A Forgotten Pilgrim Story

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday simply because it is so unassuming. It’s a quiet day, wedged in between the demanding holidays of Halloween and Christmas, and all it asks is that we show up at a relative’s house, eat, and remember our blessings.


Of Plymouth Plantation,written by William Bradford, gives a powerful firsthand account of the pilgrims’ voyage to America. Bradford tells of a miserable storm that forced the passengers to bear down in the hull of the ship.

A “lusty” young man, John Howland, came up on deck, probably for some fresh air, and was promptly tossed overboard. Somehow, he caught hold of a rope, and even though he was dragged deep under the water, “he held his hold” until he was pulled back up on deck with a boat hook. Howland would later marry Elizabeth Tilney, father 10 children, become “a profitable member both in church and common wealth,” and live another 62 years, outliving all other male passengers on the Mayflower.

While he may have been foolish, he still saw the hand of God that day. Of all unlikely scenarios, he was able to grab on to a rope in that storm. I can’t imagine the tenacity of that young man, holding on for dear life when his chances must have seemed hopeless. But I hope that in many ways he defines who we are as a nation. He is our collective ancestor who gives me courage to hang on to my rope for just a little longer, even when I think I’m at the end of it. It’s in my national DNA.

It’s in all of ours. Maybe it means we’ve got to pay more bills than we can handle, make dinner when all we can find are hotdogs and sour cream, or negotiate the holidays with a difficult ex. But we’ve got it in us, just like the pilgrims did. We also have a divine hand, ready to help if we will only ask.

A harsh New England winter welcomed them when they arrived, and then the men had to find a decent settlement through horrendous weather conditions. Many of them died that first winter of cold and hunger. But despite their tumultuous beginnings, the pilgrims were a harbinger of what the men and women of our country would become — innovative, resilient and full of faith.

This was originally published on Deseret News.  



  1. Thank you. I just read this and really liked it! I’m saving it for next Thanksgiving–even though today is January 23rd!

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