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The Thanksgiving Spoon
Thanksgiving brings to mind many images – the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, the Puritans, William Bradford and Miles Standish, and the first Pilgrim and Native American Thanksgivings. Many stories have embellished this most American of holidays. Some are true, while others are Hollywood fiction.
Such a legend has existed in my wife Jean’s family for 15 generations. The story centers on an ancient silver spoon, which was handed down to the youngest daughter of each generation in her family. So the story goes, the spoon came on the Mayflower in the possession of one of its passengers, Stephen Hopkins. However, lost in the mists of time were the reasons for giving the spoon to the youngest woman in each generation. Aunt Re, my wife, is the current holder and protector of this intriguing legacy.
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 from her time. To my dismay, I discovered that my wife was in fact a direct descendant of Hopkins and that she and her family were bona fide passengers on the Mayflower. I married a blue blood!
However, I still can’t find any record of a silver spoon. So I continued my quest. As I researched Hopkins in depth, what an incredible character began to emerge 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 the ancestor of my wife Jean.
Hopkins went on the Sea Venture to Jamestown, Va., in 1609 as a minister’s clerk, but the ship was wrecked on 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 several months, Stephen and others organized a revolt against the leader. The mutiny was discovered, and Stephen was sentenced to death. However, he pleaded with tears. “So he repented, and he made many moans, pretending to break his wife and his children in this, his fault, as he did in the hearts of all the best of the company,” an account that is old He managed to commute his sentence. Interestingly, Shakespeare wrote a play, “The Tempest,” around 1611 with an insurrectionist character named Stephano who many believe was modeled after Stephen Hopkins.
Eventually, the castaways built a small boat and sailed themselves to Jamestown. How long Stephen lived in Jamestown is not known. However, while he was gone, his wife Mary died. He was buried at Hursley on 9 May 1613, and left behind an estate which mentions his children, Elizabeth, Constance and Giles.
Stephen returned to England in 1617, when he married Elizabeth Fisher. Their first child, Damaris, was born in 1618. In 1620, Stephen Hopkins brought his wife Constance, Giles and Damaris on the Mayflower. Stephen was a fairly active member of the Pilgrims after arrival, perhaps being one of the few who were in Virginia already. He was a part of all the early exploring missions and was used almost as an expert on Native Americans for the first contacts. While exploring, Stephen recognized and identified an Indian deer trap. And when the Native American leader Samoset entered Plymouth and welcomed the English, he lodged 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 historic signer of the Mayflower Compact, an ancestor of our current Constitution.
Stephen was an assistant to the governor until 1636 and volunteered for the Pequot War in 1637 but was never called to serve. In the late 1630s, however, Stephen began to run afoul of the Plymouth authorities, as he apparently opened 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 to be played on Sunday. Early the next year, he was fined for allowing people to drink too much. In 1638, he was fined twice for selling beer at twice its current value, and in 1639 he was fined for selling a glass of beer for twice what it would have cost if bought in the Bay Colony.
Also in 1638, Hopkins’ maid Dorothy was pregnant by Arthur Peach, who was immediately executed for killing 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 the term of her contract). Stephen, in contempt of court, threw Dorothy out and refused to provide for her, so the court imprisoned her. John Holmes stepped in and bought the remaining two years of Dorothy’s 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 house and property as the colony’s arsenal and courthouse.
Stephen remained close friends not only with Standish but with William Bradford. Both were witnesses and signatories to his will. Hopkins died between June 1644, when his will was made, and July 1644, when his estate was inventoried.
After searching through many historical documents, I still could not locate the “spoon.” Finally, I found Hopkins’ detailed will on the Pilgrim Hall Museum website. While reading this document, I came across the following lines:
“Also I give to my four daughters, namely, Deborah Hopkins, Damaris Hopkins, Ruth Hopkins and Elizabeth Hopkins, and bequeath all the goods belonging to my house. a house belonging to my house in whatever kind and not naming the particular names, all that said bees are divided equally among four silver spoons among my daughters, that is to say each of them one, And in the case of any of the ten. Their death would be shall take their daughters before they are married so that a portion of their division may be divided equally among the Survivors.”
I found the spoon! In fact, the four silver spoons were given to his four youngest daughters. However, how did the ancestor of my wife, Constance, the fifth and eldest daughter, come to own one of the spoons? He was survived by four younger sisters. Searching deeper, I found the probable answer, thanks to William Bradford, one of the famous leaders of the colony. He wrote in 1650:
“Mr. Hopkins and his wife are both now dead, but they lived more than twenty years in this place and had one son and four daughters born here. Their son became a sailor and died in Barbados, a daughter died here and two married; one of them has two children, and one is not yet married. So the number of survivors is five. But his son Giles is married and has four children. His daughter Constance is also married and has twelve children, all of whom are living and one of whom is married.”
A daughter died – that was my answer! According to Stephen’s will, if anyone dies, his share should be divided among the others. Constance, the eldest, inherited the spoon from her deceased younger sister!
What an incredible journey in time the spoon took me! No doubt this old spoon was used at that first Thanksgiving meal. Maybe it was caught by Miles Standish, or William Bradford or maybe Squanto. Could it be a spoon for mashed potatoes, corn or stuffing? Whatever its use, it was there on that first Thanksgiving table 375 years ago when two very different peoples came together to give thanks to a gracious God.
The old spoon will be polished again for this Thanksgiving meal at Aunt Re’s. It again will be in the hands of a distant daughter of Stephen Hopkins. He will be present again where a sumptuous meal will be served and heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving will be offered.
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