Lots of folks will be trekking to the grocery store today or tomorrow, picking up ingredients for their traditional Thanksgiving feast: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and more.
But that’s probably not what the Pilgrims and their Indian guests ate in 1621. According to the two primary sources that survive, their feast included wildfowl (wild turkey among them, for sure, but those taste nothing like a Butterball), waterfowl, cornbread or corn porridge, and venison. Perhaps vegetables from their gardens were also on the menu, but they received no mention.
Soon after that first Thanksgiving, our American forefathers added a custom to the meal: putting five grains of corn at each place around the table as a memorial to those first Pilgrims—a people of strong faith who had faced persecution and even imprisonment in England.
So the small band left everything—extended family and friends, jobs, homes, and goods—to establish a colony for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith (according to the Mayflower Compact).
“Embarkation of the Pilgrims”
by Robert Walter Weir
You may remember a late departure from England delayed their arrival in America by two months. To complicate matters further, they were blown off course by a storm. Instead of arriving at Jamestown, Virginia where other colonists already lived, they landed at present-day Massachusetts.
In numbing cold and deep snow the Pilgrims began the overwhelming task of building a colony from scratch. Shelter was their highest priority, and construction of a common house began immediately.
At night the men stayed on land while the women and children returned to the Mayflower, thanks to the captain, Christopher Jones, who anchored the ship a mile offshore. Jones knew that if he left, they would all die.
But even the ship offered little relief from the frigid temperatures. To keep their children warm, the mothers would actually sleep on them.
“Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor”
by William Halsall
It’s no wonder that severe illness decimated the Pilgrims. At one point, only seven colonists were strong enough to care for the others. Half of the original 102 colonists died, many of them the women who had protected their children from the bitter cold. Most of the children survived.
The trial of rampant illness was compounded by the lack of food. During that first dreadful winter in America, corn had to be carefully rationed. Each person received just five grains at a time.
And thus began the custom among early settlers to put corn kernels at each place for Thanksgiving—in memory of those resolute and persevering men and women who suffered so much to live for the glory of God and share the good news of Jesus with the American Indians.
Sometime later, Governor William Bradford of the Massachusetts colony wrote, “We have noted these things so that you might see their worth and not negligently lose what your fathers have obtained with so much hardship.”
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Forgive me, Lord God. I do forget these things and become focused on the delight of gathering with family and friends on Thanksgiving Day. I neglect to soberly note the worth of the Pilgrims’ sacrifices, that they might live for your glory. Their perseverance, courage, and passion put me to shame.
Help me to be a voice of remembrance to those around me. May we not negligently lose what the Pilgrims and other heroes/heroines have obtained for us with so much hardship.
The Higher Happiness by Ralph W. Sockman (1950), p. 45.
The Founders’ Bible by Shiloh Road Publishers, pp. 95-104.
http://www.eagleforum.org; “Thanks-living Time–The Extraordinary Example of the Pilgrims.”