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America's first Thanksgiving

Rann & Gina Watumull recently became members of our KCC family. I’ve known this wonderful couple for over 30 years, as they were part of our church in Hawaii Kai. Rann has a great story leading up to America’s first Thanksgiving, and I wanted to share it with you. Here are his comments, followed by the story. You may want to read this at your Thanksgiving gathering.  Happy Thanksgiving! 

Pastor Ron

New Plymouth

Based on the True Story

© Rann Watumull 1987

WGAw 360074

Based on the true story.

The people and main events are all based on true stories. The miraculous and mundane events actually happened and were documented by recorded eyewitness accounts and autobiographies, all gleaned through extensive research of original and published manuscripts.

New Plymouth follows the lives of two men from different worlds. Both experienced extreme hardship and personal tragedy, yet survived to find their lives woven together in a unique point in history, where against all odds, they helped to birth a nation.

The story opens in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts around 1657, where the aged William Bradford, now 67, is walking through the prospering colony with his granddaughter. As he greets the townspeople, they express concerns about the rumor that he will not serve as governor for another term.  Tired and spent, Bradford insists that this time, he really means it. Serving for 32 years as governor has been long enough and he needs time to document the birth of the Colony before the inspirational account is forgotten and lost forever.

As Bradford resumes writing, we are transported back to 1597 London, where we meet a young man named John Robinson.  John Robinson is tormented. Despite making history as the youngest dean in the history of Cambridge University, something is eating at him.  In those days Cambridge deans were required to take a vow of celibacy, but now his childhood sweetheart is on the verge of getting married.  Is this arranged marriage what Bridget truly wants?  Should he be questioning his loyalty to Cambridge versus his love for Bridget? Throwing caution to the wind, Robinson recklessly rides by horseback for three days to his hometown of Sturten le Steeple to put his mind at rest, once and for all.

With the wedding just a few months away, the arrival of the disheveled hometown hero is quite a surprise – especially for Bridget. After a time of awkward silence, the true feelings of John and Bridget surface, scrapping her neatly arranged marriage plans and Robinson’s historic career as a Cambridge dean.  It turns out that our nation’s story begins with a love story.  If not for John and Bridget’s romance, perhaps our country would not exist.

Now that Robinson is no longer a dean, newly unemployed and supporting a new wife, he needs to find work.  Fortunately, at Cambridge he had met William Brewster, postmaster of the town of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, England. Mr. Brewster wisely offers the gifted teacher and scholar a teaching job in this small town.

These are dangerous times in England. King James controlled the kingdom by controlling who is serving as pastor of each church and what is said from the Church of England pulpits. It was the most compelling way to control the hearts and minds of people in those days before the advent of mass media.  Non-conformity to pulpit dictates could cause forfeiture of your home, your livelihood and even your life.  Yet there are a growing number of people who do not want to be told how to worship God.  They yearn to follow their own conscience and the Bible, and they dare to separate from the Church of England. Over the next 12 years, hundreds of likeminded people gather in Scrooby to hear John Robinson’s inspirational teachings.  This is where we meet William Bradford, a young orphaned boy living in Scrooby. Over the objections of his rigid aunts and uncles, William is drawn to Robinson’s group, where he finds inspiration, mentorship and a new family in the Robinsons and the other believers.

During this time, it becomes increasingly perilous for people who will not submit to the Anglican Church. Robinson and the group decide to escape to Holland, since the government will not give them permission to leave England. But, their first attempt to leave fails because the captain of the hired ship betrays the group to the English authorities. The Scrooby church members are roughed up, thrown in prison and have their lands and homes confiscated. But, due to the public outcry over the inhumane treatment of the women and children, all are eventually released from prison and are able to escape from England to Holland, this time, on a moonless night.

Life in Leyden, Holland, while free from Anglican Church dictates and persecution, is very difficult for the group.  The only work they can find is hard manual labor, which takes a toll on the families. The group labors hard in Leyden for 11 years and once more begins praying about options.

