Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Thanksgiving Spoon

"The Thanksgiving Spoon"
 by Michael Edds

Thanksgiving brings to mind many images - the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, the Puritans, William Bradford and Miles Standish, and the first Thanksgiving feast attended by pilgrims and native Americans. Many stories have embellished this most American of holidays. Some are true, while others are Hollywood fiction.

One such legend has existed in my wife Jean's family for 15 generations. The story centers on an old silver spoon, which has been handed down to the youngest daughter of each generation in her family. So the tale goes, the spoon came over on the Mayflower in the possession of one of its passengers, Stephen Hopkins. However, lost in the mists of time has been the reason for giving the spoon to the youngest female in each generation. My wife's Aunt Re is the current possessor and protector of this intriguing heirloom. Being skeptical and certain that my wife's lineage could not be finer than mine, I researched her genealogical connection to Hopkins and looked for evidence of the spoon in his day. To my chagrin, I discovered that in fact my wife was a direct descendant of Hopkins and that he and his family were bona fide passengers on the Mayflower. I was married to a blue blood! However, I still found no record of a silver spoon.

So, I continued my quest. As I researched Hopkins in depth, what an incredible character began to unfold before me! Stephen was not the typical Puritan, or a Puritan at all! He was a native of Hampshire, England. He married his first wife, Mary, in the parish of Hursley, Hampshire; he and wife Mary had their children - Elizabeth, Constance, and Giles - all baptized there. Constance was my wife Jean's ancestor. Hopkins went on the ship Sea Venture heading to Jamestown, Va., in 1609 as a minister's clerk, but the ship wrecked at the "Isle of Devils" in the Bermudas. Stranded on an island for 10 months, the passengers and crew survived on turtles, birds and wild pigs. After months as a castaway, Stephen and others organized a mutiny against the leader. The mutiny was discovered, and Stephen was sentenced to death. However, he pleaded with tears. "So penitent he was, and made so much moan, alleging the ruin of his wife and children in this, his trespass, as it wrought in the hearts of all the better sorts of the company," an aged account says. He managed to get his sentence commuted. Interestingly, Shakespeare wrote a play, "The Tempest," around 1611 with an insurrectionist character called Stefano, who many believe was patterned after Stephen Hopkins. Eventually the castaways built a small ship and sailed themselves to Jamestown. How long Stephen remained in Jamestown is not known. However, while he was gone, his wife Mary died. She was buried in Hursley on 9 May 1613, and left behind a probate estate that mentions her children, Elizabeth, Constance and Giles.

Stephen was back in England by 1617, when he married Elizabeth Fisher. Their first child, Damaris, was born about 1618. In 1620, Stephen Hopkins brought his wife and children Constance, Giles and Damaris on the Mayflower. Stephen was a fairly active member of the Pilgrims after arrival, perhaps he was one of the few who had been to Virginia previously. He was a part of all the early exploring missions and was used almost as an expert on Native Americans for the first few contacts. While exploring, Stephen recognized and identified an Indian deer trap.  When the Native American leader Samoset walked into Plymouth and welcomed the English, he was housed in Hopkins' house for the night. Stephen was also sent on several missions to meet various Indian groups in the region. Accompanied by legendary Native American guide Squanto, Hopkins brought gifts to seal a friendship with the chief.

Stephen was a signer of the historic Mayflower Compact, an ancestor of our present Constitution. Stephen was an assistant to the governor through 1636 and volunteered for the Pequot War of 1637 but was never called to serve. By the late 1630s, however, Stephen began to run afoul of Plymouth authorities, as he apparently opened up a shop and served alcohol. In 1636 he got into a fight with John Tisdale and seriously wounded him. In 1637, he was fined for allowing drinking and shuffleboard playing on Sunday. Early the next year, he was fined for allowing people to drink excessively. In 1638 he was twice fined for selling beer at twice the actual value, and in 1639 he was fined for selling a looking glass for twice what it would cost if bought in the Bay Colony. Also in 1638, Hopkins' maidservant Dorothy got pregnant by Arthur Peach, who was subsequently executed for murdering an Indian. The Plymouth Court ruled that Hopkins was financially responsible for her and her child for the next two years (the amount remaining on her term of indentured service). Stephen, in contempt of court, threw Dorothy out and refused to provide for her, so the court committed him to custody. John Holmes stepped in and purchased Dorothy's remaining two years of service, agreeing to support her and her child.

Stephen began to change his ways in the 1650s. He became friends with Captain Miles Standish who used his home and property to be the colony's arsenal and courthouse. Stephen remained close friends not only with Standish but with William Bradford. Both were witnesses and signers of his will. Hopkins died between June 1644, when his will was made, and July 1644, when the inventory of his estate was taken.

After searching through many historical documents, I still could not locate "the spoon." Finally, I found Hopkins' detailed will on the Pilgrim Hall Museum Web site. As I read through this lengthy document I came across the following lines: "Also I do give and bequeath unto my foure daughters, that is to say Deborah Hopkins, Damaris Hopkins, Ruth Hopkins and Elizabeth Hopkins, all the mooveable goods the wch do belong to my house. As linnen wollen beds bedcloathes pott kettles pewter or whatsoevr are moveable belonging to my said house of what kynd soever and not named by their prticular names all wch said mooveables to bee equally devided amongst my said daughters foure silver spoones that is to say to eich of them one, And in case any of my said daughters should be taken away by death before they be marryed that then the part of their division to be equally devided amongst the Survivors." 

I had found the spoon! In fact, four silver spoons were given to his four youngest daughters. However, how did my wife's ancestor, Constance, the fifth and oldest daughter, come to possess one of the spoons? They were left to her four younger sisters. Searching deeper, I found the probable answer, thanks to William Bradford, one of the colony's famous leaders. He wrote in 1650: "Mr. Hopkins and his wife are now both dead, but they lived above twenty years in this place and had one son and four daughters born here. Their son became a seaman and died at Barbadoes, one daughter died here and two are married; one of them hath two children, and one is yet to marry. So their increase which still survive are five. But his son Giles is married and hath four children. His daughter Constance is also married and hath twelve children, all of them living and one of them married." One daughter had died - that was my answer! According to Stephen's will, if any died, her share was to be divided among the others. Constance, the eldest, inherited the spoon from her deceased younger sister!

What an incredible journey through time the spoon had led me! No doubt that old spoon was used at that first Thanksgiving meal. Maybe the hand of Miles Standish, or William Bradford or maybe Squanto held it. Could it have been the serving spoon for mashed potatoes, corn or stuffing? Whatever its use, it was there on that first Thanksgiving table 375 years ago when two vastly different peoples joined together to give thanks unto a most gracious God. The old spoon will be polished again for this Thanksgiving meal at Aunt Re's house. It again will be in the hand of a distant daughter of Stephen Hopkins. It again will be present where a sumptuous meal will be served and heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving will be given. 
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