread and cakes. They had fish and clams from the sea, besides.
The friendly native people all came with their chief, Massasoit. Everyone who was invited came, and more, for there were ninety of them altogether.
They brought five deer with them, which they gave to the Pilgrims; and they must have liked the party very much, for they stayed for three days.
The native Indian people were dressed in deerskins, and some of them had the furry coat of a wild cat hanging on their arms. Their long black hair fell loose on their shoulders, and was trimmed with feathers or foxtails. Their faces were painted in all kinds of strange ways, some with black stripes as broad as your finger all up and down them. Whatever they wore, it was their very best clothing, and they had put it on for the Thanksgiving party.
Each meal, the Pilgrims and the Indians thanked God together. The native Indian people sang and danced in the evenings, and every day they all ran races and played games with the children.
Then sometimes they would have shooting competitions. The Pilgrims with their guns, and the Indians with their bows and arrows, would see who could shoot the furthest and the best. So they were cheerful and happy and thankful for three whole days.
The Pilgrims had been sick and sad many times since they landed from the Mayflower; they had worked very hard, and often hadn’t had enough food to eat. They were sad indeed when their friends died and left them. But now they tried to forget all this, and so they were happy together at the first Thanksgiving feast.
All of this happened nearly four hundred years ago. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln decided to make the fourth Thursday in November a day to observe Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and ever since that time Thanksgiving has been celebrated in the United States.