In honor of Thanksgiving, here’s what my great-great-great-great-great (? I think I counted that right) grandfather William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Plantation and general all-round stand-up Pilgrim dude, had to say about the first such shindig:
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strength, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing about cod, and bass, and other fish, which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want.
And now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison &c. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned, but true reports.*
Mm, venison! I wonder what else the Pilgrims were thankful for at that first feast?
And may I not omit here a special work of God’s providence. There was a proud and very profane young man, one of the sea-men, of a lusty, able body, which made him the more haughty; he would always be contemning the poor people in their sickness, and cursing them daily with grievous execrations, and did not let to tell them, that he hope to help to cast half of them overboard before they came to their journey’s end, and to make merry with what they had; and if he were by any gently reproved, he would curse and swear most bitterly.
But it pleased God before they came half seas over to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard. Thus his curses light on his own head; and it was an astonishment to all his fellows, for they noted it to be the just hand of God upon him.
One thing Bradford was probably not thankful for in the least was the death of his first wife, Dorothy May. She fell overboard from the Mayflower on December 7, 1620, and drowned in the harbor while her husband was scouting out an appropriate landing site with several other men. Of Plymouth Plantation skips December 7, rolling it into that excursion, and Dorothy May is never mentioned before or since.
I have often wondered why she was omitted, when so many other personal Bradfordian experiences are recounted in extraordinary detail. Did Bradford’s commitment to seeing “a special work of God’s providence” in all things fail to extend to the death of his wife – yet leave him unwilling to admit to this lapse in his faith? Did he perhaps suspect she had jumped, rather than fallen, and omit her because suicide was too great a sin to countenance or grieve? Did he not know what to say? Did he just plain not care all that much?
Also, when did he tell their son – who at the time was three years old and living with his grandparents in Leyden? That son, Bradford’s oldest, joined the Plymouth Colony when he (the son) was fourteen. Did his father write him about his mother’s death before then, or did he turn up in Plymouth to discover, oh hey son, your mom’s dead and I re-married this lady over here** and you have a flock of half-siblings you’ve never met!
This is why I still write fiction – it offers the chance to decide on one of these outcomes. It doesn’t make it true, but it can make it more interesting.
Happy Thanksgiving, &c.!
*Bradford’s spelling updated and standardized here.
**Alice Carpenter, my great-great-great-great-great grandmother. Bradford’s own mother was also named “Alice.”