THE PILGRIMS FIRST YEAR IN NEW ENGLAND
By Rev. Nahum Gale
After harvest, the Pilgrims prepared to keep Thanksgiving. "That they might," as Winslow says, " after a special manner, rejoice together, after they had gathered the fruit of their labors."
The Pilgrims had special reason for gratitude, that they had been so successful in raising their first crop of Indian corn. This was the beginning of a long and increasing series of corn harvests, over which many millions have now occasion to rejoice. Corn seems designed by Providence to hold the first rank among the rich and various productions, by which the teeming population of our land is fed.
In 1850, the crop of Indian corn in the United States amounted to " five hundred and ninety-two millions, seventy-one thousand, one hundred and four bushels." The value of this crop was not less than $300,000,000! The Old World, after so long a time, is beginning to appreciate the value of this grain. Last year " about eight millions of bushels" were exported.
As the corn began to be harvested about the first of September, old style, which would be the eleventh of the month, according to our calender, we must place this first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts earlier than the day is now appointed. It was probably kept the latter part of October, while the weather was pleasant for out-door exercise. This Thanksgiving was not for a single day, as with us, but it seems to have been kept up for nearly a week.
Winslow, in a letter written soon after to a " loving old friend " in England, thus speaks of this harvest festival. "Our governor sent out four men on fowling. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us; among the rest, their great King, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation, and bestowed on the governor, and upon the captain and others." As Winslow, in another place, speaks of the "abundance of wild turkeys" which are about Plymouth, we cannot doubt that they are "fowl" which the sharp-shooters brought home for this. first New England Thanksgiving dinner. No Thanksgiving, therefore, can be perfect now, if the turkey be wanting.
With turkeys and venison in abundance, with fresh cod, which Winslow says "is coarse meat with us," with lobsters, which in September could be taken, "a hogshead in a night," with clams, which they could dig from the sand, and oysters, which they could have brought by the Indians, when they wished, with corn and barley cakes, with "nokake," made from pounded parch corn, " sweet, toothsome and hearty," the Pilgrims did not want for good cheer. Perhaps the "Indian pompion," as the pumpkin was called by the early settlers, was as abundant there as it has been at Thanksgivings of a later date in the Yankee land.
For drink on this occasion, they doubtless used the spring water, which they regarded so delicious; and they may even then have learned the art of domestic brewing, in which they afterwards were so skillful. According to an old song, perhaps the very oldest that tradition has preserved of thisperiod, it seems that they very early found a good substitute for English beer.
"If barley be wanting to make into malt,
We must be contented and think it no fault;
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, and parsneps, and walnut tree chips."
The Pilgrims did not enjoy their festival alone. The red man was welcome, and for three days at least, the guests from the forest wilds were twice as numerous as the people of Plymouth. Thus they, as friends and neighbors rejoiced together at their "feast of tabernacles," for this Jewish feast seems to have been the model of the first harvest festival at Plymouth.
Some sports of the more manly kind were certainly allowed. For Winslow says, "Amongst other recreations we exercised ourselves in arms." Captain Standish, no doubt, manoeuvred his company of some twenty men, with drum and trumpet, astonishing the guests. Perhaps the "ordnance" at the fort were discharged and all listened to the roar, as it died away in the distant forest.
It may be, Winslow and Hopkins, who could take down a crow at eighty paces, showed their skill in shooting at a mark, while Massasoit, in his "cotton coat," called out his best marksmen to show how deer were killed by the bow and arrow, their shrill war whoop rivaling the notes of the Pilgrim's trumpet. Perhaps the young men, Alden, Howland, Doty, and Leister, man the shallop, and taking in Priscilla and Mary, Elizabeth, Remember and Constance, sail over to Clark's Island, after dinner, and return by moonlight.
Without drawing in the least from imagination, after reading the Puritan's own record of this, their first Thanksgiving, how can our popular writers represent them, as they do in the literature of the day? Take the following, from " Twice Told Tales," as a specimen:
"Not far from Merry Mount was a settlement of Puritans, most dismal wretches, who said their prayers before daylight, and then wrought in the forest or the corn field till evening made it prayer-time again. Their weapons were always at hand to shoot down the straggling savage. When they met in conclave, it was never to keep up the old English mirth, but to hear sermons, three hours long, or to proclaim bounties on the heads of wolves and the scalps of Indians. Their festivals were fast days, and their pastime the singing of Psalms."
Such gross misrepresentations of Puritan character need no other refutation than a candid perusal of the facts of history.
Surely our annual Thanksgiving is rich in the memories of the past. We trace its origin to the very infancy of our Commonwealth. Let the day, therefore, never cease to be appointed by the successors of Governor Bradford. And let us provide, as did our fathers, for the poor in the " highways and hedges."
Let the autumnal Thanksgiving be the feast day of the sons and daughters of the Pilgrims, "where'er they roam, where'er they rest." From ocean to ocean, let them hail the coming of this harvest festival with glad and grateful hearts. Let them consecrate the day to friendship, to home joys, to family reunions, to social reminiscences, to the memory of a sainted ancestry and to the praise of a covenant-keeping God.