Mary Chilton Gives Thanks in America

During this time of cancel culture—an attempt of some to burn our ties to actual history—two autumn holidays have been adversely affected. Instead of Columbus Day (since it is popular to believe Christopher Columbus was not an honorable man), we now have Indigenous Peoples' Day. Although we still celebrate Thanksgiving Day, we have recently been encouraged to not pattern our day’s remembrance after the Pilgrims’ and native Indians’ first Thanksgiving. 

In my attempt to research the history of Thanksgiving, I was quickly informed that whatever I was taught about the first Thanksgiving was no doubt incorrect. And with mention of the Separatists, the religion of the Pilgrims, or the Puritans (a somewhat similar group to the Separatists), our culture now says we must see them in light of their hypocrisy: fleeing Europe for religious freedom and then forcing their religion onto everyone in the New World, including the natives; not to mention stealing from and violently killing the latter group while preaching Christ and obedience to the Ten Commandments. 

I’m not arguing the fact that much evil has been done in the name of Christianity or by those who call themselves Christians. But can we not remember the good accomplished in the name of Christianity? The Separatists, who were being persecuted for their beliefs by the Church of England, chose to begin a new life here. There were many others that fled to our shores as well; and because of them, our constitution was written that we might have freedom of speech as well as freedom of religion. As always, a remnant of God’s people has continuously persevered, carrying with it the purity of the Church that Jesus Christ established and that glorifies Him.

But while researching the first Thanksgiving, it seemed to me that the number one complaint is that our traditional menu for that day probably is not even close to the menu of the first feast. Personally, I do not care, and have strayed from that traditional meal many times while planning and preparing the Thanksgiving Day meal for my family. 

Another complaint about the historical discrepancies we have learned is that this wasn’t the first Thanksgiving event that the Pilgrims celebrated, nor did it take place in November. The Pilgrims spent multiple days before this biggest celebration of all to be thankful. Gratitude to God was a huge part of their religion. Most likely, the event took place in October. Again, these are not things we need to argue about. And finally, no one seems sure if the native Indian representation had been previously invited, or if they were just waiting nearby to settle some matters and were asked at the last minute to join the celebration before any meetings took place. Probably for diplomatic purposes.                                                                         

But we know they were there, and we know all we know about the event because a single eyewitness recorded the event: Edward Winslow. His account has withstood the test of time, even being stolen by the British during the Revolution, yet always showing up eventually. To read more about Winslow’s account, here is an excellent link: Who Was at the First Thanksgiving? - HISTORY.  Edward Winslow was a writer and owned an illegal printing press in England, so that he and other Separatists could write and distribute their beliefs to those around them. (His younger brother, John, happens to be a part of my family tree.)

I still wanted to tell the first Thanksgiving story through the eyes of an attendee, even though I would have to be imaginative a bit for lack of their actual thoughts, conversations, and minor historical facts. My mother’s grandfather descended from one Mary Chilton Winslow [and John Winslow, above], who came with her parents from the Netherlands on the Mayflower. Mary was 14 at the time of the first Thanksgiving and I was able to learn a great deal about her as I researched this story. This is her story, based on facts and my imagining her part at that first Thanksgiving celebration.

Mary could hear the regular breathing of Captain Miles Standish across the cabin, occasionally a bit of a snore as well, and knew that he was sleeping soundly. Next to her, Priscilla lay quite still, and Mary was confident that she too, was thinking about tomorrow. Often, they took these last moments of the day to whisper to one another, but probably tonight they were both too deeply engrossed in thought, looking back at all that had transpired in the past couple of years. 

It was quite a story of how God had not forgotten about them, Mary thought, and granted them so much to be thankful for. She was eager to give thanks to Him for the next three days. Was not His presence real? Was not His guidance evident in how He had settled them in this new land? How He had protected them. How He had provided plenty in the great harvest they had just reaped.

The words of Psalm 30 they had sung together last Sabbath, ran through her mind: “Sing praises to the LORD, O ye his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.” It wasn’t always easy to sit through long church meetings without remembering Father and Mama and the rest of her family, to dwell on that loss. Then she would listen to the words of Governor Bradford or Elder Brewster as they read from Scripture. She was comforted by the Psalms as she lifted her voice to sing them with the others. 

