Four hundred years ago, on Nov. 9, 1620, the Mayflower Pilgrims—New England’s first permanent European settlers—arrived off Cape Cod after 65 days at sea. “It was a beautiful, late-fall morning—clear skies and light winds out of the northwest,” writes Nathaniel Philbrick in “Mayflower,” his 2006 account of their arrival. “There was a thin slice of moon overhead, gradually fading to nothingness as the sun rose behind them.” The passengers were “not a little joyful,” William Bradford, a future leader, wrote in his journal.
And yet, we forget what a troubling time the preceding three years had been for the Indigenous people who populated the area, and how hard the following months would be for the Pilgrims themselves. Between 1616 and 1619 a plague had wiped out nearly 90% of the native population, leaving empty fields and hastily dug graves that parties from the Mayflower found as they ventured west into the land beyond Cape Cod. And within a year, half the Mayflower settlers would be dead.
The first Thanksgiving, a combination of harvest feast and Puritan time of spiritual devotion, is thought to have been celebrated a year later, in late September or early October, a time of bounty after a year of hardship.
Though our own hardships this Thanksgiving can hardly compare to those experienced by the estimated 90 Pauquunaukit Wampanoags and 50 English settlers who gathered in 1621, this time of pandemic can remind us of the sacrifices made and losses suffered by those who came before us, and renew our gratitude for our own health and well-being.
This year, many will celebrate Thanksgiving alone or via teleconferencing, as everyone does their best to limit the spread of the coronavirus and protect one another from its devastation. It seems we’ll need to wait a year, as did the Pilgrims, before we can gather our families and friends together again to celebrate this most American of holidays. But when we do, we’ll have new reasons to be thankful.