Thanksgiving time is here again. This is a reprise of a 2008 column I did about the origins of this national holiday based on “The Light and the Glory,” written by Peter J. Marshall and David Manuel.
This year’s version is especially poignant as Mr. Marshall passed away Sept. 8 at the age of 70. He led a ministry for many years, continuing the legacy of his parents, Christian author Catherine Marshall and Peter Marshall, the U.S. Senate’s chaplain for many years.
“The Light and the Glory,” written in 1980, tells the story of the Pilgrims’ arrival in what is now Plymouth, Mass., in a way that suggests that God’s hidden hand repeatedly protected these devout people.
For example, during the Mayflower’s harrowing seven-week journey, it was blown off course and landed far north of the jurisdiction of the Virginia Co. This forced the 102 Pilgrims to create their own community with little more than ingenuity and faith.
The harbor into which they sailed in November 1620 was perfect for a ship — in fact, it could (and would) handle ships twice the size of the Mayflower. The mainland had rich, fertile soil and four spring-fed creeks with the “sweetest water any of them had ever tasted,” Mr. Marshall and Mr. Manuel wrote.
Oddly, some 20 acres were cleared for planting, although it seemed no one had touched the land for years.
“[T]hus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land,” William Bradford, one of the young leaders and future governor, wrote in his journal, “they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof.”
But, as Bradford added, landing in a desolate wilderness meant there were “no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies, no houses, or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor.”
The winter of 1620-21 was horrific. The Pilgrims built shelters as fast as they could, but sickness soon began claiming lives. Forty-seven people perished, including 13 of the 18 wives.
Then on a sunny March day, an Indian walked up and said “Welcome” to the stunned settlers.
Samoset asked for beer — and settled for brandy — and explained he had learned English from traveling with sea captains. He also knew why the Pilgrims had not been harmed by Indians: The land they were on once belonged to the Patuxets, a fierce tribe that killed any white people who came to their shores.
“But four years prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival, a mysterious plague had broken out among them, killing every man, woman and child. So complete was the devastation that the neighboring tribes had shunned the area, convinced that some supernatural spirit had destroyed the Patuxets,” Mr. Marshall and Mr. Manuel wrote. “Hence, the cleared land on which the Pilgrims had settled literally belonged to no one.”
The nearest Indian tribe was the Wampanoags, led by Massasoit. Students of American history will remember this story: Samoset introduced the Pilgrims to Squanto, a surviving Patuxet who was living with the Wampanoags. Squanto also knew English, and he taught the Pilgrims how to raise corn, plant pumpkins, refine maple syrup, pick medicinal herbs, harvest beaver pelts and catch eels and fish.
The first Thanksgiving dinner in October 1621 was bountiful. The Wampanoags arrived with deer and turkeys and the two groups introduced hoecakes, vegetables, fruit pies and popcorn to each other. It led to 40 years of peace.
Winter came again and the Pilgrims endured a second “starving time.” Their burden was made heavier when 35 more Pilgrims were dropped off, empty-handed, from a ship. As the food supplies dwindled, there came a time when everyone was rationed to five kernels of corn a day.
Miraculously, no one died of starvation that winter, and the faithful Pilgrims prospered after that. But for a long time, whenever a feast was held, everyone was first served a plate with just five kernels of corn, “lest anyone should forget.”
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.