The Plymouth Hero You Should Really Be Thankful for This Thanksgiving

Without Edward Winslow, we probably wouldn’t even be celebrating the holiday

Portrait of Edward Winslow (Pilgrim Hall Museum)
smithsonian.com

Almost everything we know about the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is based on a few lines from a letter.

"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 king 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."

–Edward Winslow, December, 1621

Not surprisingly, the sparse details of the harvest festival Winslow describes bears little resemblance to the turkey-and-pigskin-imbued holiday most Americans celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November.

But more interesting than the letter’s content is its author, a figure largely missing from the Thanksgiving story.

Edward Winslow—diplomat, printer, author, trader and politician (some might even call him a social scientist and a public relations practitioner)—was one of the most important, and today, perhaps least remembered, leaders of the group of separatists called Pilgrims. Without Winslow, Plymouth—and indeed, the New England colonies—might not have survived.

“He was hugely significant,” says Rebecca Fraser, a British historian whose book about the Winslow family will be published next year. “He was one of those people who have so much energy. He needed to be striding around doing lots of things."

The prominent Boston theologian and writer Cotton Mather, writing in 1702, referred to Winslow as a “Hercules” for his strength and fortitude in dealing with multiple challenges facing the Plymouth settlement and later, New England as a whole. Winslow faced down Native American tribes hostile to the colonists and their allies and confronted warring political and economic factions on the other side of the Atlantic. In those latter battles, the ones fought in the corridors of power and the court of public opinion back in England, Winslow was the equivalent of a modern-day lobbyist.

"Winslow was the designated defender of New England's reputation," says Donna Curtin, executive director of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. "It wasn't in the political interest of Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay to be viewed as fractious or repressive by authorities back in England,.”

Winslow's unique background more than qualified him for the job. Most of the Pilgrims were yeoman farmers, with little formal education. Not Winslow. Born in 1595, he was educated in an Anglican cathedral school where the students spoke Greek and Latin, and he may have attended university in Cambridge. He then became an apprentice printer in London, although he left  before he had completed his training. “I suppose he was inspired by the last book he worked on,” says Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in the Netherlands. That book, he says, was what we might now call a travel memoir by an Englishman who had spent time in Europe.

Possibly influenced by Puritan literature, Winslow ended up in Holland, a refuge for many English separatist groups, including the congregation that formed a new community in the Dutch university town of Leiden.

“As far as we know, he wasn’t involved with a separatist church until he got to Leiden,” says Bangs, who also authored a biography of Winslow.

In Leiden, young Winslow worked with William Brewster, a printer and prominent member of the group. He immersed himself in the theology and goals of the Pilgrims who decided, after a decade in Holland, that their best hope for creating the kind of religious community they aspired to could be found in the New World. Winslow was one of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower. Later, he wrote a stirring account of the ship's arrival on distant shores after a fearful Atlantic passage:

Falling in with Cape Cod, which is in New England, and standing to the southward for the place we intended, we met with many dangers and mariners put back into the harbor of the Cape, which was the 11th of November, 1620: Where considering winter was come, the seas dangerous, the season cold, the winds high and being well-furnished for a plantation, we entered upon discovery and settled at Plymouth: Where God please to preserve and enable us.

That preservation was made possible by the local Wampanoag people, whom the Pilgrims befriended. Here, Winslow played a critical role. He was a natural diplomat, a keen observer and inherently curious. “He really is interested in learning more about the Wampanoag people and their beliefs and customs,” says Curtin “Not only does he observe their life ways, but he records them.”

“You’ll find out more about the Indians from Winslow than almost anyone else,” agrees Bangs. Notably, he was also willing to re-assess his attitudes based on what he learned from the indigenous people he met. “In the first year, he thought they had no concept of religion at all,” says Bangs. “In the next year or two, though, he had a more elaborate idea of what they thought in philosophic and religious terms and he corrected what he said.”

In his best-selling 2006 book Mayflower, historian Nathaniel Philbrick praises a detailed, first-person description of wigwams co-written by Winslow and William Bradford; “a modern anthropologist would have a hard time outdoing the report,” he writes.

