The fate of the Pilgrim colonists would surely have been more difficult had they not settled where they did, adjacent to friendly natives of the Pokanoket Indian village that were part of the Wampanoag tribe. And had they not befriended two who providentially could speak broken English — Squanto and Samoset — perhaps none would have survived. Squanto and his fellow native tribesmen would teach the Pilgrims survival skills, showing them how to hunt, fish, and plant various crops, such as corn, squash, and varieties of beans, which were unknown to the Englishmen.
A Lasting Peace Treaty
The Pilgrims’ third major achievement was the Pilgrim-Wampanoag Peace Treaty, which was signed on April 1, 1621, by Massasoit and leaders of the Plymouth colony. And a remarkable accomplishment it was, for it lasted more than 50 years — longer than subsequent peace treaties made by other colonizing groups with native Indian tribes. The fact that there were bloody conflicts between other colonists and tribes, such as in the Pequot War fought in Connecticut in 1636-1637, makes the Pilgrims stand out, for they succeeded in maintaining the longest-lasting and most equitable peace between natives and immigrants in the history of what would become the United States.
In spite of learning from the native Indians how to plant, cultivate, and harvest new crops in their first year, the Pilgrims complied with their sponsoring Virginia Company charter that called for settlement farmland to be owned and worked communally and for harvests to be equally shared. This socialist common property approach created disincentives to work. William Bradford recorded in his memoirs that while “slackers showed up late for work … everybody was happy to claim their equal share … and production only shrank.”
Although no one is certain of the exact date of the first Thanksgiving, we know it was a Pilgrim initiative, celebrated in November 1621 to give thanks to God for their survival, having lost so many during that first winter in Plymouth. They were also giving thanks for their first harvest — meager though it was. When Massasoit was invited to join the Pilgrims, it was assumed that he wouldn’t bring more guests than the 50-odd Pilgrim survivor hosts. Massasoit arrived with twice that number, well-stocked with food, fowl, and game of all kinds — including five deer. There was more than enough for everyone, and it turns out that the first Thanksgiving celebration would last three days, punctuated by Indian song, games and dance, Pilgrim prayers, and even a military parade by Myles Standish.
The Pilgrims’ fourth major achievement was the rejection of socialism and the adoption of private enterprise. After the meager Thanksgiving harvest, the second season of collective farming and distribution proved equally disappointing. Gov. Bradford had seen enough, recording that the system “was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.”
So before the 1623 season, he scrapped socialist farming and replaced it with private ownership of land for each of the families. As a result of becoming responsible for their own welfare and gaining freedom to choose what to grow for consumption or trade, the Pilgrims’ productivity surged.
Service and Sacrifice
The fifth factor that distinguished the Pilgrims was their model relational behavior. While tolerance enabled them to keep relative harmony within their diverse community, they also looked outwardly to serve and help others. In March of 1623, it came to be known that Massasoit was on the brink of death from an unknown illness. Senior Pilgrim elder Edward Winslow immediately set out on a 40-mile journey to administer medicinal broth, natural herbs, and prayers to Massasoit. Astonishingly, upon making a full recovery within days, he remarked, “Now I see the English are my friends and love me; and whilst I live, I will never forget this kindness they have showed me.”
In summary, the Pilgrims’ five achievements and the qualities of character that made them exemplary are as relevant today as ever. A contemporary Thanksgiving makeover might include: rekindling a quest for adventure; developing the faith to hold on to a vision of a promised land no matter what; mustering the courage to go against the crowd and defend the truth; gaining the resolve to endure hardship; revitalizing respect for and tolerance of people of different beliefs; rejuvenating a joyful willingness to sacrifice for others; and renewing the predisposition to extend love, assistance, and gratitude at every appropriate opportunity.
Originally Published At The Federalist