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The Straight Story of Thanksgiving

How it all happened, without the myths

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The fourth Thursday in November celebrates a group of immigrants called the Pilgrims. Their story has been told and retold with many errors of omission and commission. Here is the straight story of Thanksgiving, as best as I know it.

The Straight Story of Thanksgiving

When Queen Elizabeth I, known as the Virgin Queen, died in 1603, her nephew, James of Scotland, ascended the English throne.  In 1606, James authorized two joint stock companies with a royal charter. A charter is a partnership of the Crown and private investors, a forerunner of the modern corporation. It included a mix of knights, merchants, planters and Adventurers i.e., investors.

King James I.

James issued the charters  to promote English settlement in North America. The Virginia Company of London settled Jamestown in 1608. The other, the Virginia Company of Plymouth, included investors primarily from southwest England: Exeter, Plymouth and Bristol. By 1606, 10 English joint stock companies promoted settlements and trade across the globe. They competed with France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.

England had an official church, the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. (In the United States  the Episcopal Church belongs to what is now called the Anglican Communion.) All English adult men had to pay a tithe or ten percent of their income or property value in goods in kind or currency to support the church of England whether they were members or not. In effect, this was a church and state monopoly.

The Puritans wanted changes, believing the Anglicans corrupted by Church of Rome influence.  The Anglican hierarchy considered them nonconformists, accused them of treason and forced them to worship in secrecy in their homes. While the Puritans believed they could purify the Church of England, the Separatists felt otherwise.

The Netherlands and Back

In 1607, the Rev. John Robinson illegally led 100 Separatists to the Netherlands. The Dutch were fighting Catholic Spain in the Eighty Years’ War for independence and religious tolerance. The war culminated in 1648 with an interregnum of a  12-year truce (1609-1621). The Pilgrims migrated to Leiden, 25 miles south of Amsterdam. They chose that city, the second largest in Holland, because it did not require workers to speak Dutch.

The Battle of Gibralter, which took place during the Eighty Years’ War

The Separatists in Leiden grew to 300, but they earned meager wages. Their children also began to adopt too many Dutch customs. Around 1619, some Separatists began a movement to return to England and secure financial backing to emigrate to America. But Robinson and most of the Pilgrims did not go. Only 100 left for England with Elder William Brewster, a layman assistant minister.

The Plymouth Company, sometimes referred to as the Adventurers, financed the Pilgrims. Initially, the contract required the Pilgrims to work four days for the company and two days for themselves. In return, they received transportation and necessary supplies.

The original plans had several modifications. Two vessels were originally chartered, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. But the Speedwell proved unseaworthy, despite two repairs. The delays caused expenses to increase, forcing the Pilgrims to agree to work six days a week. They would deliver furs and timber for the Plymouth Company for a typical seven-year indenture.

To America

The Pilgrims originally planned to settle the northern boundary of the Virginia Company — the mouth of the North River, now known as the Hudson at New York City. But the prevailing northern current of the Gulf Stream pushed the Mayflower off course. After a short stay in Provincetown Harbor on Cape Cod, the Mayflower set sail again for their original destination. But dangerous shoals off Monomoy Point, Cape Cod, forces Capt. Christopher Jones to retreat. He then found anchorage in December 1620 in the shallows of what is now Plymouth, Mass.


Notably, the Pilgrims passed over John Smith, an able leader for the Jamestown settlement, because he  was not a Puritan Separatist but a “Stranger.” Smith had given the Pilgrims maps highlighting areas like the deep Charles River in Boston. The Charles was ideal since the river provided both essential freshwater and the Mayflower could navigate it.  Why the Pilgrims chose Plymouth is unclear; perhaps the lack of food, scurvy and the winter weather forced the choice. Later Boston became the epicenter for the Great Migration of Puritans from 1630-1640. More than 20,000 people, primarily Puritans from England, migrated to New England. Some also came from Scotland and Ireland, but fewer than 2 percent of the United Kingdom population migrated.

The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall.

The Mayflower, a wine merchant ship, carried the Separatists, the crew and others they called Strangers. That amounted to a total of 102 people, 42 tons of beer and 10,000 gallons of wine!  The term Pilgrims was not coined until the 1800s.

Despite friendly relations with the native Wampanoag Indians during the first two years, many Pilgrims died from starvation and disease. Initially, a communal property agreement gave everyone an equal, but inadequate share, of food. By 1623, a system of free enterprise reigned.  Families kept what they grew and women helped in the fields.

The Rest of the Straight Story of Thanksgiving

In 1621, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags celebrated the first Harvest Fest, common across Europe. Their meal included  venison, duck, lobster, clams, eels, turkey, corn and nuts.

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

Presidents Washington, Madison, Monroe and the two Adams proclaimed Thanksgiving a holiday. But after Monroe, only the six New England states celebrated the holiday until Sarah Josepha Hale from New Hampshire came along. She wrote many editorials urging President Lincoln to proclaim Thanksgiving a national holiday. In 1863, Lincoln made it our third national holiday along with Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday.

The Mayflower Society estimates over 10 million people in America are direct lineal descendants from the Plymouth colonists. You or someone in your family may be one of them!

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Now available in paperback and as an ebook. Click here to order from Amazon. 




Dan Hazard grew up in Rhode Island and is an avid colonial historian and genealogist. Dan has fond memories of watching the Mayflower II sail serenely into Plymouth Harbor in June 1957 and recently discovered his family connection to Pilgrim Elder Brewster.

Primary Sources: ‘Mayflower,’ Nathanial Philbrick, 2006. The Great Migration Directory, Anderson FASG


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