“ This is not the church established by Christ,” he would repeat often when they gathered around the table to share a meal. “It is an abomination! ”


There was not one in the meeting house who had not experienced deep loss in this new place. But they were not without hope as they constantly reminded one another of God’s promises. They shared all they had with one another. They cared deeply for one another. As they worshipped together, Mary was thankful for each of them, for God’s Spirit which had drawn them to Himself and bound them to each other through the long months since arriving here. 

Mary knew that no one among them could have predicted how things were going to turn out when they had first boarded the Mayflower just a little over one year ago. They might not have come, had they known, but yet God’s will was always right. There was divine purpose behind all that had transpired. She had to keep that as her focus. On Jesus and the cross upon which He suffered, even as she suffered to a much lesser extent. There was much hope for the future as long as they stayed the course.

Mary could not remember a time in her life when she was not aware that what she and her family believed about God was hated by most others around her, especially in England, where she was born and lived the first years of her life. There, the English government was the driving force behind the Church of England. All English citizens by law must belong to this church. Father would often decry the State Church which had departed from the Roman Church a few years earlier, and only because the king wanted a divorce as he schemed again and again to produce an heir. “This is not the church established by Christ,” he would repeat often when they gathered around the table to share a meal. “It is an abomination!”

Mary knew that her family often did not attend the church in the town, although she and her ten siblings had all been baptized in it. Instead, they met in homes, sometimes in the Chilton home, where they read scripture, talked, prayed, and sang Psalms. Then when she was just but a wee two-year-old, her mother had attended a secret burial for a child in their small Separatist (what they had come to be called) congregation. 

“ For attending this funeral, the Archdeaconry Court had excommunicated Mary’s mother from the Church of England, ruining the Chilton family’s reputation in the village. ”


The Church of England still held to a “popish” burial rite, not believing that salvation came through faith in Jesus Christ alone, but rather earned by good works. They taught that a child was too young to have earned his way to heaven, and was sent, according to the Pope (rather than Scripture), to a place of Limbo until enough money could be paid and enough prayers said for the child to enter heaven.  For attending this funeral, the Archdeaconry Court had excommunicated Mary’s mother from the Church of England, ruining the Chilton family’s reputation in the village.

Mary didn’t actually remember their move to Leiden, Holland, which followed quickly after the excommunication; but she well remembered that most of her childhood, till just a year ago, had taken place there. She remembered their warm, cozy home, the windmills, the bright flowers in the window boxes. She remembered learning to read at the table in their home, and then reading and learning passages of scripture. And although they were no longer persecuted by the Holland government, they were definitely looked down on by their Dutch neighbors. Her father had much trouble obtaining work. However, the longer they lived there, the more Separatists arrived from England. Their numbers grew, creating a tight knit community of believers. 

Mary had a good and happy childhood, and as the youngest of all her siblings, she watched them become adults and marry and begin families of their own. It was often hard to think about the spiritual things that Mama and Father and the Bible said she should think about. She recalled one morning after breakfast as Father read from Scripture, and then began the day with this prayer: “I have been hasty and short in private prayer, O quicken my conscience to feel this folly, to bewail this ingratitude; My first sin of the day leads into others…” (from the Valley of Vision). Mary knew at once that she had done this often. She didn’t want to do it anymore. She had prayed earnestly that she might always live to glorify God, be grateful to Him, trust Him not only for her salvation, but with her very life.

“ Very often when the house was quiet for the night, Mary could hear them, and she could hear her father praying for guidance and wisdom. ”


Shortly after that, conditions in Holland began to worsen for the Gomerists, as the Separatists had begun to be called. This time the battle was between other Protestant groups who were called Arminians. Just before Mary’s family embarked for America, her father and her oldest sister were caught in the middle of an anti-Arminian riot. Her father was hit on the head with a stone and required surgery. When the Separatist leaders began planning the voyage to the New World, Father and Mama talked over the possibility that they might go. Very often when the house was quiet for the night, Mary could hear them, and she could hear her father praying for guidance and wisdom. Finally, the decision was reached, and their names went onto the list of passengers for the Mayflower. 

