Thanksgiving Miracle

A long, very long time ago this land where we live was very different than it is today. There were no cities with tall buildings and roads and cars and busses. There were no airplanes or telephones or computers. No electricity, no microwave ovens, no refrigerators, no TV’s.

There were people here, lots of people who lived in villages and tribes, people who cooked over open fires, who planted crops and hunted for food. People who raised dogs and turkeys and who believed in the Great Spirit.

Most of those people did not know that across the ocean were other people who lived in villages and who planted crops and raised dogs and chickens and pigs and lived with their families and prayed to God in heaven. These people knew very little about each other, but change was coming. Change was coming to the whole world.

Nearly a hundred and thirty years had gone by since Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean into the Caribbean. One hundred years had passed since Cortez’s landing in Mexico had turned that land upside down. Ships now crossed the great ocean seeking lands and fortunes. Twelve years earlier a ship had arrived in Virginia and settlers had established Jamestown. But the newcomers from across the ocean struggled. Virginia was very different from England. The weather was different, the food was different, the crops were different, and the folks living in nearby villages were very different. There was no gold or silver in Jamestown; everyone had to work very hard just to stay alive. There were no grocery stores nearby; there was no Internet, no next day deliveries. There was no department store with a rack of warm coats. If somebody needed a new coat he likely had to kill and skin a deer, stretch and tan the hide, then cut and stitch together a coat. Or he could send a request back to England, when and if a ship was available. Then of course he would have to wait months or a year for the ship to return and hope that perhaps that warm coat was in one of the bundles on board.

Jamestown did not do very well. One of the settlers in Jamestown was a man named Steven Hopkins. Steven was discouraged with the way things were going in his new home. He missed his wife and family. Steven volunteered to return to England on the supply ship and see that the colony received the things they needed. He planned to bring his wife and children back to their new home in Virginia.

When Steven arrived in England terrible news awaited him. His wife and some of his children had died while he was away. He didn’t know they had died until he got home. There were no telegraphs or post offices to send letters. No one could call or write or email. News moved as slowly as everything else. Steven’s happy homecoming turned into a time of sadness.

Steven did not go back to Jamestown. He stayed in England and took care of his children. He married again, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the strange and exciting land across the ocean. Steven wanted to go back to America. In 1620 Steven learned that a group was getting ready to sail for Virginia. He wanted to go with them. “Go, Steven,” his wife encouraged him. “Go and make a new life for us all.” But Steven would not go without his family. This time if he crossed the ocean he wanted his wife and children with him.

The Hopkins signed up to travel on the Mayflower. The ship was full of religious pilgrims seeking freedom and a promised land, as well as other settlers ready to start a new life in a new land. The Mayflower did not look like a flower at all. She was small and stuffy and crowded. But she was going to cross the ocean.

The winds blew and rain fell. The Mayflower started out from England three times and turned back. Some of the pilgrims gave up and stayed behind. Still the little ship was full with 102 settlers and fifty sailors. It was the middle of September before the little Mayflower sailed away from land for the last time and into the deep ocean. Winds pushed the little ship forward, but those same winds split the main mast.

The sailors argued about what to do. They were halfway to the new world, but without the mast the trip would be very long if they arrived at all. One of the pilgrims wondered if the heavy press he had brought for printing books and pamphlets could be used to repair the mast. The sailors scratched their heads. The men placed the flat iron plates of the press on either side of the mast and turned the screw that pulled the plates together. They were able to use the press to lift and repair the mast. The passengers laughed and sighed in relief. They prayed and thanked God. The ship was saved and they were able to go forward. They were behind schedule, but they were on the way.

The little ship drifted off course in the stormy seas. When land was sighted on November 9, 1620 they were much further north than they thought. Instead of Virginia, the Mayflower anchored at Cape Cod in New England. The weather was cold, snow covered the ground, trees grew right down to the water’s edge. The pilgrims did not know who this land belonged to. It was a strange land, very different from England or Holland with their civilized streets and cities and harbors filled with ships. Still the sight of land was wonderful for these people who had been cooped up inside a ship for nine long weeks without even a Laundromat to wash their clothes. Even if they weren’t where they were supposed to be they were here; they hadn’t drowned in the depths of the sea. Now they could begin to plan for their new lives.

