Thanksgiving Traditions: The Pilgrims’ Laws

Hand turkeys on door Home for the Holidays

Ahhhh, Thanksgiving. A time to get together with family, eat turkey and dressing (as we Texans call it), watch football, take a nap and of course, be thankful. At least that's how our families' Thanksgivings always play out. However, in recent years, it's been too costly and too hectic to travel for the holidays. So, it ends up being our little family going it alone.

The question is always the same. How do I start new traditions and blend in old family traditions for a memorable holiday experience for my Darling Boys. The answer: It's not easy working with boys, ages 4 and 2, but it was harder with ages 3 and 1. That means there's hope. With each year, it's a bit easier to have them help prepare a dish or set the table or make decorations, etc. And when they are older I hope to have our family help serve Thanksgiving dinner to those less fortunate than our family and incorporate other traditions that we can call our own.

Last year we attempted the whole traditional Thanksgiving meal. We did accomplish it, but by the time the food was on the table I was exhausted, frustrated and all out of holiday cheer. Clearly, I was missing the point of the day. So, this year, we're scaling down; we're trying for simple and low-key (which isn't easy for me because I am neither simple nor low-key).

Pilgrims' Law

As I was thinking about Thanksgiving and this post, I thought maybe I would interview my 4 year-old and give you his view and the correct answers with regards to Thanksgiving tradition. I tried that. It didn't go well (prime example of what happens when I try to do any kind holiday art project or incorporate a new tradition). I nixed that plan.

Then, I realized that I had never really thought about the laws the Pilgrims were governed by when they made the long voyage across the sea and began to settle into their new lives in the colony. It's really quite fascinating.

While this is a history lesson we all learned in grade school, it's worth a review. I for one haven't thought about the Mayflower or Plymouth or even Pilgrims in a number of years.

The Mayflower Compact

Many of the persons aboard the Mayflower had hired themselves out as indentured servants in order to pay for their passage. Some of these people thought they wouldn't have to abide by the English Law once they arrived to the new land, and they threatened to take their freedom without working off their 7 years of indentured service.

The leaders of the group knew that building a settlement would be hard work, and they would need the indentured servants to help in these endeavors. So, they created the Mayflower Compact. The Compact, signed by all of the men aboard the ship (women were not permitted to sign) once they arrived to the new world on Nov. 21, 1620, basically said everyone agreed to follow the laws that would be written by those in the group chosen by the majority.

The Compact, observed until 1691, was the first written laws of the new world and established that the people were free from English law, essentially establishing a democracy: a government of the people, by the people, for the people. According to, the compact was the official Constitution of Plymouth Colony for over 70 years, and the first American State Paper.

The Book of General Laws

It wasn't until 1636 that the first formal laws were codified. The Book of Laws was reissued in 1658, 1672 and 1685. The laws were a combination of English common law and Biblical law and were written by the General Court of Plymouth Colony who had been elected by the people.

Some of the laws included in the codified laws:

  • Levying of rates, or taxes;
  • Distribution of colony lands. It was forbidden for individual settlers to purchase land from Native Americans without formal permission from the General Court;
  • Death penalty for treason, witchcraft, murder, arson, rape, sodomy, bestiality, adultery, cursing or smiting one's parents (although the death penalty was rarely actually carried out);
  • Indentured servitude, a legal status for a person working off debts or receiving training in exchange for a period of unrecompensed service of not less than 6 months;
  • The guarantee of a trial by jury; and
  • A stipulation that all laws were to be made with the consent of the freemen of the colony.

Source: Wikipedia &

For the most part, these are laws that we still have today, although our scope of death penalty-worthy crimes is a bit different; we no longer have indentured servants, unless you count student teachers and other unpaid apprenticeships as such; and we usually don't have to ask the government permission to buy land.

The Scoop

We celebrate Thanksgiving to give thanks for our good fortune, health, family, etc. as the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag celebrated in feast and offered prayers of thanksgiving for the colony's first successful harvest in the Fall of 1621, but we also have the Pilgrims to thank for our country's first democratic government.

Now that you are armed with the legal history of the Pilgrims you can seriously impress your Thanksgiving guests with your knowledge. Don't forget to read the Sunday Spotlight Article and weigh in with your opinion by leaving a comment. On Wednesday, I'll post a Top 10 or More Reasons to be Thankful list. Safe travels. Over and out…