A Thanksgiving Story
By Brenda Duffey © November 5, 2014
I wish I had died in England. At least there I could have been on familiar streets knowing where to scourge for food and shelter. This miserable hell hole is far worse than anything I knew in England. The worst part is never being able to get out! The foul smells of human excrement and disease fill what little breathing space there is. Like many around me, the constant pitching and rolling of the ship has caused a sickness in my stomach like nothing I have ever known.
When it first hit me, I couldn’t get to the ladder in time to climb upstairs and, like many others, soiled the cabin floor with a stink so vile it made me even sicker. I spent many hours standing in the rain and wind that blew across the main deck as I heaved up my vittles until there was nothing left to heave, but I kept heavin’. My stomach has finally adjusted to the rollin’ but now I am weak from lack of water, food and fresh air. I want to go back to England! Why did I have to come on this journey with this family that took me on to be an indentured servant? How long has it been?
It was July of 1620 when four of us “bastards” were rounded up in London and
indentured to four families of “Puritans” sailing on a journey to Jamestown Colony in the New World. My birth mother called me Dorothy, but I had neither proper christening nor last name because of my illegitimacy. Although bound by indenture to the John Billington family, I still had no legal surname.
My most prominent feature is my curly, red hair like my mother’s. I also have her creamy white skin that is translucent when not smeared with the grime of London’s dirty streets and air. These Puritans in their plain black and white with high collars and plain sleeves seemed dull and boring.
For most of my sixteen years, I never knew a home. My birth mother provided what she could until she died when I was seven. Then, I roamed the streets during the day avoiding the enforcers and takin’ what I needed to survive. At night the four of us found a spot near the London Bridge on the Thames where we made our sleepin’ quarters and shared the day’s money and vittles. Didn’t see the need to be sent out on this journey with people I didn’t know who really didn’t care about me.
There were 65 of us on a ship called The Mayflower. We sailed down the Thames into what I heard was the English Channel. There we met a ship called the Speedwell carrying 35 “Separatists” from Delfshaven, Holland. In August we set sail for Plymouth but had to stop in Dartmouth when the Speedwell developed a leak.
Eventually, the 35 passengers on the Speedwell transferred to our ship at Plymouth when the captain declared his ship to be unseaworthy. On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth for the northern reaches of the Jamestown Colony with 102 “pilgrims” sharing a space meant for 65. The journey has been fraught with danger and problems, the least of which is the cramped quarters.
Not long after we sailed from Plymouth, we entered an ocean that was as angry as the God these pilgrims worshipped. The air turned freezin’ cold on the main deck and for days it seemed as though we were moving backwards and crosswise instead of forward. Mistress Jane, the lady I’m bound to, says we have to stay strong and believe in God’s intervention to get us to the land He has waiting for us. My Mistress also says God made a “covenant” with His people. I didn’t make a covenant. I don’t even know much about what that is. All I know is that I am sick and weak and don’t like this idea of “fasting” to gain God’s good will.
One of the thunder and wind storms tore the front bow apart yesterday and Master John and other men on board took their building tools to the main deck to help the captain and crew in its repair. Without the repair we would have been lost for sure. Young Samuel Eaton was blown off the ship whilst helping with repairs but “thanks be to God” as Humility says, he was spared being lost at sea.
Humility, the Chilton’s daughter, said her people don’t “hold much to any celebrations ‘cept fasting and giving thanks for Divine intervention.” Humility is three years younger than I am. She has blue eyes that send out an aura of warmth to soften a mouth that doesn’t know how to smile and a face that lacks the fresh, exuberant glow of youth. Even if we weren’t in such a harsh predicament, I don’t think there would be many smiles or much laughter. O, how I miss those smiles and laughter that filled our “wretched” hovel in London!
I hear muffled voices: Brother John, the Mistress’ husband, grabs his musket and shot and climbs the ladder to the main deck. I can hear the Captain speaking.
“I think we are close to Hudson Bay at the northernmost reaches of the Colony.
