To mark the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth Colony's first Thanksgiving feast, Northeast Florida Mayflower descendants earlier this month invited to dinner a Middle Eastern family that, like many on the Mayflower ship who voyaged from England to the New World, had escaped religious persecution for a new life across the Atlantic.
The quadricentennial seemed a good time to look at what unites Americans, no matter their political differences or how long their families have been here, said William Cheshire, who heads the local group.
"As descendants of Mayflower settlers, what role can we play in trying to heal the division in America that’s forming?” he said.
Cheshire is governor of the Richard Warren Colony, the name given to the Jacksonville-area group of Mayflower descendants. He's 61, a physician at the Mayo Clinic and a 10th great-grandson of William Bradford, longtime governor of Plymouth plantation.
He invited a Mayo Clinic colleague and her family to the group's Nov. 13 Thanksgiving dinner. She's from a Christian family from the Middle East that left behind everything they owned to avoid severe persecution for their faith.
She escaped with her parents and her brother, then went to another country before coming to the United States. She didn't want to share her identity in the media, Cheshire said, for fear of abuse coming to her family on social media, given the tenor of the times.
“She talked about how much freedom and opportunity meant to her and her family, knowing what life might have been like had she grown up where she was born," he said. “There’s so much about America that they love. They feel welcomed, they found opportunity. Here, they love our country just as much as anybody else does.”
The Mayflower group had a gift for her, one that Cheshire said symbolized their links.
"I presented her with a plaque that states that we welcome her and her family as fellow pilgrims joining us, whose ancestors also were refugees, in the ongoing story of American civil and religious liberty," he said. “People come here with all different stories about how their families got here, yet we come together as one people.”
Cheshire's wife, Doris, used to volunteer at World Relief, which resettled refugees in Jacksonville until its office in the city closed. The family continues to donate to them.
The Mayflower group's dinner came some 400 years after the celebratory harvest feast to which the settlers invited the Wampanoag, the Native Americans who lived in southeastern Massachusetts.
"There are many threads to American history," he said. "We don’t know about them all. This is one of them. It’s become symbolic of our Thanksgiving holiday, even though the original Thanksgiving event was not a big deal to them."
At the event, an elder in the Jacksonville group, John Howland, said a prayer for members who had died over the past year and for the Mayflower passengers who died the first winter in America — as well as for the many thousands of Wampanoag people who perished, many from disease, in the years before the Pilgrims arrived.
'A tragic history'
Cheshire said it's worth noting the significance of the peace treaty between Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag Confederation, which lasted 50 years, outliving its original signees. But he's also aware that it fell apart, with great violence, in conflict between settlers and Native American tribes in King Philip's War in the 1670s.
A group of tribes tried to stave off further English settlement on their ancestral lands but was overwhelmed by the growing population of land-hungry newcomers — a pattern repeated over and over again in America during the next 200 years or more.
"That alliance broke down, as there were other migrations to New England, and European settlers began to occupy more land," he said. "There were conflicts; it's very difficult to read about that history. It’s a tragic history. I wish it had been a different history, but that is the history of our nation. But if we look beyond that, we can see the alliance the Pilgrims had with the Wampanoag. That lasted. I find that worthy of recognition.”
Founded in Ponte Vedra Beach in 1957, the Warren Colony serves Jacksonville, St. Augustine and the First Coast. Statewide there are about 1,400 members in 17 local colonies in Florida.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: For 400th Thanksgiving, Jacksonville Mayflower group celebrates immigrants