Mary remembered standing on the pier waiting to board as her brothers, sisters, and their families gathered around. She was the only child they would take with them, although oldest sister, Isabella, planned to come soon after. Her father’s voice was unsteady and unusually gruff as he hugged each of his children good-bye and bade God’s blessing and keeping on each. Her mother tearfully kissed each one. As they boarded, Mary recalled one last glance at her family standing there, the town she was so familiar with in the background. She had a feeling that nothing would ever be the same again. “Help us all, O Father,” she breathed as she turned toward the Mayflower—a ship so small she had no idea how they would all fit on it.

“ Mary recalled sitting on the floor beside Mama during her last days. 'Have courage my dear,' she had said. 'God is with you. Trust Him always. Do not be afraid.' ”


On the deck, Elder Bradford led in prayer. She knew it had begun with the words, “O Lord of the ocean” but emotion had overtaken her and tears rolled down her cheeks. She had heard the very end, though, and prayed it would be so. 

“Help us to live circumspectly,

with skill to convert every care into prayer,

Halo our paths with gentleness and love,

smooth every asperity of temper;

let us not forget how easy it is to occasion grief;

may we strive to bind up every wound,

and pour oil on all troubled waters….

Let our mast before us be the Saviour’s cross,

And every oncoming wave the fountain in his side.

Help us, protect us in the moving sea

Until we reach the shore of unceasing praise.” 

—From The Valley of Vision, “Voyage”

As far as Mary was concerned, she hoped there would never be cause to get on another ship. She would never forget the rocking of the boat when it seemed certain to her that the boat would not right itself, and she would be thrown into the sea. She remembered the cries of agony of the seasick, the going off course, the gnaw of hunger in her stomach, and the end of the journey nowhere in sight. Water from above constantly swept over them, making their cramped quarters wet and cold. With only a sheet hanging between each family group, they slept almost on top of each other. Sometimes Mary would have given anything to look out a window, but there were none. Only darkness. The few times she was allowed on deck to get fresh air were frightening. She would have fallen overboard had not she held tightly to whatever was in her grasp. 

But always they gathered in prayer. They read the scriptures. 

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters.

He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness

For his name’s sake.” 

—Psalm 23:1-3

Besides the crew of 37, there were 41 Separatists, Mary soundlessly recounted in her mind. Also 61 they called “strangers” because they did not share the Separatists’ beliefs. Some had been hired as builders, as protection, or as other craftsman. Some were indentured servants who would eventually earn their way to freedom in a new land. Mary remembered one of them, a young boy, younger than Mary, who was the only passenger to die on the long ocean journey. 

Mary was overjoyed when land was finally spotted. But they soon realized that it was much further north than where they had planned. Nevertheless, they prepared to go ashore, since the weather and other factors made it impossible to go anywhere else. Still, the Separatists were not disheartened, but trusted God. Mary could hear her father’s words, “This is where the Lord intended us to come. He will provide.”                                                     

That’s what he said, but he was the next to die. At age 64, he was the oldest passenger, and he never was able to step off the ship. Five more passengers suffered the same fate that month. Grief began to swallow them all. Mary’s mother tried to hang on to some kind of hope, but her husband’s death was too much for her to bear. She, too, soon died during that first winter, as did many others, especially the women. The Mayflower continued to house them, with very little food and very little warmth, because the harsh New England winter had set in. Mary recalled sitting on the floor beside Mama during her last days. “Have courage my dear,” she had said. “God is with you. Trust Him always. Do not be afraid.”

“ Mary and Priscilla were among the 25 children, including teenagers, who lived through the winter, while only four of the married women survived. ”

Courage was a hard thing for Mary, though. Tears came so easily. Still, Mary remembered the praise in her spirit when the men walked on shore together, fell on their knees, and “blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof," as Governor Bradford had prayed.

