Getting to the First Thanksgiving

(As we come to the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, I have updated one of my earliest posts from nine years ago to reflect on just how amazing the journey of those Pilgrims truly was.)

Despite the old saying, getting there is often not half the fun at all. For while everyone knows at least some version of the story, what is often forgotten is that most of the Separatists who came to America to establish a religious colony here didn’t actually start in England at all. Rather, they began their historic voyage in Holland, where many had fled because of opposition to their religious beliefs in their homeland. Leaving the rest of their congregation and even their weeping and praying pastor behind, they boarded a ship called the Speedwell in Delfthaven, Holland, on July 22, 1620, sailing for four days to Southampton, England, where they met up with a companion ship called the Mayflower which had just come down from London.

That ship had a number of other passengers from England whom the Pilgrims did not really know–some were friends and others, simply investors that had become interested in the voyage while the Pilgrims had been doing an early version of crowd-sourcing to raise enough money for it. Like a lot of other church fundraising projects, however, the Pilgrims fell a bit short of meeting all of the expenses, and so they had to sell off most of their oil and butter–the only real assets they had–before they could leave Southampton.

They shoved off for America on August 5, but they only got a short way into the English Channel before being forced to land at Dartmouth (the English town, not the American college) because the Speedwell had sprung a leak. It took a couple of weeks to fix the ship, but on August 24, 1620, they finally started back on their voyage. And this time they got nearly 300 miles from Lands End in Cornwall out into the Atlantic before the Speedwell began to take on water once more.

They turned back again, thus, landing in Plymouth where it was finally determined that the Speedwell was not seaworthy enough to make the clearly dangerous cross-Atlantic voyage, and that further repairs would push them well beyond the safe season for sailing. At that point, twenty passengers had already had their fill of adventure and decided to just go back home. But the remaining dozen or so passengers and cargo were transferred from the Speedwell over to the somewhat larger Mayflower, which finally put out to sea by itself on September 6 with 102 passengers on board, three of whom were pregnant women, along with a crew of about 30.

Despite the overcrowding, the first half of the trip went well, with good winds and weather. One of the pregnant women, Elizabeth Hopkins, had her baby, whom they named Oceanus. But the smooth sailing came to an end about a month into the voyage when the little ship–just 25 feet wide and 106 feet long–was hit by so many storms and crosswinds that it began to leak as well. One of the main beams of the ship bowed and cracked, and they had to use a great iron screw to try to raise it back into place. Five of the passengers on board, including a young boy named William Button, died before they ever reached shore.

Finally, however, after going some 2,750 miles at an average speed of just two miles an hour, they spotted a spit of land which turned out to be Cape Cod. And there, on November 11, 1620, they finally landed, settling in for a hard winter in which 45 more of the original 102 passengers perished. It’s no wonder thus that when the survivors finished their first full year they were ready to give thanks in that celebrated feast with the Native Americans who had helped them make it that far.

But whatever happened to the Speedwell, you may wonder? Back in England it was repaired and fifteen years later, in 1635, it finally made the trip to Virginia with 59 people on board, including the owner and captain of that ship, a man named John Thomas Chappell. I know of him because he was one of my direct ancestors. Indeed, some will say that he set the family pattern when he missed sailing into history with the Mayflower, and in some ways, we’ve all been missing the boat ever since.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not so much about getting into the history books as it is simply being faithful to whatever task that God may place before you. For if your life has ever seemed like a rocky voyage, you’ve probably figured out that in the end, it’s all pure grace anyway. Whatever journey in life we may be on, in fact, the only thing that really matters is that we get there with God through grace. Our sails may split and our mast may creak and even break. Just like on the Mayflower, and later in the new colony, some will die but others will be born. And as was the case with the Speedwell, we may not get to our destination just exactly when we were planning to.

If we stay the course, however, and stay in love with God and in love with those around us, we will get there, I believe. For the truth is that it’s not the pace but the race that matters as we run with perseverance the course that has been marked out for us (Hebrews 12.1) Or to put it another way, the operative words for us as not “speed well” but “God speed.”

Just keep your eyes on the real Captain of our Faith. (Hint: his name isn’t Chappell.)

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8 Responses to Getting to the First Thanksgiving

  1. Wes Whiddon says:

    Have a great visit across the Atlantic with your family, Chap. Thankfully y’all have a better mode of transport than either the Speedwell or the Mayflower.

  2. Edward Monto says:

    Happiness and Grace not only at Thanksgiving day but throughout your life’s voyage. Un abrazo!

  3. Becky Monto says:

    Good reminder to stay on course no matter what the storms around us bring. Thank you and Thanksgiving blessings to you and your family. BeckyM

  4. Thanks Chap. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.



  5. Paula Kopczynski says:

    So enjoy learning something new every day! Thank you, Chap, for your “family” stories and always reminding us where to keep our eyes focused on! Many blessings to you and yours!! Paula K.

  6. Virginia Vorster says:

    I truly enjoyed this blog post. A beautifully written reminder to keep our eyes on the “real Captain of our faith.” Wishing you and your family a blessed and joyful Thanksgiving.
    Virginia V.

  7. Lynne Blunck says:

    Have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving.

  8. Kathryn Behrend says:

    I love this and will share. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

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