Across the Atlantic, a young Pautuxet Indian named Squanto begins demonstrating great potential as a warrior and leader. Life along the northeastern Atlantic coastline of the New World is brutally harsh.  Indian tribes constantly battled each other for territory and resources.  The chief of the Pautuxet tribe sees Squanto as its future leader. Tall, brave and bold, Squanto proves himself in battle many times and seems destined for greatness.

Back in Holland, the refugees are concerned about the upcoming end of the treaty between Spain and Holland.  They also worry that their children are becoming more Dutch than English, a cause of much distress.

After much careful prayer and deliberation, the group decides to relocate to another country. But where?  After considering South America, the West Indies and other locales, they feel the New World, across the Atlantic would be the best option. There were already a few colonies planted by the English, and they resolve to establish another one based upon biblical principles and freedom of religion.

Due to a lack of financial resources, the group is forced to enter into partnerships with London investors and adventurers, who agree to finance the relocation to the New World in exchange for furs, minerals and the promise of abundant natural resources from the New World.

Across the Atlantic, Squanto’s boldness and bravery leads to events that would dramatically alter the course of history.  Lured by promises of trade with white settlers, Squanto volunteers to head the Indian party to meet with the strange white people. However, the traders, led by Captain Thomas Hunt, turn out to be slave traders. They attack and capture Squanto and several other braves, beat them, and put them in chains for a grueling trip to Spain, where they would all be sold into slavery.

The Spanish slave market is a foreign nightmare to Squanto. Because Squanto is a superior physical specimen, traders hope to make a great profit off of him.  But, in an unusual turn of events, Squanto is purchased by Franciscan monks who treat him kindly, take him to England and teach him English.

Back in Leydon, an unusual alliance was made between the church members and the London investors.  It would require extreme work, diligence and many years of debt service, but the church members saw no other way to create a better life for themselves. Besides, the upcoming end to the treaty between Spain and Holland poses a severe threat to their world.   During these hard years, in 1613, William Bradford marries Dorothy May, the daughter of an affluent English couple living in Holland.  William and Dorothy have a son and name him John.

While Squanto initially attempts an escape, the unfamiliar English terrain and kindness of the monks causes him to abandon escape efforts and instead apply himself to learning English and the ways of the monks.

A deal was struck, two ships are engaged and a charter is obtained from the King of England to start a new colony in the New World near Jamestown. John Robinson guides the group with inspirational instruction and Biblical encouragement. He diligently prepares them, warning that the gravest threat to their survival would not come from the harsh conditions or from the native savages. Instead, the most dangerous threat would come from within, from taking offense at the words or deeds of others within their own group. If they do not stand united, they will be destroyed from within. Robinson also has influenced the group over the years to create a heart of thanksgiving to God in all things.  Will the people accept Robinson’s advice, work together, be thankful and not let offenses destroy their relationships?  Their very survival depends on heeding the wisdom of John Robinson.

After two years in England, the monks decide to allow Squanto to return to his home in the New World. They had met a Captain Dermer, who is heading an expedition to the New World and is in need of an Indian interpreter. When approached with the opportunity, Squanto quickly jumps at the chance to return home. Little does he know…

While Captain Dermer had explored the Northeastern coast of the New World, first with Captain John Smith in 1614 and later with others, everything had changed by 1620. Due to the abductions, killings and cruel treatment by Captain Hunt and others, the native Indians now begin to view all foreigners as enemies.

Before taking Squanto back to his hometown area, Captain Dermer hopes to do some trading with the Indians, as he has done on previous trips. However, the once friendly Indians suddenly attack Dermer, killing his crew, and taking Dermer and Squanto captive.  The two are able to muster a daring escape, but in the ensuing chase, the Captain is mortally wounded.  Squanto ends up burying the captain and then begins the journey home - alone.

Preparations are being made for the Atlantic crossing. Two ships are engaged via contract, the Speedwell and the Mayflower.  Dorothy Bradford decides that her young son John, will not make the voyage, but will stay in the care of friends until they are settled and a future ship can bring him.