Captain and Mrs. Miles Standish kindly said they would look after her when she was orphaned. Mrs. Standish had been with Mary and Mama when Mama died. She had put her arms tenderly around Mary and told her that she and Captain Standish would care for her. Captain Miles was often off the ship, scouting out the situation on land, befriending the natives, trying to help the leaders decide where to build and plant when spring allowed it. By this time Priscilla’s parents had also died, and the Standish’s took her in too.

Mary was comforted by the presence of her good friend Priscilla who now lived with her, and in the spring they watched as the Standish family cabin was built. They helped Mrs. Standish unpack her trunk of household goods. Priscilla and Mary would keep their family’s belongings put away until they married and had their own households. As the girls planted seeds in their vegetable patch outside their cabin, they began to grow concerned about the health of Mrs. Standish. It began with a cough and fatigue, but grew steadily worse. By May, she died; and Captain Standish became a widower. Still, he continued to look after Mary and Priscilla, concerned always for their safety and comfort. 

Mary and Priscilla were among the 25 children, including teenagers, who lived through the winter, while only four of the married women survived. Mary had seen the broken hearts of the husbands left behind who still pushed ahead, forging through the many difficult obstacles they encountered in establishing the settlement. She had grown to trust them and their kindness to the orphans, their care for the entire community, and their never-ceasing dependence on God. 

'God be praised that we have lived to see this day,' Mrs. Brewster called out to Mary as they went about their tasks.

Captain Miles had been appointed to organize and train the colonists to fortify and protect their village. His was a big job, and so with the help of Mrs. Brewster and Mrs. Winslow, the young teenaged girls helped keep his home and cook and clean for him, so that he would be able to carry on his duties. Mary and Priscilla both knew how to cook and clean. That was always included in the upbringing of girls, but little did they expect to be called to do so much at such a young age.

As the crops grew, more cabins were built, and life became somewhat routine. The people had often stopped to thank God. Relations with the Indians were also going well, and the small Plymouth Plantation, as it came to be called, was being blessed beyond what they had imagined in the midst of their sorrow during the first months. 


Mary and Priscilla awakened early on Thanksgiving morning. They had much to do. They were expecting well over one hundred—many more natives than colonists, but they wanted to let the natives know just how grateful they were for all the help they had received from them. They wanted the natives to enjoy the feast and feel their friendship. They were honored that the leaders of their tribes had agreed to attend. Most of all, the colonists wanted to glorify and praise God. After morning prayers were said in the Standish household, the girls filled several huge trays with grapes, berries and shelled nuts that they had been gathering and preparing for the last several days. 

As they carried everything outside, they saw that the men had already lined up several rows of tables and benches. The girls placed the trays on the tables and then began to set the tables with plates, cups, and whatever eating utensils were necessary. Nearby, the children were helping the men roast many kinds of fish and deer meat over several fires. The smell of roasting meats filled the air, along with the smell of garlic, a plant that the natives had introduced to the colonists.

“God be praised that we have lived to see this day,” Mrs. Brewster called out to Mary as they went about their tasks. Mary agreed. The same festive spirit remained all through the day, through many games, through military maneuvers, through visiting, but especially in the hearts of the people as the elders led in prayer before the big meal, and again at the end of it. It was impossible to thank God too much. Mary’s heart lifted with the words being prayed: 

“O love beyond compare,

Thou art good when thou givest,

When thou takest away,

When the sun shines upon us,

When night gathers over us….”  

—From The Valley of Vision, “Year’s End”

Mary and Priscilla watched and played with the youngest children during the three-day celebration. When it was time to eat, they helped the married women serve the food. At the end of the third day, as the girls were preparing for bed, Mary mentioned to Priscilla how each day she had managed to squeeze between handsome and kind John Winslow and his brother, Edward, with a platter of vegetables. Each time she had “accidentally” brushed his shoulder in the process, and he had turned and smiled at her both with his mouth and with his eyes. The girls giggled. Mary knew that things were going to be alright in this new place. As her father had said, “God had brought them here.”

He had blessed them and she felt His love peacefully growing inside her, as well as in the hearts of the villagers. He was a faithful God! She thanked Him again as she drifted off to sleep, and words from Psalm 30 ran through her mind: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Morning was here! “O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever” (Psalm 30:5, 12).


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