A New England
To fully understand this story, you need to understand its historical background. In the mid-sixteenth century, King Henry VIII had broken away from Roman Catholicism to establish the Anglican Church, otherwise known as the Church of England. But by 1600, during the reign of Elizabeth I (his daughter), this church also had its detractors. These reformers felt that the Church of England still resembled the Catholic Church too closely for comfort. They disliked the church government along with what they perceived as showy rituals. Because this group wanted to purify the church, they became known as the Puritans.
Hard times had fallen on England, and these reformers suffered greatly from the ills of a bad economy with high unemployment and low wages. The Puritans blamed their lot on the Church of England, and they weren't shy about telling anyone so. King James I, who succeeded Elizabeth I, did not take well to this outspokenness, doing everything in his power to make the Puritans miserable.
Most Puritans believed they could change the church and still belong to it. Others didn't think the Church of England could change, and they chose to create a separate congregation outside of the established church. They became known as the Separatists and suffered harsh treatment — which included not being able to attend universities or worship openly. Separatists were imprisoned and sometimes put to death. The English clergyman Robert Browne was influential among the group, and some of his followers became known as Brownists.
A good many of these Separatists escaped to the Netherlands, where some became sailors aboard Dutch merchant ships. Others returned to England in 1620, but were still unhappy. The New World in America that people spoke of was simply too enticing to pass up. In a new land, the Separatists could worship as they pleased, create a truly religious society, and yet retain their English identity. It was this group that made up the core of the Pilgrims.
Strangers among Them
Planning their voyage, the Pilgrims recruited a number of others to join them. Approximately eighty “strangers,” who weren't Separatists or Puritans, decided to sail as well, but not for religious freedom. They sought better lives, adventure, shipboard jobs, and, of course, great wealth. Among these men were Captain Miles Standish and John Alden.
The group, to set sail on two ships, had obtained a charter to settle in the Virginia Colony. These ships, the
Signing the Mayflower Compact
Native American Aid at Plymouth Colony
When the Pilgrims established Plymouth Colony, they chose this site for its farm fields, its supply of fresh drinking water, and the hill that enabled them to build a fort. But by early 1621, the Pilgrims were cold, hungry, and sick. They had arrived too late to plant crops, and with the snow, cold, and dwindling food supply, as many as half the colonists died.
The hope of spring kept them going. So did a surprise in the form of a Native American named Samoset, who entered their settlement, speaking English. Samoset said he'd heard them speaking and learned their language, and evidently he saw the Pilgrims' needs. Soon he brought Squanto, another Native American friend and part of the tribe that had lived at Plymouth before the colonists' arrival, to serve as their guide, teaching them how to survive with new methods of farming and fishing. The Pilgrims learned to plant corn, fertilize their fields, and prosper in other ways as well.
Native Americans had celebrated autumn harvests for centuries. Early New Englanders celebrated Thanksgiving only when there was a plentiful harvest, but it gradually became an annual custom. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress proposed a national day of thanksgiving, and in 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation designating the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
Squanto acted as the interpreter between the Pilgrims and the great Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag in southeastern Massachusetts. The two sides pledged not to harm one another, and by the following autumn in 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with their Native American neighbors. Both brought provisions for that first Thanksgiving feast, which lasted three days.