Here, there is a tip of land that is on the lee side of the harbor where we can anchor. Bring four men who are handy with musket and shot and I will go with you to find what stores of supplies or camps may be here.”
Before Brother John can speak, Brothers John, Samuel, William and Henry are ready at the base of the ladder. Everyone congregates to say a prayer as they get ready to leave the ship.
Master William Bradford prays: “O Lord God and heavenly Father, which of Thy unspeakable mercy towards us hast granted us safe passage thus far. Grant us strength and peace to find food to restore our weak bodies so that we may continue in Your work to build Your colony in this New World.”
As bowed heads are raised the entire group says, “Amen.”
It is quite a relief to be anchored in this harbor away from the rough winds. We can move about more freely and take in fresh air on the main deck. It is much colder here in November than it is in London at this time of year. The view from the ship reveals a barren and rocky shore with what appears to be abandoned corn fields in the distance. Do people inhabit this place? Will the men return with food or fresh water? Our stores of food have dwindled to almost nothing. One of the women has given birth to a son during this time – another sign that God has blessed this pilgrimage. I would have preferred to have some food myself.
After a few days the men returned with news of what they found as well as stores of corn and beans. The seed corn they found cannot be used until the frozen ground thaws in the spring. The men reported that the island had appeared to be deserted, but they had found stores of corn and beans buried in soft mounds about six miles inland. There was also a spring nearby covered with ice, but the men were able to melt the ice into fresh drinking water. We feast on the corn and beans and water and will save the seeds for planting in the spring. The captain has decided we need to head for the mainland as the winds have calmed. The captain says there may be Indian settlements there.
December 21, 1620, we have landed safely and the men have gathered to sign a covenant with God about the purpose of the colony we will start here and its governance. Master William Bradford has been named the leader of the colony. We have unloaded our tools and set about finding timber for the cabins. The work is arduous. We are cold and malnourished, but we must build our shelters for the air is bitter cold. In addition, we are poorly dressed and fed.
A bitter, unforgiving cold that kills all life has made its winter home here. There are no signs of other inhabitants and our food as well as our health and stamina decline more each day. In addition to malnourishment, people are dying from scurvy and tuberculosis. We have finished the cabins and now our days are filled exploring and digging for winter roots and herbs to make thin soups and teas. I am amazed that the pilgrims show no signs of desperation. Their countenances reflect the same solemn expression I noticed from the first day. Every day begins with the same prayers.
“O Heavenly Father, we pray for your mercy and Divine intervention to bring us through this time of testing in the fulfillment of our covenant with you.” How long before that happens?
The men leave each morning to hunt for any ground animals that can be used in the soups. Hunger gnaws like a rat on the insides of my stomach and we pray for the return of warm weather reflecting God’s mercy upon us. The graves of the dead grow in number as each day passes. After each burial I wonder who will be next. Will it be me?
It’s strange but these religious people who do not smile also do not grieve. Their faces show little emotion at all – no sign of grief, sadness or pain. When Humility’s fever broke and she took some hot soup and tea, there was no outpouring of joy – only a solemn prayer of gratitude delivered in a monotone voice thanking God for his mercy and saving of this one young soul. Maybe the joy and celebration will come with the spring – if it ever comes.
Life has finally returned to this region but the deaths have been many. Of the 100 who survived the journey here, there are only 51 still alive. Prayers of gratitude have been said for God’s mercy as we hear the animal sounds throughout the surrounding woods portending the beginning of the return of warmth and light. The men are bringing home deer, turkey, quail and pigeons. Still no laughter or singing joyful praises.
Trees are beginning to blossom and there are signs that this frozen wilderness will grow into a virtual Garden of Eden as the earth awakens to the gentle forces of warm sun and rain. Soon the trees and bushes will blossom and ripen to provide nuts and berries of all types to fill our ravenous stomachs. It is April, 1621 and we now know that we have landed far away from the Jamestown Colony. We can now venture from our cabins to explore. Today, an Indian named Samoset came to visit us.
