THE FREEMAN | IDEAS ON LIBERTY
Our First Thanksgiving
by Sartell Prentice Jr. • November 1955 • Vol. 5/Issue 11 Our American Thanksgiving Day is a unique holiday, a day set aside by Presidential
Proclamation so that we may thank our Heavenly Father for the bountiful gifts he has bestowed on us during the year. It is also a day dedicated to the Family, the basic unit of our American society, the core and center around which all else in America revolves. This, too, is in accord with our basic religious faith, for the Commandment has come down to us to “honor thy father and thy mother.” And so, from wherever we may be, North, South, East, or West, we Americans travel, sometimes great distances, back to the family hearth, to be present at the traditional Family Reunion and Feast on Thanksgiving Day. But Thanksgiving Day has still another meaning; on this day we are asked to remember what Edmund Burke, in one of the most eloquent phrases to be found in all literature, described as “that little speck, scarce visible in the mass of national interest, a small seminal principle, rather than a formed body”—the tiny vessel, more accurately to be described as a “cockleshell,” the Mayflower, and its hundred passengers, men, women, and children, who sailed on her. Twelve years earlier, in 1608, they had fled from religious persecution in England and established a new home in Holland. Despite the warm welcome extended by the Dutch, as contrasted with the persecutions they had endured in England, their love for their homeland impelled them to seek English soil on which to raise their children, English soil on which they would be free to worship God in their own way. Finally, the Pilgrims landed, as we all know, on Plymouth Rock in the middle of December 1620, and on Christmas Day, in the words of Governor William Bradford, 1  they “begane to erecte ye first house for commone use to receive them and their goods.” So was established the first English colony in New England. Three years later, when the plentiful harvest of 1623 had been gathered in, the Pilgrims “sett aparte a day of thanksgiving.” Governor Bradford adds, “Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”2  But what of the intervening years? After all, there were harvests gathered in in 1621 and 1622. Three Kernels of Corn
I know of one family, descended from the Pilgrims, who place beside each plate at their bounteous table on Thanksgiving Day a little paper cup containing just three kernels of corn, as a constant reminder of the all too frequent days during these first years when three kernels of corn represented the daily food ration of their Pilgrim forebears. Within three months of their landing on Plymouth Rock, “of one hundred and odd persons, scarce fifty remained. And of these in ye time of most distress, ther was but six or seven sound persons, who, to their great comendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toyle and hazard of their own health . . . . did all ye homly and necessarie offices which dainty and quesie stomaks cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cherfully . . . . shewing herein their true love unto their freinds and bretheren. A rare example and worthy to be remembered.” One half of the crew of the Mayflower, including “many of their officers and lustyest men, as ye boatson, gunner, three quartermaisters, the cooke, and others,” also perished before the little vessel set sail on her return voyage to England in April 1621. In the following excerpt from his History, Governor Bradford vividly describes the lot of the Pilgrims during these early years. Writing about conditions in the spring of 1623, after their corn had been planted, he says: “All ther victails were spente, and they were only to rest on Gods providence; at night not many times knowing when to have a bitt of any thing ye next day. And so, as one well observed,...
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