Thanksgiving

A Debt of Thanks

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Every year we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States by acknowledging our blessings big and small. I wonder, however, how many of us are cognizant of the sacrifices the very first pilgrims made before they even set foot on this land.

We think of Pilgrims as religious refugees fleeing from such horrendous oppression that the dangers of an unknown country were welcome. The fact is the first puritans to New England were by virtue of their journey- mariners though they didn’t actually sail the ship. They hired professional sailors for that job; however, with the problems they faced at sea, they may as well have been.

Many aren’t aware that the pilgrims started out not on one but two ships. The Speedwell and the Mayflower. Twice they set out on their voyage, and twice they were forced to turn back when the Speedwell produced more leaks than Wiki-leaks. In fact, the Pilgrims had wracked up over 300 nautical miles at sea when the it leaked so badly  it would have sunk had they continued.

When the Mayflower resumed its journey on September 06, 1620, it was under chaotic conditions. A hundred and two passengers were forced to crowd together in such close quarters that whole families stayed behind while others were separated and members left in port.

Once at sea, the Pilgrims found the voyage went fairly smoothly. Then the storms of the North Atlantic struck and the passengers must have thought they entered hell. Seasickness was rampant on a ship that pitched wildly in the ocean. One man was swept overboard. William Bradford, the leader of the group, noted that it was God’s way of punishing a proud and haughty man. God must have been having a bad day if that was true.

When the storms continued to batter the ship mercilessly, the captain ordered the ship to heave to, furling the sails lest the ferocious winds snap the mast in half. Surely the Pilgrims must have thought they would never see land again as they rode the pitching sea for days at a time making no head way.

At one point, the main beam of the ship threatened to split apart from the violent beating of the sea. One of the passengers volunteered what is described as a giant screw to hold it together. With no Coast Guard to intercede, it’s a good thing he was there.

Sixty-six days later, passengers and crew set sight on New England. It was a cold November 11th, but their journey was far from over. Their original plan called for landing somewhere between the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River. Realizing their predicament, they headed south with hopes of settling near a fertile valley in what is now a tiny hamlet called New York City.

Following the coastline was no easy task, and the rocky shores and shoals of Cape Cod raised more than a few hairs on those stern faces. Because of the approaching winter, they settled on Plymouth Harbor December 16.

Most of the Puritans survived the voyage, but New England winters are harsh, and cold, sickness, and lack of preparedness claimed almost half the passengers and crew. By spring only fifty-two Pilgrims were alive and every one of those owed their life to local Indians who gave them food and supplies.

Things no doubt must have seemed bleak that winter, but time has a way of ameliorating our troubles and sorrows. Instead of despairing, those battered pilgrims sunk their roots deep into that New England soil till at last they not only survived but eventually passed on a heritage borne of hard work, courage, and gratitude.

I hope we spend a few moments considering what our ancestors have endured no matter what our backgrounds. Each group that came here knew intimately the suffering and uncertainty a life in a strange land offers. But they taught us that when life is hard, you do it hard. No wimps allowed. For that I’m grateful.

What about you and your ancestors? What do you cherish most about them?

 

                                                  Bill Hegerich

                                                  The Uncommon Mariner

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