As we saw this strange figure approaching our village apprehension filled the room like the shroud of death approaching. We had heard reports that the Indians were friendly and peaceful, but this man was half naked and wearing ornamentation that looked to be of Lucifer. This man was not Lucifer, however.
Samoset was a tall, dark skinned Native who spoke English. Everyone was amazed to hear his first word, “Welcome.” Samoset told us he was from the Abenaki tribe that had lived and hunted in these forests in peace since the time of The Peacemaker. We later learned this time was around the 12th Century by the European calendar.
The Abenaki knew the land and traveled by birch bark canoe along the abundant rivers and streams to hunt and trade. During Samoset’s travels he had traded with inhabitants of the Jamestown Colony and that was how he had learned English. Samoset and his tribe members were to prove invaluable to us that first summer in what we called the Plymouth Colony.
A group of women known as Klan mothers came with Samoset the next day with baskets of food containing corn, squash and beans. These baskets were shaped like a funnel with a small hole at the top growing and expanding to a large opening at the end which contained the glorious bounty being given to us. We called these the Horn of Plenty.
Samoset explained that these baskets were symbols of the way the Great Mystery who lived in the sky supplied food to the humans below. The Great Mystery sent food through a funnel cloud that worked like a vacuum pulling all his rich bounty through the small opening to spill into the larger opening on the end. So long as the Horn of Plenty
was kept empty the supply would continue. No one needed to be hungry if this principle of sharing continued.
We were grateful for the food as well as the Klan mother’s help in showing us how to grow Indian corn, squash and beans by using the companion gardening method. These plants were called the Three Sisters because they were grown together; each supplying shade or nutrients to the other for maximum growth and soil fertilization.
The Klan mothers took the women of our colony into the forests as the summer progressed to show us edible as well as poisonous plants. I was especially interested in the roots and herbs they taught us to grow not only to season our food but for use in healing.
I remember the first day I ventured into the forests with the Klan mothers. As we left the open field of the village and walked into the shade of the deep forests, I took off my bonnet and began to sing a bawdy tune I had learned while living on the streets in London. Suddenly, I saw a shadow in front of me. As I approached I saw a native warrior dressed in the same manner as Samoset, albeit somewhat younger. I stopped singing and froze in place. My eyes met his and I noticed a warm smile and a nod of his head as if to say, “Please, continue.”
I walked past, returning his smile and started to swing my basket joyfully until we reached the place where we were to collect fruits, nuts and berries. The smile lasted most of the day only diminishing as I approached the village near sunset and once again tied my curls in the bonnet that covered my head.
Samoset spent time with the men that summer showing them some of the ways of hunting in the forest and explaining that some areas of land were “game preserves” protected from settlement and only used for hunting and foraging. Samoset shared another principle of the Peacemaker “Take only what you need and show gratitude at all times. Scrape the bark of the trees and chew it for keeping the mouth clean and gums healthy,” said Samoset. The pilgrims also discovered that the tree bark was as helpful in preventing scurvy as the limes the sailors had carried aboard The Mayflower.
As spring turned into summer I found myself creating a special bond with these joyful, loving people and began daydreaming about the handsome young warrior a lot. I felt as though I were with my London friends living free and enjoying the earth’s great bounty. We laughed and played as we worked. I began to wish I could give up the plain, black and white garments for the colorful clothing worn by the Native women.
One day one of the Klan mothers brought me a beautiful beaded cap to wear in place of the white bonnet I wore over my thick, red curls. I loved it! When I returned to the cabin, Mistress Jane took it from me and told me scarlet was the color of Lucifer, and I needed to keep my hair inside my bonnet so as to cover my shame. The chains of my servitude extended far beyond the obligations of work and service. I was beginning to feel as trapped as I had felt in the stifling confines of the cramped Mayflower. I longed to be free!
Throughout the spring, we prepared our cabins for shelter for the coming winter. Those who had survived the winter felt their health and stamina returning. The women worked in the gardens and collected stores of berries, fruits and nuts to save for the coming winter. Some men focused on fishing then trading the fish for trade goods from surrounding Native settlements. In addition, the men found great flocks of water fowl, geese, quail, partridge and wild turkeys. Venison was also in great supply. All summer there was no more want. As the colony progressed, I kept asking myself, where are the smiles? Where is the joy? Will there ever be time for play and celebration?
