The Pilgrims of Thanksgiving


Were they pilgrims or just people trying to make a better life for themselves and their children. Whoever they were they an integral part of American History.

Americans have been taught that Pilgrims were those people that left everything behind to go somewhere where they could practice their style of religion without being persecuted. They came to America and participated in the first Thanksgiving. This is partially true but not completely.

Definition of a Pilgrim is an individual who travels a great distance for religious reasons. Pilgrims are mentioned in the Bible and in many scriptures from many other religions. You are a pilgrim of sorts if you travel to Grandma’s house in order to partake of Thanksgiving and attend a church service to commemorate the event. The so called “Pilgrims” of Thanksgiving fame didn’t all leave their homes and travel far for religious reasons. Some came to make a better life for their families because of economic reasons.


Some came from England and others came from an English colony in Amsterdam Holland. Many were fishermen or farmers by trade. Some of the people that came from Holland were called separatists because they left the Church of England believing it was becoming too much like the Catholic Church. They wanted freedom to worship the way they thought fit and they couldn’t do it in England because the King made it illegal. Once they realized their children were speaking Dutch and adopting Dutch traditions they decided to leave so their children would remain faithful to the traditions of the English. The other half of the Amsterdam group were people that were associated with that church but not part of it. They may have known some of the people that belonged to it and tagged along hoping they would become rich in the New World.

These people came to America on the ship the Mayflower and settled in New England. Their colony was called Plymouth. This was to be a fishing town where the men would catch fish and send them back to England so they could be sold there. The London Company paid for them to go to the New World and work for seven years. Once the seven years was up the company would give them land in America. This was a good deal for many of the families that came over because they had very little. The London Company did not own the land they were giving to these people. It belonged to Native American’s called the Wampanoag Tribe.

Mayflower Compact

Interestingly enough the people on the Mayflower never called themselves Pilgrims. That name was given to them about 200 years later. Because of a problem with the ship that picked up the separatists there were only about 37 of them that actually got on the Mayflower that had a total of 102 passengers. The trip took 65 days and during that time 2 people died. The Mayflower first sited Cape Cod on November 19th but the area was inappropriate for them to land there. They finally landed at Provincetown on November 21st and penned the Mayflower Compact where they agreed to set up a temporary government and abide by the laws set.


The settlers didn’t actually get to Plymouth until the dead of winter on December 26, 1620. They had to find land and make shelter quickly before the winter weather got any worse. This winter was terrible and about half of the settlers died in the cold with very little food. What people did survive accredited the survival to John Carver, William Bradford, William Brewster, Edward Winslow, Myles Standish and a local Native named Squanto. This friendly Indian taught them where to fish and how to trap and later how to plant and grow corn. He also taught them how to hunt and what plants were safe to eat and what plants could cure illnesses. Squanto had been captured by English speaking explorers and had excaped so he did know how to speak the language of the settlers.

The American Thanksgiving celebration was set up to commemorate the harvest feast of 1621 where the colonists had dinner with the Native people of the area. There is a lot of conjecture at what actually happened and how it happened, but the settlers did want to take time out from their toil and celebrate that they actually had enough food and housing to get through the next winter better than they had the first.

Who were the pilgrims? They were a small group of people that came to America for two reasons. A small amount of them did come for religious freedom but most of them came in order to make a better lives for themselves and their families in the New World.