Pilgrims And Power—The Military Aspects Of Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US1664, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US1664, Hoover Institution Archives.

As Americans celebrate their unique holiday of Thanksgiving this week, they might pause for a moment and reflect on the pilgrims who emigrated from Europe to the New World in search of opportunity and religious freedom. When the pilgrims established their colony at Plymouth Bay in December 1620, the odds were stacked against them. Disease wiped out half of the 100 or so colonists within three months of arrival. Native Americans lurked nearby, their intentions uncertain. In the midst of a cold New England winter, one of the first actions the remaining colonists took was to form a militia under the command of Myles Standish, an English military officer and veteran of the wars against the Spanish in the Netherlands. The Puritan dissenters had hired Standish as their military advisor before sailing to North America; he would remain loyal to Plymouth colony and in command of its militia for the remainder of his life.

Relations with the native inhabitants of the New World saved the pilgrims from starvation; they also proved a threat to the colony’s existence. As the spring thaw began, the colonists moved ashore from the Mayflower and were met by an English-speaking native who introduced them to Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and had subsequently made his way back to North America. Squanto acted as a translator, guide, and advisor to the colonists. He showed the pilgrims how to sow and fertilize corn, the harvest of which led to the first celebration of Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621. As importantly, he helped to broker an alliance between Plymouth colony and the Wampanoag tribal confederation, which would endure for more than 50 years.

It would not take long to put the alliance to test. In August 1621 the leadership of Massasoit, with whom the pilgrims had formed the alliance, was threatened by a rival claimant to leadership. After Squanto, who had been sent to mediate the dispute, was taken captive, Standish led a group of ten men to capture or kill Corbitant, the rival claimant to power. The punitive expedition failed to achieve its immediate objective, but the raid convinced nine leaders of the Wampanoag tribal confederation, including Corbitant, to sign a treaty of loyalty to King James. The pilgrims now had valuable military allies who would help them survive in an alien and forbidding world.

The first Thanksgiving was most likely celebrated that October as a traditional harvest festival. Despite the successful first harvest, military concerns were never far from the minds of the colonists. In November an Indian messenger arrived in Plymouth to deliver a bundle of arrows wrapped in snakeskin—a threat from the powerful Narragansett tribe. Standish acted immediately, ordering the erection of a wooden palisade around the colonist’s small village.

The wall was finished by March, now guarded by four militia companies augmented by new arrivals to the colony.

Standish’s further actions in defense of Plymouth are the subject of some debate, but he and his militiamen succeeded in defending the colony against potential enemies, enabling it to survive in a dangerous and hostile environment. So as you eat your turkey this Thanksgiving, raise a glass in honor of the first colonial soldiers, whose defense of their new North American home made possible the eventual rise of the United States of America. Salute.