Thanksgiving's Lesson

The ship that carried a total of approximately 120 passengers had 60 pilgrims on board - all ready to risk it all for religious freedom.

The Pilgrims came to the New World in 1620 in search of religious tolerance.  The ship that carried a total of approximately 120 passengers had 60 pilgrims on board - all ready to risk it all for religious freedom.  When the ship arrived in America, the real struggle began. There were no houses, people, or markets; these things had to be created by them in order to survive. The historical debate has continued to this day about how they did survive.  What is known is that when the Pilgrims came to America, tough times lay ahead of them. 

The Pilgrims paid to come to America and along with them were merchants from the company that funded their trip.  The two groups coexisted but barely. The Pilgrims (called Saints) and the investors (called Strangers) had disputes over holidays, workdays, and most importantly- profit sharing.  While everyone in the colony invested in the corporation, some did more work than others. However, according to the rules of the colony, everyone received the same “profit”.  This “profit” was not money, but food and crops. Each family owned their own home but shared everything they grew.  Crops, such as corn, were farmed on communal plots and divided equally among the families in accordance with the “all things to be held in common” principle that governed the colony.   Some of their rules were as follows, “That all such persons as are of this collonie, are to have their meate, drink, apparell, and all provissions out of [th]e comon stock & goods of [th]e said collonie”  (Journal of, William Bradford, Plymouth Plantation.)


This collectivist mentality led to conflict.  Many of the secular “Strangers” did not like sharing with the “Saints”, and “Saints” did not like to share with many of the “Strangers”.  This conflict was borne from many issues, but mainly religious differences.  By the winter of 1622 the conflict only grew worse; the secular “Strangers” would take off holidays and steal food from the “Saints” which led to people questioning why they should work to feed other people, while those people didn’t work to feed even themselves.   This led to insufficient food production and the starvation that killed many of the early Settlers in Plymouth.  About half of the Pilgrims, including Bradford’s wife, died. 

In 1623 Bradford decided to change things and instead of a communal system of farming for the collective, each family was given their own plot of land and the ability to keep whatever they grew from it.  The result was the bountiful harvest we have come to know as Thanksgiving.  The extra food that each family did not need was traded with the Indians and a profit was created.  With this profit the Pilgrims paid off their debt with the company in London and continued to thrive in the New World.  More settlers, with more supplies, came in 1623 as well.  While this tale of Thanksgiving is still debated amongst historians, Bradford himself even acknowledged the failure of the communal system of living:

“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato's and other ancients applauded by some of later times; and that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labor and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense.” (Journal of, William Bradford, Plymouth Plantation.)

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