Where were they supposed to be? Virginia was far to the south. What should they do? The people talked and talked. Should they stay or should they go? The bay was full of fish, but no one had thought to bring fishhooks. Hardly anyone had brought building tools. They hadn’t thought about what it would be like to be so far from home and the store. How were they going to get along in this new land where everything depended on what they could do?

Elizabeth Hopkins had a new baby boy named Oceanus, the first child born during the crossing. Steven looked forward to settling the new land, to building a home and a life with his wife and children. He had some idea of what lay ahead.

But the pilgrims were afraid of the air, the food, and the water. Clear streams and ponds lined the shore, but the pilgrims drank beer. Was the water safe? They didn’t know. They were afraid of the Indians who were said to be cruel savages, treacherous, merciless cannibals who might be waiting to kill and eat the unwary. There were so many dangers, so many unknowns now that they had actually arrived.

But in the face of these supposed dangers the pilgrims went forward, slowly but forward nonetheless.

They were tired and hungry. They were dirty and there were no friends waiting to welcome them ashore. There were no hotels with the lights on, no houses with warm food or hot showers or soft pillows. There was only the unknown wilderness stretching before them filled with wild people and wild beasts.

Their leader, John Carver insisted they write a governing document before they left the ship. They wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact, a document that helped hold the tiny community together in the months that followed through difficult times and times of plenty. The Mayflower Compact became a model for other democratic governments in the future, although at the time it was made just to help the small group get along.

On November 11, a dozen men left the ship and set foot for the first time on American soil. They looked around near the beach but did not go too far from the safety of the shore. Still they returned to the Mayflower with fresh water, firewood, and lots of mussels. Everyone ate mussels until they were sick—literally sick, retching and throwing up mussels.

The next morning women headed to shore with their dirty laundry. Even in the bitter cold it felt good to be off the ship. It felt good to wash their hands and faces in the cold, fresh water in the ponds near the shore. It felt good to have clean clothes for the first time in nine long weeks. They hung their clothes on the bushes to dry and undoubtedly knocked ice off the frozen clothes to hurry the drying process along.

While the women did laundry the men explored the shoreline, looking for a likely spot to settle. They soon spotted five Indians and a dog walking toward them. But when the Indians saw the settlers they turned and ran into the woods. They had heard terrible things about these strange men from across the ocean. The Englishmen were ferocious, cruel, and merciless savages who might kill them without cause. The pilgrims, led by Miles Standish, followed the Indians into the woods and back over the sand dunes. They followed them for ten miles but the Indians did not stop or turn around.

Finally the settlers stopped and made camp. The next morning they tracked the Indians across a creek and back into the woods. Finally they turned back following the shoreline past cleared fields and through stands of walnut trees heavy with nuts. They came to an area of disturbed earth and dug into the soft soil. There they found bushels of seed corn packed in baskets and buried for the spring. The kernels were red and yellow and blue. The pilgrims had never seen grain like this but they took as much as they could carry and headed back to their ship. When they finally got back to the Mayflower they were hungry and thirsty even though they had crossed clear fresh water streams, passed through walnut trees, and filled their pockets with corn. They had a lot to learn about this new land.

There was so much that was new and so much that was unknown. The pilgrims had boat called a shallop on board the Mayflower. Now they decide their best bet would be to explore the bay with the shallop. The shallop needed repairs and the pilgrims waited ten long days before setting off again. When the shallop was ready thirty-four men set off to explore the coast.

On this trip they found ten more bushels of corn, a graveyard and abandoned houses. The corn saved the ill prepared settlers. Had they not found bushels and bushels of seed corn the pilgrims’ story would have been quite different and we would not be celebrating Thanksgiving the way we do today.

While the men were out exploring Mrs. White gave birth on board the Mayflower to a little son, Peregrine. When Mrs. White died, Elizabeth Hopkins took little Peregrine and raised him as her own. Life continued.

