We all know the story of Thanksgiving. A hundred Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower, stepped out on Plymouth Rock with their buckled shoes and were greeted by Indians who proceeded to teach them to plant corn with fish. They had a big Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie with Cool Whip. Right?
A newspaper once noted that Thanksgiving is “a holiday that has no religious affiliation,” and that the whole tradition centers around food. School children are taught that it celebrates how nicely the Pilgrims and Indians got along.
But the Pilgrims’ faith in God is why we celebrate any of it.
John and Joan Tilley believed that the Church of England did not teach God’s word as they found it in their Bible. They were required to attend Anglican services, but they also met with other believers to study the Bible, which was against the law. So when their daughter Elizabeth was a toddler, they fled to Holland with other English Separatists.
Though the Dutch were tolerant, they were more bawdy and did not observe the Sabbath Day. And the English children, like Elizabeth Tilley, started speaking Dutch and becoming more like them.
So, after a dozen years in Holland, a band of Pilgrims decided to establish an English colony in the new world. Two ships set sail in early August of 1620, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. When the Speedwell began to leak. Both ships put in at Dartmouth, where they lost eight days to repairs.
Setting sail again in mid-August, 300 miles out, the Speedwell began to leak again. They turned back to Plymouth where they abandoned the smaller ship.
Forty Separatists or “saints,” including Tilleys, and sixty-some “strangers,” recruited by London businessmen financing the trip, crowded onto the Mayflower, finally embarking September 20.
These pilgrims risked their lives to plant a colony for the “glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country” in the new world, but during the 65-day trip, a storm tossed the ship. When the crowded conditions became unbearable, John Howland, an indentured servant, climbed to the deck for fresh air. He was washed overboard!
Howland got caught in the halyards and was rescued.
By the time the tired band finally spotted land, one person had died and a new baby had been born. One hundred two souls arrived. The Mayflower dropped anchor off Cape Cod, where 41 men, saints and strangers alike, signed “The Mayflower Compact”–the first agreement for self-government and rule of law in the new world.
Our nation’s foundations are undergirded by the faith of this handful of hardy believers.
That first winter about half their number died while they were anchored off Provincetown, Massachusetts. Both parents of thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Tilley died. So did her uncle, Edward Tilley, and his wife. Now an orphan, Elizabeth moved in with Governor and Mrs. Carver. Two other girls, one also an orphan, also lived with Carvers. But before summer arrived, Governor and Mrs. Carver had also died. No one knows who took in the girls.
When the Mayflower returned to England, just half the original number of Pilgrims watched it disappear from sight.
Of the eighteen Pilgrim wives and mothers who left England, only five survived. By October, when the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoags to a harvest feast, four women and five teenaged girls (three of them the sole survivors of their families) cooked and served what we now think of as the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving.
When I was fourteen, my family of four drove a few miles of Iowa’s gravel roads to a clan Thanksgiving at my grandparents’–twelve grownups and thirteen cousins. My sole duties the Thanksgiving of 1958 were to help carry food in and help do dishes afterwards. The rest of the time was spent in cousin-talk–about junior high, band, and basketball.
When Elizabeth Tilley was fourteen, she helped cook and serve a harvest feast–venison, wild fowl, turkeys, Indian corn, and other foods–for 48 Englishmen, plus 90 Wampanoag Indians.
What we call the first Thanksgiving feast in America lasted three days!
When she was about seventeen years old, Elizabeth married John Howland–the man who survived being washed overboard. He’d been indentured to Governor Carver, and it is thought that he may have inherited Carver’s estate and bought his freedom that way.
All the years I’d enjoyed the potluck and fellowship of Thanksgivings with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, I had no knowledge of our Mayflower connection. I later found Elizabeth Tilley on an old genealogy chart with her parents, and married to the thirteenth signer of the Mayflower Compact.
John and Elizabeth Howland had ten children. Their descendants are scattered all over the globe.
Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday. Among so many other things, I thank God for family–even for our long-ago ancestor as a teenager who helped serve that first Thanksgiving feast.
The First Thanksgiving Feast by Joan Anderson. Photographed at Plimoth Plantation, based on primary sources.
Of Plymouth Plantation:The Pilgrims in America by Gov. William Bradford.
One Small Candle: The Pilgrims’ First Year in America by Thomas J. Fleming.
The Pilgrims of Plymoth by Marcia Sewall. Quotes from original writings by Pilgrims themselves.
Saints and Strangers by George F. Willison
Picture book: Three Young Pilgrims by Cheryl Harness. A favorite, with compelling illustrations.
Biographical and Genealogical History of Wayne, Fayette, Union, and Franklin Counties, Indiana, 1899, Vol. 1.
Families of the Pilgrims: John Howland, complied by Hubert Kinney Shaw. (1955)
Hinshaw Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy.
Vital Records of Nantucket, Mass. to the Year 1850. (1926)