Those of us who make the historical connection to that first Thanksgiving in November of 1621 envision tables creaking under the weight of food, brought by both the Pilgrims and their co-celebrants – dozens of Wampanoag Indians. Yes, it had been a good harvest, hunt and haul – with much to be thankful for.

It should be remembered, though, that the Pilgrims had landed at what they would call New Plymouth almost a year earlier in December of 1620. Anyone familiar with Cape Cod in winter can tell you it will never be mistaken for the Garden of Eden. It is gray, cold and wet, with little in the way of obvious sustenance. Although they knew they were being observed, native reaction to their landing would be unknown for months. With the exception of that old soldier, Myles Standish, who had built up disease resistance while on bloody campaigns in Europe, everyone got sick that first winter. Half of them died, and had to be buried in unmarked shallow graves scratched out of the frozen earth on Cole’s Hill, by any survivors with enough strength left to help Standish get them into the ground. The graves were unmarked because they could not risk the Indians knowing just how few of them were left, and how weak they were.
Why did they put themselves through this? How did the survivors find the strength to put one foot in front of the other and get to that next harvest so celebrated today? Most of us know they came here for religious reasons (though a good portion were "Strangers" not of the strict Separatist faith). They were, of course, "Protestants" (so much so that they "protested" against the established "Protestantism" of the Church of England) but they were so in much more than a narrow religious sense. Over a century later, Edmund Burke would describe these souls as having beliefs "…most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it."
So when we gather with our friends and family, we can be thankful that most of us have never had to go through such a winter or anything like it, but that as Americans and cultural descendants of these few, we can lay claim to some of their sheer intestinal fortitude – when required – to survive, prosper and enjoy the fruits of well-ordered liberty.
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