When the Wampanoag sachem, or leader, Massasoit—himself a skilled diplomat—first visited the hardscrabble Plymouth settlement, Winslow was chosen from among the English settlers to walk out and greet him personally. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship; one that would prove critical to the stability of the colony. “[Winslow] had a terrific relationship with Massasoit,” says Fraser. The friendship was forged in a dramatic way. When the chief was seriously ill, Winslow—who had no medical training—walked to his village and reportedly nursed him back to health using a time-honored remedy: chicken soup. “There’s a wonderful relation by Winslow about going to Massasoit’s home and making chicken broth for him,” Fraser says. “It’s very tender.”

Like most Pilgrims, Winslow suffered personal loss in the early years of the settlement. His first wife Elizabeth died in March, 1621. Barely six weeks later, Winslow married Susanna White, whose husband had died as well. It was the first marriage in the new colony and produced five children.

In terms of his career, Winslow went further and higher than anyone else from the Plymouth settlement. He was the man selected first by Plymouth, and later by the emerging new Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north, to be the colonists’ liaison with London. In 1624, he returned to England to represent the interests of his fellow Pilgrims.

Though the Pilgrims were far from their native shores, the Plymouth colony was still affected by the mother country. Fish and furs needed to be sent back to help pay off their debts to those who had helped underwrite the cost of the journey. Many fellow separatists had remained in England and Holland—what would become of them? Would they join the new religious community founded by their friends in the new world? If so, how…and who would pay for it?

The colonists had other far-off struggles, too. There were conflicts with a rival colony in Maine, formed soon after the founding of Plymouth. There were denominational issues about church membership that needed to be addressed by Puritan authorities back home. And most important of all was the looming tussle between Parliament and the sovereignty, held by James I, whose attitudes towards the Pilgrims and their ilk had inspired them to leave England in the first place. The dispute between the Pilgrims and the crown finally exploded into the English Civil War two decades after the Pilgrims first landed.

Edward Winslow found himself in the midst of this roiling, complex political drama. His first mission was to sort out a boundary dispute in the wilds of Maine. "A settler named John Hocking had been killed by the Plymouth settlers because he went onto a part of the Kennebec River which belonged to the colony." Fraser explains. "Winslow had to apologize to Lord Saye, who was one of the founders of the Piscataqua settlement."

He had other business, too. Winslow published a number of pamphlets defending and promoting the New England colonies. After the English Civil War, when at first Parliament and later, in 1653, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protectorate, Winslow’s entreaties on behalf of the colonists were more warmly received than before. Cromwell recognized Winslow’s talents and appointed him to number of important committees, including one overseeing the confiscation of property from royalty. Soon, Winslow found himself doing everything from inventorying palaces to hearing the grievances of aristocrats who felt they had been unfairly treated.

Winslow’s 17th-century equivalent of jet-setting diplomacy didn’t always sit well with his friends back in Plymouth. In 1646  as Winslow headed for England yet again, William Bradford, Plymouth's governor and Winslow's close friend, grumbled that he had done so without permission. And Winslow's open-mindedness had limits. In 1645, Curtin notes, "he opposed a remarkable proposal to establish full religious freedom for all faiths in Plymouth despite his own experience of religious toleration as an exile in Holland."

Winslow’s star appeared to be reaching its zenith when, in 1655, he was sent by Cromwell to the West Indies as part of a military expedition aimed at establishing English settlements there. He had been designated by Cromwell to be the new governor of Jamaica.  “That was an enormously powerful position,” Bangs says.

But he never made it to the new colony. During the voyage, Winslow took ill and died at sea.

While Edward Winslow did indeed travel more widely and in higher circles than the rest of his original group of settlers from Plymouth, he seems to have remained at heart, a god-fearing Pilgrim, and never lost his pride in what he and his fellow dissenters had accomplished with their small settlement on the edge of a vast new continent. Plymouth was a community, he wrote, “not laid upon schism, division or separation, but upon love, peace and holiness; yea, such love and mutual care of the Church of Leyden for the spreading of the Gospel, the welfare of each other and their posterities to succeeding generations, is seldom found on earth.”

About John Hanc

John Hanc is a writer for Smithsonian, The New York Times, Newsday and Runner's World. He teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. Hanc’s 15th book—the memoir of Dr. Arun Singh, a cardiac surgeon who has performed more open heart surgeries than almost anyone in history—will be published in 2018 by Center Street, an imprint of Hachette.

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