They were crammed on the boat for nine weeks. The ship was all of 113 feet long, and quite possibly much shorter than that. The gun deck, where the passengers spent most of their time, was dark, uncomfortable, and gratingly confined. It boasted 1,300 square feet of living space—infinitesimal to the 102 passengers therein (and the two babies that were born along the way). Anyone over five feet tall was unable to stand upright. And it smelled. Horribly. The stench of human filth, a continual supply of every form of excrement, and a ragtag collection of small animals was inescapable. Above deck loomed the very real danger of being washed overboard and swallowed by the icy Atlantic. And of course, there was scurvy, which rotted teeth and produced unearthly halitosis. The ship was pummeled and tossed by hellish storms and a vindictive sea. At other times, it sat upon the vast ocean, unmoving, stranded without sail.
The motley crew journeyed 2,750 miles from England to the shores of America on a boat not more than six times the length of a canoe. The journey took sixty-six days.
By the time the settlers aboard the Mayflower reached what is now Cape Cod Harbor, they had been swept drastically off course. They landed far north of the Virginia Territory, where the Virginia Company had granted them the right to settle. Instead, they found themselves outside of British jurisdiction and devoid of any basis of civil government.
Knowing that the settlers would need some form of accountability even before they set foot on the shores of what would become Plymouth Colony, forty-one men drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact. The document, though brief and without specific administrative delineation, set a precedent for the representative government that would come to define the political culture of the United States of America. (Winston Churchill would later call it “one of the remarkable documents in history, a spontaneous covenant for political organization.”) Only then did the settlers disembark.
William Bradford, a signer of the Mayflower Compact and governor of the Plymouth colony, described the scene in his account, Of Plymouth Plantation:
“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.”
But the hardships were just beginning. The settlers stepped on American soil for the first time on December 21, 1620, at the beginning of the harsh New England winter. Lack of food, inadequate shelter, and pervasive illness decimated the settlers. Within a couple of months, half of the settlers had died. At one point, only seven men were healthy enough to care and provide for the entire colony. As Bradford wrote:
“So as there died sometimes two or three a day in the aforesaid time, that of one hundred and odd persons, scarce fifty remained. And of these, in the time of most distress, there was but six or seven sound persons who to their great commendations, be it spoken, spared no pains night or day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them. In a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to be named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered.”
And yet, despite such incomprehensible trials and horrific conditions, when the Mayflower’s crew returned to England in April of 1621, not one of the remaining settlers joined them. Instead, those who survived befriended two English-speaking Native Americans, Samoset and Squanto, who “taught them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities” (Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation). The Pilgrims signed a peace treaty with Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, and when they celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621, a contingent of the Wampanoag people joined them. For three days the Pilgrims feasted, played games, held competitions, read from Scripture, and gave thanks to God.
You see, the Pilgrims were an extraordinary assembly. Thirty-five were Separatists, a gutsy congregation of devout believers from a small church in Scrooby, England, who refused to succumb to religious persecution in England. They had spent the past eleven years in Leiden, Holland, where they were free to worship God. But in Leiden they suffered a multitude of other social injustices. The men faced severe work restrictions, while the children were refused education and forced into labor.
The other sixty-six who boarded the Mayflower weren’t Separatists, but settlers recruited by London Merchant Adventurers. The Separatists affectionately called them “Strangers,” though they became anything but. A strong belief in political and religious freedom and a single-minded determination to establish such in a new land united the two groups of emigrants. They were united by their fundamental beliefs. They were driven by unwavering conviction. They were resolute.
As runners, we often speak of training in terms of passion, and rightly so. A schoolgirl crush on a marathon won’t carry you through hundreds of miles of training, nor will caprice lead you to a personal record. Apathy has no place in the world of distance running, because the sport requires too much devotion, too much discomfort, too much inconvenience, and too much time to brush off as an ornamental hobby. Training is most definitely a faith, and oblations must be made.
But each Thanksgiving, as I lace up my racing flats in honor of a holiday that was so very costly in its inception, I am prompted to pause and reconsider the magnitude and implication of conviction—true conviction.
The difference between opinion and conviction is action. Opinion is easy. Conviction is hard. The former allows impassivity; the latter eliminates it. The former is relative; the latter is absolute. The former requires nothing of us; the latter demands all that we are and hold dear.
There are certain principles that are inseparable from American nationhood: fervent individualism, self-reliance, personal initiative, secure property, personal liberty, free competition and enterprise, limited representative government, equality under the law, and freedom of religion. These attributes are essential to our nation’s cultural and political identity, and without them, America as we know it would cease to exist. As British journalist and politician Daniel Hannan explains, Britain, and later the colonies in America, developed a civil, not ethnic, nationality. Gathered from every corner of the earth, Americans are united not by blood, but by the values of the Constitution. As Hannan continues, the men and women who left England for America were not seeking the rejection of what they took to be their birthright as Englishmen, but the assertion of it. <
Because of this, conviction—and all of its inherent dangers—is inextricably American. If Americans cease to be convicted, if apathy conquers with its whimpering hand, if stoicism is courted to avoid confrontation or resignation in fear of offense, America will simply cease to be America.
Anything short of impassioned and fervent allegiance to a defined set of absolute principles wouldn’t have compelled the Pilgrims to leave their homes, to abandon their country, to cross an ocean, to settle in a harsh and inhospitable land, to establish a new nation at the risk of losing everything they owned, everyone they loved, and their own lives. Indifference wouldn’t have endured the Mayflower or survived the first winter. Apathy would never have lived to celebrate the first Thanksgiving. Because, as Bradford stated: “All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for passion, for conviction, for those who had the courage to stand up for what they believed, for rights they knew to be inalienable and truths they held to be self-evident. May we never forget their sacrifice. May we never lose their conviction. May we always remember just how precious indeed was the first American Thanksgiving holiday, and how precious it remains today.
To you and your families, Happy Thanksgiving.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.