The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in the autumn of 1621 by the Pilgrims in Plymouth as a way of rejoicing for their successful and bountiful harvest.
Freedom of Religion Denied
Who were these Pilgrims? During the 16th century in England, the reigning rulers of the kingdom approved only one church and required that everyone practiced only one religion. The church was under the power of the current ruler and the archbishop during that time. This type of dictatorship by the government restricted the people’s choice of their religious beliefs and their manner of worship. Anyone who did not obey this one-religion rule would be arrested and thrown into prison.
As is always the case, when there is limited or no freedom of choice, there is discontentment and dissention. There were groups of believers who totally disagreed with this rule. One group believed that by staying with the church, they could bring reforms and changes from within. This group were called the Puritans.
Another group did not share this belief, and they surmised that the church could not be changed at all. They were known as Separatists because they wanted a complete separation of the church from the government.
In 1606, the Separatists felt that the situation in England was hopeless and that they would need to leave England if they wanted to achieve and enjoy religious freedom. The Separatists attempted to leave for Amsterdam in1607, but their plan was discovered by the English authorities, and so most of them were captured and arrested.
They made another attempt to leave the following year and were more successful this time. More and more Separatists followed within the next few years. But life in Holland was hard and jobs were either scarce or low-paying. Also, the Separatists were not able to advance their religious cause. This prompted them to forge an agreement with merchants who were looking into establishing new colonies and settlements in the Americas.
Journey to Freedom
The Separatists set sail for the Americas on the Mayflower in the summer of 1620. It was this group of Separatists that later became known as the Pilgrims.
In the winter of 1620, after a long two month voyage in the high seas, the Mayflower came upon the New World and set foot on Cape Cod. The Pilgrims drew up rules and laws that all were expected to follow, and this came to be known as the Mayflower Compact. This Compact became the basis for American democracy.
New Friends & Giving Thanks
The Pilgrims embarked on exploring the new land and came into contact with the Native Americans who attacked them with arrows but were repelled when the Pilgrims retaliated with gunfire. They further explored inland and decided to set up a colony in Plymouth. After several months of establishing a community, a Native American named Samoset, courageously walked into the Pilgrims’ community and shouted, “Welcome, Englishmen!” A peace treaty between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims was signed soon after this encounter.
And so it was that after ten months in Plymouth, the Pilgrims had constructed several dwellings. They were healthy, they had a new found friendship with the Native Americans, and they were enjoying a good harvest. These were the reasons for their thankfulness and gave praise to God. The Pilgrims and their Native American friends feasted and celebrated for three days. This was the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving.