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My Grandfather and the First Thanksgiving

My grandfather, fourteen generations ago, attended what is commonly regarded as the first Thanksgiving in 1621. His name is William Brewster. He was the elder on the Mayflower and of the fledging colony of English immigrants at Plymouth. As the elder, and in fact the oldest in age of the group, he was the shepherd of the flock.

The governor of the colony, William Bradford, called for a celebration of thanks to God for bringing them through the harsh winter and into relative safety and health in the fall, although 48 of the 102 who arrived on the Mayflower, had died. We suppose that Brewster said a blessing fitting for their situation. In the midst of fires burning as food was being prepared, children running around in the din of the festivities, he somehow managed to momentarily quiet the crowd and read from Psalm 107:

’Lord, help!’ they cried in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He calmed the storm and stilled the waters (referring to their six-week nearly disastrous Atlantic crossing). What a blessing was that stillness as He brought them safely into harbor! Let them praise the Lord for His great love and for the wonderful things He has done for them.

And so, the celebration began and what a feast it was. It included fowl such as duck, geese, and turkey, and food from the ocean which included oysters, muscles, eel, striped bass, bluefish, cod, and lobster with claws as big as a human arm. Also there were squash, beans, barley, radishes, turnips, spinach, and peas with some of it made into stews with meat added. And of course, there was corn, which thanks to Squanto, a local Native, the colonists had learned to grow.

During the celebration guns were discharged which attracted the attention of Chief Massasoit and his Pokanoket warriors who rushed to the site ready to fight. However, seeing the feast, he and his 90 men crashed the party! Rather than bringing flowers or wine as guests might do today, they brought five deer. The settlers welcomed them heartily as their survival in the settlement had been in the balance and Massasoit’s decision to help saved their lives. Feasting took place late into the night as the two cultures squatted or sat on the ground around the fires (sorry kids, no nice clean, white-clothed tables) while deer and birds turned on wooden spits. The next two days the celebration continued with all sorts of games such as running races, and demonstrations of archery by the Indians and musket target shooting by the English.

This is only a small glimpse into the historic, interesting, tragic, and miraculous history of America’s first permanent European colony and my connection to it. I write this for four reasons.

  • Pastor Mark spoke about his genealogy and its relevance to our faith in his message We Are Part of Something Bigger last July. He urged me to write my family genealogy story.

  • Knowing one’s family genealogy is Biblical. The genealogy of Jesus is recorded in two gospels Matthew (1:2-16) and Luke (3:24-38) and the Old Testament records thousands of years of Israelite genealogy.

  • For many of us our faith is passed down to us from our ancestors as in my case with William Brewster and from my great grandfather on down to my parents.

  • I enjoy history and am happy and honored to be able to share with you my nugget of truth about this major family holiday celebration.

Thanks be to God!

“Your faithfulness extends to each generation, as enduring as the earth you created.” (Ps.119:90)
“Tell your children about it in the years to come, and let your children tell their children. Pass the story down from generation to generation.” (Joel 1:3)
“Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever!” Ephesians 3:21

More Historical Notes about Thanksgiving.

  • Because of a contract between Chief Massasoit and Governor Bradford of the colony, peace and mutual respect ensued for some 60 years in what is now eastern Massachusetts. The tragic, sad history of how the Native Peoples were subsequently treated is for another time to tell.

  • President Lincoln established the holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863. His proclamation is as follows:

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility.

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