At the beginning of November, almost one year to the day we landed at what we now call Cape Cod, it was time for the harvest. William Bradford, the governor of our colony decided that there should be a special rejoicing after we gathered in the fruits of our labors. He sent four men from the colony to find as much fowl as would serve the colony for a week. During that week, the men practiced their shooting skills and many Indians from the surrounding forests came to join in our celebration because they, too, had a similar harvest celebration at this time of year.
King Massasoit and several of his men came to join the celebration bringing enough venison for the entire colony. Klan mothers came with Horns of Plenty filled with corn, beans and squash to add to our portions. We feasted for three days. Before the feast, Governor Bradford offered forth this Thanksgiving prayer:
“O, Lord our God and heavenly Father, which of Thy unspeakable mercy towards
Us, hast provided meat and drink for the nourishment of our weak bodies. Grant
Us peace to use them reverently, as from Thy hands, with thankful hearts: Let Thy
Blessing rest upon these Thy good creatures, to our comfort and sustenation: and
Grant we humbly beseech Thee, good Lord, that as we doe hunger and thirst for
food for our bodies, so our soules may earnestly long after the food of eternal life,
through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, Amen.”
As Governor Bradford offered the prayer, all heads were bowed and eyes closed. I opened mine and caught sight of the young warrior whom I had brushed past in the forest. He was smiling that beautiful smile again. I retuned the smile in a coquettish manner and then quickly closed my eyes and bowed my head in preparation for the “Amen.”
With winter came the isolation in the cabins once more, but we enjoyed warmth and proper sustenance thanks to the help of the Native Americans. Although it was winter, there was little rest, for, “Idleness is the work of the devil,” said Mistress Jane. During the day, six days a week, the men worked on caulking holes in the cabin, repairing roofs and keeping a good store of wood.
When weather permitted, the men also worked on storehouses and barns for grain and animals and building the church meeting house. Sundays were days of rest to honor God and his mercy. I longed for the lighthearted chatter and music that filled the small hovel I called home with my four friends in London. I also longed for the freedom of the woods and the chance to meet my handsome friend whose smile and good nature filled my adolescent daydreams.
At last, warm weather returned and I was anxious for the visits of our neighboring friends. After finishing the breakfast chores, I heard sounds of activity outside and was certain the time of their return had come. I walked outside and saw the men of the community busily digging post holes and sawing wood. I walked up to Master John and said, “What art thou doing?”
“It is time to claim God’s land for our colony, and we are building fences around the village to protect it from marauding thieves and wild animals.”
“What about the Abenaki?” I asked.
“These people are not part of God’s colony,” he said. “They are not pleasing to our Creator neither in dress nor speech. We must separate ourselves from them. You must also stay away and turn your thoughts to God’s work in this colony given to us.”
“I shan’t do that,” I said. “These people befriended us and helped us. It is wrong to do this!”
“What is this blasphemy!” shouted Master John. “Jane, come get this young one and give her mouth a thorough cleaning and proper instruction so that she will never do this again. You are also forbidden to leave the confines of this village!”
Mistress Jane came for me and scrubbed my tongue and mouth with lye soap. The blisters that formed lasted for two weeks and made it painful for me to eat or even speak. I went into a dark depression and my days were filled with unending work and prayer. I finally knew why these people never smiled. During this time, the men of Plymouth Colony completed the walls of my prison.
Throughout the summer I could hear birds singing with other lively animals accompanied by the echoes of laughter, and I longed to be part of that. I soon developed a plan. I was not afraid. The people and the forests were my friends – not these people who had brought me here without a name and forced me into servitude to them and a God I did not understand. I knew I could live in the forests until I found a home with these loving, peaceful people. Escape was easy.