By December first all the explorers were back on board the Mayflower. The pilgrims argued over where the best place would be to settle, but finally agreed to settle somewhere within the Cape Cod harbor. They had spent their time so far on a narrow strip of land forming the outer edge of the bay. The mainland lay twenty-five miles across the water. Once again a group set out in the shallop, leaving the safety of the shoreline and heading across the open water of the bay. They saw no Indians on the mainland but once again stumbled through graveyards and abandoned houses. They spent a cold night in the open and the next morning decided to leave their heavy guns at the shallop while they explored on foot. No sooner had they set their guns aside when the alarm sounded, “Indians, Indians!” and a storm of arrows came flying into camp. Only four men were armed, but they fired their muskets as the others ran to the water’s edge to retrieve their weapons. Arrows flew, piercing the men’s coats hanging from branches, but not one man—pilgrim or Indian—was hit. A musket ball spit the tree where an Indian stood directing the attack, and the Indians fled. The pilgrims gathered up several dozen arrows, tipped with brash, bone, and eagle claw. They admired the arrows and eventually sent them back to England where they are still today.

After a series of adventures and misadventures the explorers came to the mouth of Plymouth Bay. They had been in Cape Cod for more than a month when they finally found a site acceptable to all. In the previous month seven settlers had died of disease and William Bradford’s wife Dorothy had slipped overboard and drowned in the frigid water only two days before her husband returned with the good news of a town site.

Bad weather delayed the landing, but on December 16 the Mayflower finally moved across the bay and the advance party went ashore. On December 18 another group followed. Fresh water creeks flowed into the bay here. Fish and wild birds were plentiful, the soil was fertile, the trees grew straight and tall. After walking the area the men agreed to build a fort on the hill overlooking the bay. Construction began on Christmas Day on a twenty by twenty foot common building where people could stay and where goods could be moved off the ship.

Smoke was often seen off in the distance but no Indians came near. Within two weeks the common building was ready except for a roof. Within two more weeks a second common building was near completion and most of the supplies had been moved off the Mayflower. Construction was underway on individual and family homes, but the remaining supplies from the ship would not be brought ashore until the third week of March. Everything took time.

January was a hard month for the little band. Despite the construction, or perhaps because of the hard labor in the freezing cold, another twenty settlers died in January. The original group of 102 pilgrims and settlers was not reduced to fewer than seventy. On February 12 they group had been in Cape Cod for over three months. While they had made some progress, they feared for the survival of their little group. Illness continued to plague the pilgrims and the death toll grew. A graveyard was soon filled with the bodies of friends and family members. By the end of February there were only fifty survivors, and of those only six or seven were in relatively good health. Those few cared for the sick and continued building.

With the arrival of spring the weather improved and with it men’s spirits and health seemed to improve. Those who survived that first winter seemed reinvigorated and strengthened for the tasks ahead.

On March 16th to the settlers’ astonishment an Indian approached and marched right down the row of houses into town. The pilgrims had been looking for Indians for months. They wanted to know who this land belonged to. They wanted to meet the neighbors, but they were taken by surprise when an Indian walked right in. Imagine their amazement when the Indian, wearing nothing but a loincloth, with half his face painted black, waved and called out in English with a cheery “Welcome people!” The pilgrims hardly knew what to think. Who was this man and how could he speak English?

The Indian told the English his name was Samoset. He had learned to speak English from fishermen up in Maine. Samoset was not from the Plymouth area, but word of the pilgrims’ arrival had reached his tribe to the north. When he heard they had come he began walking south to meet and greet them.

Even more incredible, Samoset told the settlers about another Indian, Squanto, who spoke English much better than Samoset could, and who had actually lived in England. The pilgrims found this hard to believe. They had never heard of an Indian living in England, but they were anxious to meet Squanto.

Samoset explained that four years before the arrival of the Mayflower a plague (possibly small pox) had wiped out the inhabitants around Plymouth Bay. That explained the graveyards the English had found, the untended fields, and the few Indians in the area. Samoset showed the pilgrims the cleared fields and the buried seed corn. It was time to plant. The fields had been abandoned; the Indians here would not be back. The pilgrims should feel free to plant and tend the fields. It was as if the land had been prepared for them.

This set the pilgrims minds at ease. They were not infringing on other men’s land or taking away other’s livelihoods.

Samoset was happy with his new friends. He spent the night in Steven Hopkins ‘ small home but left in the morning. He was back the next day with five friends, all anxious to meet the white men. Samoset was in contact with the Indians still in the area and within a week the great chief Massasoit came calling accompanied by friends and attendants including the now legendary Squanto.