After a long walking journey, Squanto is excited to finally reach his tribal home. However, instead of a flourishing village, he discovers bareness, bones and mass graves.  Despite his agonizing search through the debris of the area, Squanto cannot find one living sole from his tribe. Falling to his knees in agony and utter brokenness, Squanto cries out to a silent land that cannot answer.

The voyage departure day finally arrives. Two ships and over 200 passengers say final farewells. Pastor John Robinson delivers a rousing speech to the gathered crowd. The two ships, the Speedwell and Mayflower, pull up anchor and head off to sea. The captain of the Speedwell whispers to his first mate that they will instead sail to England, dump this sorry lot and move on to more profitable cargo and less dangerous voyages.

Soon after the voyage launches, the Speedwell captain informs his passengers and crew that the ship is not seaworthy and must make port in England. Despite protests from William Brewster and others, the captain cannot be dissuaded and so both ships pull into the port of Plymouth, England. The people decide to continue with only one ship, so many people are forced to stay back, including Pastor Robinson. The total group is reduced down to 102 voyagers are now a combination of Scrooby worshippers, soldiers like Miles Standish, adventurers, and sailors. They pull from Plymouth and head to the New World.  Some of the Mayflower’s crew despise the religious passengers and begin to taunt the church members. One sailor in particular is vicious in his taunts and holds out a body bag to the group, saying he is looking forward to using it to bury the first dead believer.  Almost immediately, the Mayflower encounters life-threatening storms.

Heavy winds and angry seas pound the ship relentlessly for many days.  One night a lighting bolt snaps the main mast and the sailors begin to sense that this voyage might be their last. However William Brewster saves the day by utilizing a giant screw from his printing press. A daring effort by Brewster and sailors is successful in repairing the mast.  However, the storm persists and results in a death. The sailor who had tormented the believers is ironically the first to die.  In a solemn gathering, his body is committed to the deep. The remaining sailors never taunt the passengers again.

What should have taken three weeks to cross the Atlantic turns into a little over nine long weeks. Hopelessly blown off course and depleted of food, the crew and passengers of the Mayflower begin to lose hope of surviving the Atlantic crossing.  Suddenly, the storms cease and at sunrise on the 66th day at sea, the New World is spotted.  From the landscape, it appears that they are blown off course from their Jamestown destination to a location much farther north.  Myles Standish and others recognized the area as Cape Cod.

The passengers are excited to finally see land and their new home. However the excitement turns to concern and despair as the New England coast at this time of year looks dark and foreboding. Due to the fact that they are now completely out of food, the mood turns merose and hopeless.  Although all the passengers had lived to cross the Atlantic, in this harsh winter wilderness, without a miracle, the chances of survival are grim.

A small landing party is organized and sets off to explore the area.  When they reach the beach, the men all kneel down in prayer and thanksgiving for their safe arrival.  Even Captain Myles Standish joins in.  Then something happens: When Myles Standish rises from his knees, he plants his sword in the sand and a loud clink of metal hitting metal is heard.  What could be buried underneath the sand?  They dig down to find a huge pot of corn – enough to sustain the colonists for weeks.  “God our maker does provide” proclaims John Carver.  Later those words would be recorded for posterity by William Bradford. They search the area and are able to shoot several pheasants and wild turkeys to take back to the ship. Hearing Indian cries, they determine this is not a suitable area to live, but they joyfully return to the ship with their miraculous provisions

Another landing party is set to explore a suitable living location. This excursion is to be a bit different from the first as they encounter attacking Indians and raging currents that almost take their lives.  Miraculously they all survive and at the end of the day, just about all of the men discover arrow holes in their coats.  However, they stumble on a perfectly situated piece of land. Nice streams, an accessible cove and no signs of Indians, except for mysterious mass graves a little inland. They decide this would be the perfect place to settle.

When approaching the ship with their wonderful find, the jubilant landing party is greeted with stern faces and people rush to console William Bradford.  “We don’t know what happened! She could have fell.”  Dorothy is nowhere to be found and presumed to be lost overboard. William Bradford is gripped by anguish and disbelief.