In the wee hours of the morning when everyone was asleep, I slipped from my feather bed next to the fireplace in the kitchen and quietly opened the door. I returned the latch and walked like the Indians making no sound until I reached the gate. Once through the gate I ran as fast as I could into the forest. I ran until I could run no more. Feeling safe in the deep confines of the forest, I found some water and feasted on berries and nuts as I listened to the sounds of an awakening forest. Soon, I heard the sounds of the pilgrim men coming to look for me. I found a thicket for cover and made myself invisible as I heard the whacking of bushes and cracking of twigs being broken. Then I heard voices.
“She must be with the savages across this crick. We have to get her!” Heavy footed men walked past and I held my breath, afraid to make a sound. The sounds soon started to dissipate, but I was still afraid. Was it safe to get up? Were they gone? What was that? Someone coming! This sound was lighter than the others - the sound of moccasins, not heavy boots. I made a tiny opening in the leaves through which to look. I was startled by the face of my daydream lover smiling down at me!
Am I really safe? Has he just found me for the others? What will he do to me? I am sure he can hear the pounding of my heart. I see his hand reach out to me and I grasp it. He gently pulls me up and looks in a questioning manner in the direction the men have gone. I shake my head vigorously with eyes full of fear. The young warrior knows instinctively what to do. He takes my hand and we walk swiftly and quietly in the other direction. I am no longer afraid. He knows the forest. I would follow him anywhere. He stops suddenly and listens. I don’t hear anything, but he obviously has heard something.
He quickly creates a place in a thicket of leaves and motions for me to hide there. He then turns and walks in the direction of the sound he hears. Soon, I hear it – heavy boots, voices speaking English. “Have you seen a young woman pass this way?” I don’t dare look to see what is happening although I am assuming he is nodding as if to say, “no.”
“No, we aren’t interested in hunting. No, we don’t want your birds. This is useless; we must return to the colony. She is a lost soul that never was one of the chosen anyway. Let’s go back.”
Sounds of heavy boots walking away, but there are also lighter sounds walking in the other direction. Have I been abandoned by everyone? Maybe I am damned. I start to cry with muffled sobs. Suddenly, I hear a sound of footsteps, light like those of moccasins. The thicket opens and I see the face of my dream lover once again. I smile as he offers me his hand. As I stand up I see a young woman with him who holds a basket of fruit which she offers to me. I feel safe at last.
There is much celebration as I am welcomed to the Abenaki village. There are rows and rows of cedar bark longhouses with a palisade (fence) surrounding it, but there is a welcoming aura pervading the air. The storehouses are filled with corn, beans and squash and the women are busy grinding flour and making beautiful leather clothes and moccasins. Samoset’s wife – the Klan mother – steps forward to offer me a beautiful beaded dress and moccasins with a hat to match. The handsome warrior – her son- steps out of the longhouse. Although the Klan mother speaks her native language, Abenaki translates.
“Running Deer, our son, has reached the age of maturity and would take a wife. When he heard you singing and saw you in the forest clearing during the time of the Green Corn Moon, it was as though a red bird (cardinal) stepped in front of him. In our culture, when a red bird appears before someone single, it is a sign of love and romance. Running Deer has spoken of no other since that day.”
Samoset looked at his smiling son then turned once again to me and continued, “We would like for you to join our Klan of the Turtle and live in the longhouse with my wife, Corn Mother, and the rest of our family. You will have a special place as one who sustains love and good relationships in the tribe and will travel with me, Corn Mother and Running Deer to Council meetings as a sign of good will.”
I ran toward Corn Mother and hugged her as a sign of acceptance. That night, Running Deer and I became one under the light of the Green Corn Moon. Before we left the village for our wedding bower nestled in a clearing away from the bright moonlight, Samoset said, “Tomorrow, there will be a naming ceremony for all the children born since the time of the last Green Corn Moon. Your wedding to Running Deer will be blessed and you will receive your family name ‘Little Red Bird,’ reflecting your place in our tribe.”
My heart was filled with love and gratitude as I walked with my husband to our wedding bower, dreaming of that night and the day to come. Finally, I had a name. I belonged and I had a place and role to fulfill in life. I couldn’t stop smiling.