Endurance remembered

I have a story to tell. It is a simple one, many times retold and always worth rehearing. It is a tale of hardships overcome and blessings recognized, of a radical idea so beset by obstacles that it might well have collapsed, yet so inspired in purpose that it had to succeed. It is the story of the American Thanksgiving.

They had come, 102 of them, on the Mayflower. They had left Plymouth, England , later than they meant to: September 6, 1620, the mild English fall giving them no portent of winter in the New World. Forty-one of them called one another ''Saints'' - separatists from a hierarchical church, seeking freedom of worship. The rest were adventurers, seeking a land of economic opportunity.

It was the North Atlantic autumn; the nine-week crossing was stormy, physically and mentally. When in mid-ocean a main timber of the ship buckled, it was but a physical symbol of the quarrelsomeness within her cramped chambers. Not until November 11 - leaves off the trees, the frosts heavy at night, the season for building past - did they rest at anchor off Cape Cod. They had been making for the Hudson River. They were 200 miles off course. They no longer had the luxury of long-term planning. They needed a place to winter.

So for three weeks they explored, scanning the Cape's wide beaches and tromping across its dunes. They found fresh water, and a hoard of Indian seed corn and beans. Finally, in a snowstorm on December 8, they sailed to what they came to call Plimoth.

It was, when they found it, an Indian ghost town. Three years before, the small tribe of the Patuxets living there had been wiped out by disease. It was a remarkable find: an area both habitable and uninhabited, unclaimed by the neighboring Wampanoag Indians and right on the harbor. But the most astonishing blessing - of the kind which even this band of Bible-lovers could never have prophesied, and which they could count only as the work of Providence - was the arrival of a kind of Indian Joseph. He had been kidnapped by English fishermen several years before the plague. He had lived in England, returning to his native colony only six months before the Pilgrims arrived. He knew the land, knew how to plant corn and trap alewives in the streams. And he knew English. He remained with the Pilgrims for the rest of his life.His name was Squanto.

Without the native generosity of Squanto? The possibilities are awesome. Would there have been a plantation at Plimoth? Would any have survived that brutal winter, living as they did in lean-tos and shelters dug into the ground? Would they have made it through the next summer, when their own English wheat and peas failed to produce? Would the Mayflower compact, stemming the shipboard quarrelsomeness by establishing a most astonishing thing - government by consent of the governed - have survived to become a touchstone of democracy?

Even with Squanto, it was a bitter challenge. Many died. But with the planting came, in time, the harvest. ''Being all well recovered in health and strength,'' wrote Governor Bradford of that first harvest, they now ''had all things in good plenty.'' To each family went a generous allotment of codfish, turkeys, venison, and cornmeal. And from each, in the high tradition of biblical feast-days, came the natural impulse to glorify the only power that could have saved them.

Edward Winslow, recalling that first three-day feast, writes that ''Governor Bradford sent foure men on fowling so that we might after a more speciall manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours.'' Nor did they reserve their festival to themselves alone: Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, came with 90 braves, and the three days were given over to races, jumping games, and archery. ''And thou shalt feast before the Lord thy God, thou and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger . . . .''

The rest is history: how George Washington declared November 26, 1789, a day of service to ''the Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be''; how the day gradually took hold in the hearts of the people, culminating in President Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation in 1863; how, even when the challenges of the modern age try to subvert it into mere secularity, its meaning has sung through.

It has always been a day to celebrate adversity overcome. It will always be so.

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