The leaders John Carver, William Brewster and others decide that being blown off course to Cape Cod was the hand of God. Because they do not have a charter to function as a colony outside of Jamestown, the leaders decide instead that they will draw up a compact that will dictate how they will govern themselves. Most everyone signs it.

As the landing parties begin to prepare the area for living quarters, everyone is on high alert for Indian attacks because of the previous hostile and life threatening encounters. But, no Indians ever appear.  Winter begins to set in and the long time at sea and harsh weather begin to take its toll on everyone as the “dying time” begins. Of the 102 passengers, half were to die in the first winter. Four entire families are wiped out, every family suffered the loss of at least one member and even the sailors are so moved by the compassionate care, that they openly acknowledged that only a loving God could produce this kind of compassionate human behavior.

Among the fatalities are the acting Governor, John Carver and others.  William Bradford becomes quite sick also and almost dies from the flu and narrowly escapes death when his cabin catches fire.

Just when all hope of survival seems to be lost, a sentry calls out “Indian coming!”  Just one Indian?  What could this possibly mean?  Soldiers and sentries have their muskets loaded and ready for anything when the visitor proclaims, “Welcome! Do you have any beer?”  Everyone’s mouth drops open. He speaks English? Samoset introduces himself. He had spent time in England, learned English and is quite fond of English food and “strong water”.  He is part of a nearby tribe and they end up pledging their mutual support for peace. Samoset also lets them know that they stumbled upon the only place safe from Indian attacks on the entire coast. It turns out that a few years ago, a mysterious disease wiped out every man, woman and child of the Pautuxet tribe.  The Pautexets were a strong and hostile tribe that killed every white visitor and were a dominant force among the Indian tribes.  So great was the destruction that Indians would not dare even enter the area, fearing that there was some great spirit over the place. However, there is one survivor. A Pautuxet Indian named Squanto who was kidnapped and away in England when the destruction happened and he is devastated.

Samoset introduces Squanto to the settlors. Squanto discovers a new purpose in life by helping the poor settlors to survive - teaching them how to fish for cod, plant corn, catch eels with their toes and how to survive in the climate. William Bradford is elected governor and works closely with Squanto.  During a trading mission with other tribes, Squanto is actually captured and the settlors send a party to rescue him. 

The colony flourishes under Squanto’s care and as late spring comes, the dying stops, plants began to bloom and there is a new sense of hope in the air. Summer and fall bring the first harvest of corn and other staples.  During this time, the settlors enjoy peaceful relations with the nearby Indians thanks to Samoset and Squanto.  Seeing their survival assured and wanting to thank God for their blessings, William Bradford proposes that they hold a celebration to give thanks and to invite their Indian neighbors.  Invitations go out by mouth and preparations are made for the celebration.

When the day arrives, no one knows whether any Indians would actually show up and if they do show up, would they be peaceful or hostile. As the morning dawns, there was an air of excitement as preparations are being made. Suddenly the sentry cries out “Indians coming”.  This time there is not just one, but there are many Indians approaching.  Muskets are loaded and held handy just in case. However, the Indians are bringing food. Many women of all ages are coming and bringing raisin cakes along with other delicacies. Turns out over 75 Indians come and the celebration lasts several days. There are games played between the Indian and settlor children along with much combined food preparation, eating and laughter.

When all are gathered and Squanto sees the marvelous and miraculous scene born out of much tragedy, he asks William Bradford to pray for him. Bradford embraces Squanto and declares that Squanto is God’s special instrument sent to save them. 

So the very first Thanksgiving lasted almost a week. It was to become a yearly event for the settlors as the colony grew and prospered. William Bradford was to serve as Governor for 32 years and there was peace with the Indians the entire time. The Mayflower Compact marked the first time in human history where free men and women pledged to govern themselves according to the Scriptures and this Agreement became the foundation of the Declaration of Independence.  The Jamestown colony failed, but through faith, perseverance, much giving of thanks and the gracious hand of God, the Plymouth colony grew into a new nation – The United States of America.