WASHINGTON -- Thanksgiving has always held a very special place in my heart and the hearts of all Americans who celebrate this day to thank God for the blessings He has bestowed upon our lives and our nation.
But for many of us, this year's Thanksgiving has even deeper meaning for our country and its people at a time when our nation is beset by deepening divisions, rancor, hatred and enmity.
In 1620, the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower for the New World seeking religious freedom. Their voyage ran into one mishap after another, numerous delays, forcing them to return to England and nearby ports, but eventually landing in Cape Cod Bay at a place they called Plymouth.
There were originally 102 colonists aboard the ship, but disease and starvation struck down about half of them on the stormy voyage and the brutal first winter.
"They were nearly ten weeks into a voyage that was supposed to have been completed during the balmy days of summer," writes historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his best-selling, award-winning 2006 book, "Mayflower."
"But they had started late, and it was now November, and winter was coming on. They had long since run out of firewood, and they were reaching the slimy bottoms of their water casks," Philbrick writes.
"It was a stunningly audacious proposition. With the exception of Jamestown, all other attempts to establish a permanent English settlement on the North American continent had so far failed. And Jamestown, founded in 1607, could hardly be counted a success. During the first year, 70 of 108 settlers had died. The following winter came the 'starving time,' when 440 of 500 settlers were buried in just six months.
"Between 1619 and 1622, the Virginia Company would send close to 3,600 settlers to the colony; over that three-year period, 3,000 would die."
The Pilgrims' experience in Plymouth was completely different, in large measure due to a developing friendship with an American Indian tribe that lived in a place called Pokanoket about 40 miles to the south. The tribe's chief was called Massasoit and a trusted member of the tribe was Squanto, who spoke perfect English and helped to negotiate a meeting between the two sides.
Edward Winslow, a pilgrim leader who was chosen to visit Massasoit, came bearing gifts, including "a pair of knives, some copper chains, some alcohol, and a few biscuits, 'which were all willingly accepted,'" Philbrick writes.
Several weeks after William Bradford was elected governor of the settlement, it was agreed that they should "send a delegation to visit 'their friend Massasoit.'"
Over the centuries, it has been unclear whether the Indians were invited to join the Pilgrims in celebrating the bountiful harvest in what has been called the first Thanksgiving.
But Winslow's account of the gathering states this:
"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
This was indeed the first Thanksgiving that we honor, cherish and celebrate each and every year, when two very different races, English Pilgrims and Native Americans, gathered together to feast upon the bounty of our land.
There's a lesson here as Americans of all nationalities continue to remember that first Thanksgiving by honoring the people who overcame adversity to found a new nation that has become the beacon of freedom throughout the world.