If you go to the website plimouth.org, you will read what a community of Americans describes as the first Thanksgiving. The community decided that was how they wished history to be. However, it is not fact but rather a perspective that protected the community from seeming to be cruel or heartless. Sometimes a community feels it must do such to protect itself. I don’t know exactly when those in charge of Plimouth plantation decided to fabricate the partially true bit of history but it might fall under the heading of “fake news”.
Approximately 398 years ago, plus one day, the men aboard a ship of immigrants fleeing persecution were nearing the end of their sixty-six day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Hoping to soon set foot on dry land, they devised a legal and binding contract of behavior and governance for all to follow. Before each man set foot off the ship he was expected to sign the document that, as of the late 1700’s, has become known as the Mayflower Compact.
The ship these immigrants sailed upon was called the Mayflower and it was under the steerage of Christopher Jones. Known as the master (today we would consider him the Captain), Jones’ quarters were at the back of the ship in the stern. The sailors lived in quarters at the front of the ship and used a hole cut into the tip of the bow or head for their personal hygiene needs. The quarters consisted on one room known as the forecastle, a wet room constantly hit by crashing waves and frequently quite cold. In the area between the Captain’s berth and the forecastle were the quarters for the officers.
The passengers on the Mayflower were considered cargo. One hundred and two men, women, and children lived in the dark cargo decks below the crew. Today there are caravans of immigrants escaping persecution from Central and South America approaching the United States border but in 1620, the fleeing immigrants were below the decks, seldom seeing the sun and feeling the full brunt of the ocean’s currents, tides, and waves.
These immigrants in 1620 were known as the Pilgrims. Before leaving England, they had obtained permission from the King of England to settle on land farther to the south near the mouth of the Hudson River (in present-day New York). The wind drew them off course and instead landing farther south where they had expected to make shore, they landed in New England. This meant they needed a new permission (called a patent) to settle there as all land in this New World had been claimed as property of the King of England. On November 11, 1620, feeling the need to maintain order and establish a civil society while they waited for this new patent, the adult male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact.
At this juncture, two important points need to be made. First, there were over five thousand groups of people already living in this New World as the North American continent was known in 1620. Claiming it for the sovereignty of England did not erase this fact. These people had spent decades and centuries to reach this land mass, coming originally as immigrants from the Caucus Mountains. Today in the USA they are called Native Americans or American Indians. The Canadian term is much more apt – First Families. Archaeological evidence places their arrival some thirty thousand years before Europeans reached North America and some twenty thousand years in South America. It is estimated they arrived some fifteen thousand years before the Vikings reached the shores of northern North America.
The second important point is that communities make such compacts as a way of maintaining order. This is true of religious communities, volunteer groups, municipalities, social organizations, businesses, etc. It is to be hoped that such documents include all parties involved and are written to the greatest maximum benefit of all. In keeping with the times, only men signed the Mayflower Compact as women were not considered to be of mental acuity to understand such. Gender discrimination is not a modern-day issue. Much like the laws of today, though, a piece of paper cannot guarantee success, or that all will follow what has been agreed upon, or that order will lead to a better tomorrow. The community itself must work together for the betterment of all and be willing to chance. If not, well…that is where things can often get complicated. They certainly did in 1620.
Of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, there were 50 men, 19 women and 33 young adults and children. Just 41 were true Pilgrims, religious separatists seeking freedom from the Church of England. The others were considered common folk and included merchants, craftsmen, indentured servants and orphaned children—the Pilgrims called them “strangers.” Seeking the right to worship as they wished, the Pilgrims had signed a contract with the Virginia Company to settle on land near the Hudson River, which was then part of northern Virginia. The Virginia Company was a trading company chartered by King James I with the goal of colonizing parts of the eastern coast of the New World. London stockholders financed the Pilgrim’s voyage with the understanding they’d be repaid in profits from the new settlement.