Squanto did indeed speak English. He had indeed traveled and worked on an English fishing vessel for some time. He had also had the bad fortune to be captured by the notorious slaver Captain Hunt, and carried toward Spain to be sold. He had survived a shipwreck and been picked up by English sailors, who when they saw that he spoke English took him back with them to England. He had spent some time in England only returning to the Plymouth area in late 1619—a year before the arrival of the pilgrims. Because of his travels and adventures he was not in the area at the time of the plague and so survived only to find his friends and family dead, their bones scattered, and the fields fallow.

Squanto was lonely, but he was now able to act as a go between and translator for the English settlers and the tribes governed by Chief Massasoit. Governor Carver met formally with Massasoit and a treat was agreed on. The settlers and the Indians would defend each other in war and live in peace, esteeming each other as friends and allies. This treaty was observed by both sides for a number of years and allowed for the settlers’ establishment in their new land.

Eventually Samoset returned home to Maine, but Squanto stayed on with the pilgrims for the rest of his life. His assistance and his ability to interpret and smooth relations with the Indians were invaluable. He gave his peoples’ land to the settlers as a gift without strings attached. Squanto was considered a “special instrument sent of God for their good and beyond their expectation.” Indeed, the arrival of Squanto must be considered one of the miracles that led to the survival of this small band in the wild new land.

Serving the pilgrims now became Squanto’s mission in life. He taught them to plant and tend corn using a small fish as fertilizer. He taught them to trap and hunt. He taught them what plants were edible and could be cultivated. He taught them to plant beans and potatoes, pumpkins, squash, strawberries, and cranberries as well as corn—the myriad life sustaining foods not found in Europe.

Squanto turned the settlers toward their new land, with new hope and vision. On April 1, 1621 the Mayflower finally set sail back to England. Not one of the surviving pilgrims asked to return. Now they realized how many mistakes they had made, how little they had known, how unprepared they had been to start a new life. They realized how much they needed Squanto and the many things he had to teach them. The Hopkins remained good friends with Samoset and Squanto, helping Squanto find a home in the new village.

On April 21, governor John Carver died suddenly. William Bradford was selected as the new governor. Bradford was more decisive than Carver had been and was well prepared to lead his little band forward. Massasoit invited the new governor and friends to a reception in his village and they accepted his hospitality. Bradford, Steven Hopkins, and Winslow traveled forty miles through the wilderness sleeping on a pallet all together along with four Indians during their stay in Massasoit’s village. They returned home bleary eyed from lack of sleep but with good relations established.

Marriages followed in the spring and summer, children were born on American soil and the colony prospered. More than twenty acres of corn was planted and grew that first summer as well as many other crops. Treaties were extended to other tribes in the region and peace was established generally.

After a successful harvest the pilgrims determined to give thanks to God and to the local Indians who had helped them survive their first winter. They entertained and feasted with their neighbors for three days. Massasoit’s men brought five deer, turkeys were prepared and so were the native foods—pumpkins, corn, cranberries, walnuts, beans, and potatoes–would have graced the tables. Dancing, singing, and foot races were a part of the celebrations, but not football. Steven Hopkins’ wife Elizabeth helped cook the turkeys and pumpkins, and corn bread and pies.

As the celebration ended a ship was seen out in the bay. On November 9, 1621 the Fortune arrived carrying thirty-five pilgrims, many of them friends and family of the survivors. The new settlers arrived empty handed, without tools, without muskets, without food. The veteran’s rolled their eyes and divided their portion set aside for the winter. Twenty-eight of the newcomers were young men, a welcome addition once they could be taught to survive. Squanto only smiled. His Englishmen had learned a lot in a very short time. It was a miracle anyone had survived, but here they were, and now they would teach the new arrivals.

And so the little colony on Plymouth Bay continued to grow and thrive. And that truly is the miracle!

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About Karen Hopkins

Karen Hopkins (1949-) was born in Los Angeles and raised in Martinez, California. At seventeen she moved to Talcahuano, Chile. After completing her university degree she worked in London, England for Pan American Airlines and traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, and India. For twenty-six years Karen taught Spanish and English as a Second Language in a variety of settings including a private school in Panama, the "most remote school in the United States"--Ticaboo, Utah, the Navajo Reservation, a teacher exchange in Hermosillo, Mexico, Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona, and Cochise College in Nogales, Arizona. She and her husband travel extensively throughout Mexico and Central America, and have spent many summers in the remote highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala with their family. Karen currently lives in Southern Arizona, near the Mexican border.
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