That Mayflower Compact

Signing the Mayflower Compact
Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1899


I watched a few TV programs about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving this week. The story is different from what I remember being taught in school. Of course, the lessons learning in elementary school full of turkeys and happy Pilgrims and Indians sitting at the table have deeper providence in my brain than some of the “real history” I learned in later years. That first Thanksgiving happened the year after the Pilgrims arrived in the New World.

The Mayflower had set sail from Plymouth, England, on September 16 1620, with just over 100 people aboard. About half of them were religious separatists and were known as Saints or, later, Puritans. They had broken away from the Church of England.

They were navigating to the colony of Virginia where land was set aside for them. The set their course to landfall at the Hudson River in what is now New York. They were blown off course by bad storms and ended up arriving off of Cape Cod instead.

That is a common story for these early arrivals to the New World. I’ve never heard a good explanation for why all these early colonists didn’t take a few week to get provisions and just set sail again for the right place.

Since they were not in the Virginia Colony, they were not bound by their original charter with King James and felt the need to establish a provisional system of government while they waited for a new royal charter from England. The Mayflower Compact was signed in November 1620.

Pilgrim leaders drafted the compact partially to ease tensions between the Puritan Separatists and the other passengers, and they wrote it while they were anchored in Provincetown Harbor.

It was only a 200-word document based loosely on a Puritan church covenant and it created a civil body politic “to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.”

Every adult male passenger had to sign the compact before going ashore.

The compact was the first attempt at forming a democratic government in what would become the United States of America, and it remained in use until the Massachusetts Bay Colony absorbed the Plymouth Colony in 1691.

Days of Thanksgiving

An autumn version, painted by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, of the “first” Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts)

Our modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is sometimes traced back to a not-very-well-documented late autumn November 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts.

A year after their mistaken arrival (they intended to go to Virginia), this feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a first good harvest.

Pilgrims and Puritans began emigrating from England in the 1620s and brought a tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them.

It was “official” when Governor Bradford planned the colony’s thanksgiving celebration and fast in 1623. The practice of holding an annual harvest festival did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.

Unlike the “first Thanksgiving” that is in many of our brains from school and popular culture,  the one that was first was on February 21, 1621.  A group of the starving Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock were saved by the last-minute arrival of a ship from Dublin bringing food.  Pilgrims in the winter of their first year had no harvest to rely on and faced the end of the their project to colonize the New World.  According to records at the Massachusetts Historical Society, a wife of one of the prominent Plymouth Rock brethren was the daughter of a Dublin merchant and that it was he who chartered a vessel, loaded it with food and sent it to Plymouth.

Thanksgiving observances are common throughout the world. American-style Thanksgiving is currently on the rise in the United Kingdom, with 1 in 6 Britons now celebrating the holiday. In 2014, it was reported that Turkey sales increased by 95% as a result of the rise in popularity of Thanksgiving in Britain.

The First Thanksgiving by JLG Ferris is a more traditional depiction of the holiday’s origin – Library of Congress