The strangers argued the Virginia Company contract was void. They felt since the Mayflower had landed outside of Virginia Company territory, they were no longer bound to the company’s charter. The defiant strangers refused to recognize any rules since there was no official government over them. Pilgrim leader William Bradford later wrote, “… several strangers made discontented and mutinous speeches.” The Pilgrims knew if something wasn’t done quickly it could be every man, woman and family for themselves. It’s unclear who wrote the Mayflower Compact, but the well-educated Separatist and pastor William Brewster is usually given credit. One now-famous colonist who signed the Mayflower Compact was Myles Standish. He was an English military officer hired by the Pilgrims to accompany them to the New World to serve as military leader for the colony. Standish played an important role in enforcing the new laws and protecting colonists against the natives of the area who were considered unfriendly.
In establishing a community, it should be noted that other communities must be considered. The Europeans came to this new land mass wanting to own all and did not give thought to those who were already living on the land and considered it theirs. Because they dressed differently, had different customs and practices, they were considered savage. When they tried to protect their homes, gardens, food sources, and families, they were called unfriendly.
William Bradford kept diaries and what we known of the original Mayflower Compact has been learned through his diaries. The original handwritten document has been lost but copies remain from over one hundred years later that are considered good references for it. The Mayflower Compact created laws for Mayflower Pilgrims and non-Pilgrims alike for the good of their new colony. It was a short document which established that: the colonists would remain loyal subjects to King James, despite their need for self-governance; the colonists would live in accordance with the Christian faith; the colonists would create one society and work together to further it; the colonists would create and enact “laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices…” for the good of the colony, and abide by those laws. The newly-formed Plymouth (or Plimouth) colony was their new community and John Carver was elected governor on November 21, 1620, three hundred and ninety-eight days ago.
That first year was brutal. Disease, improper clothing for the elements, lack of food and shelter resulted in the deaths of over half of those making the voyage aboard the Mayflower. Of the eighteen adult women in the new community, fifteen perished that first year. The Mayflower Compact is considered important as it established self-governance in this new land, the first of any such. It remained active until Plymouth Colony became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691. John Carver perished that first year and William Bradford took over as governor.
Also at the end of that first year, the new colonists discovered their neighbors were not so savage after all. The end of the growing season meant the Indians would have their ritual of a harvest feast. They invited the colonists to join them and the two communities, at least for several days, came together in peace and community. Sadly, the Massachusetts Indians who were the hosts succumbed to the germs the English brought with them, typical everyday germs we all carry on our bodies. There was no conspiracy to eliminate the Massachusetts tribe but it did. The remaining thirty or so members of the tribe led by Chief Massasoit then joined a neighboring tribe, the Wampanoag Indians. It was an Indian custom to have young men participate in an exchange program with neighboring tribes. Such a custom shared knowledge but also led to an understanding and often, prevention of warfare. It enabled the two somewhat different communities to ensure a future through discourse and education rather than annihilation.
Many believe the Mayflower Compact set the stage for the US Constitution. However, the legislative branch of the US government bears more similarities to the governance of the Massachusetts and Wampanoag tribes than the Mayflower Compact. This is, however, the way of history. We form communities and we learn. Those communities thrive when we gain and take the best of the past, giving thanks for lessons learned, and then move forward. Of the time the Pilgrims had spent in the Dutch republic city of Leiden, historian Nathaniel Philbrick once wrote: “Just as a spiritual covenant had marked the beginning of their congregation in Leiden, a civil covenant would provide the basis for a secular government in America.”
Many times we think of a spiritual covenant as relating to faith, a religious doctrine but I would offer that truly it is a nonphysical grouping of belief and we all have such. This week might not be a time where you have an official Thanksgiving Holiday but I do think it a good time to give thanks. We all should have an attitude of gratitude and move forward, committed to making our world a better community for all. This provides not only a civil covenant for the future but a basis of a better tomorrow for us all.