400 Years Since That First Thanksgiving

To truly appreciate that first Thanksgiving, a trip to England is in order

The Jacka Bakery in Plymouth, England looks like a typical neighborhood bakery. Yummy-looking brownies, big croissants, and inviting baguettes fill overflowing baskets in the window display. It looks like a nice place to have a cup of coffee and a long chat with a friend.

But look closely and a small plaque on the wall quietly boasts that this is the oldest continuously operating bakery in Great Britain. Since the early 1600s, much of the time in the same family, this bakery on this spot has been making cookies, biscuits, and other treats for locals and visitors alike.

That includes a group of weary travelers in September 1620 setting off for an overseas adventure that would eventually change the world order. In England, they’re remembered as the Pilgrim Fathers, but in America, we honor them as the Pilgrims.

When little Mayflower left Plymouth for the New World, a barrel of Jacka Bakery biscuits was in its cargo hold. They survived that first year in the New World thanks to the Wampanoag Indians.

This November marks 400 years since that first Thanksgiving.

The people of England have planned a massive celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s departure, but the pandemic imploded those plans. However, as the world slowly opens again, traveling England’s Mayflower Trail is a timeless journey that should remind all Americans of the trials and struggles that began this nation — and for all we have to be thankful for.

To understand the Pilgrims and their determination to get out of England to worship in a manner of their choosing, you must first begin with a visit to the All Saints Church in Babworth near Nottinghamshire.

“This is really where America began,” said Peter Swinscoe, the warden and tour guide at the 900-year old church. “This is where William Bradford and William Brewster met, where their journey for religious freedom began.”

In the late 1500s, the minister was Richard Clyfton, a man considered radical for his ideas of separation of church and state. Remember that, in 1533, King Henry VIII left the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Church of England so that he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.

Today, visitors are welcomed to attend service at 11 a.m. on the first, second, and third Sunday of each month and walk the footpath that William Bradford took from his Austerfield home.

In nearby Scrooby, attend service or simply tour the church where William Brewster was baptized or visit the Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire where worship services were held in secret for many years.

The separatists, later called Pilgrims, quickly tired of hiding their faith. On multiple occasions, they attempted to flee England across the North Sea to the Netherlands. But each time they were caught.

The Guildhall in Boston is one of the places where they were held in prison and tried for their crimes. The actual jail cells are still intact as is the courtroom. But over the years, the people of Boston became sympathetic to the Pilgrims, so eventually they were allowed to quietly escape and find their way to Leiden in the Netherlands.

After about 12 years in “free thinking” Leiden, the Pilgrims decided the Netherlands was a little too free-thinking. They returned to an England that had become more tolerant of religious differences, but still, America seemed to be the answer to their prayers.

They sold everything and bought a ship called the Speedwell. Today, in the port of Rotterdam is a monument to the Pilgrims who left there via the Speedwell.

The Speedwell and its passengers met up with the Mayflower and its passengers in Southampton. They stocked up on provisions and set sail. The Sea City Museum includes a massive exhibition dedicated to the Pilgrims as well as the Wampanoag Indians who helped the Pilgrims survive that first brutal winter.

The Pilgrims planned to leave early in August before storms developed on the North Atlantic, but the Speedwell quickly developed leaks, and both ships stopped for repairs in Dartmouth. This city, where Agatha Christie’s home is a top attraction, is a charming summer community with significant World War II history as well.

Again, the Pilgrims set sail, only to return to England one more time due to leaks in the Speedwell. Nearly two months behind schedule and with a troubled ship, many passengers changed their minds. The remainder boarded the Mayflower, leaving England for the last time on Sept. 16, 1620.

More than half of the 102 passengers died during the crossing or that first winter in the New World, leaving just 48 Pilgrims to celebrate their first Thanksgiving.

While every nook and cranny of Plymouth, England celebrates its connection to the Pilgrims, The Box Museum is the official showcase of the Pilgrim story, including an exhibit on Wampanoag Nation that taught Pilgrims about farming and other food gathering techniques in America.

A stop at the Plymouth Gin Distillery is a must. When the Pilgrims were here waiting for repairs, it was a friary. Several of the men in the group slept here. The women stayed on the Mayflower.

In the 1790s, the friary became a distillery. It was here that the first martini was first mixed. An authentic martini, many believe, can only be made with Plymouth Gin. If you look closely at the label, it contains an image of the Mayflower.

So, this Thanksgiving, as you gather around your family dinner table and give thanks for all you’ve been given, pause an extra moment to give thanks for those who suffered the most to bring America to life 400 years ago.

Then begin making plans for your visit to England to travel the Mayflower Trail.

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