Weeks at sea. A horribly cold winter. Poor shelter. Lack of food. Disease and even death.
That was the stark life of the pilgrims. Yet when they looked back on their first year in the new land, they weren't angry. They didn't just cry over their ill fortune.
They gave thanks. Thanks for their survival. Thanks for the food on their plates and the homes they had made. Thanks to the God who made it all possible.
Historians debate where exactly the first example of Thanksgiving took place in America. They miss the point. The point is that they were thankful - so thankful that they dedicated a special day that survives even now.
It's a simple holiday for a simple people. The writer O. Henry called it 'one day that is ours' - uniquely American. We give thanks because we have so much. So many homes. So many cars. So much food. So many luxuries. Forget the propaganda. Most of the world would do just about anything to come here. And if they did, they'd give thanks too.
But our day of thanks isn't just grounded in history, it's grounded in faith. The Old Testament book of Leviticus was the first to tell of a 'thanksgiving' offering. The Bible repeatedly urged believers to give 'thanks to the Lord.'
Thousands of years later and thousands of miles away, the pilgrims were doing just that.
In 2010, the holiday has evolved. America is still the land of plenty, despite the economic downturn. And turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie will fill the bellies of a nation once more.
For most of us.
But definitely not all. Fifteen million Americans are unemployed this holiday season, wondering how they will pay their mortgage or put food on the table, not just for Thanksgiving, but every day. Others have jobs, but live on the margins, surviving just barely paycheck to paycheck.
And all Americans face dramatic increases in taxes and cuts to their lifestyle as the bills for our massive governmental overspending come due.
This isn't the first time our nation has gone through hard times and it won't be the last. Critics question whether the sun is setting on the greatest nation in history. They, along with our president, challenge even the concept of American exceptionalism.
It is that very idea that has brought us from the first Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving Day 2010. It is that belief - in ourselves, our nation and our God - that is renewed every year and every year keeps the future a land of opportunity.
America remains that land of opportunity.
It doesn't matter who is in the White House or which party controls Congress - at least for now. The American character defines us as a nation of workers, of doers, of builders and inventors. Petty bureaucrats might try to regulate that out of us. Greedy politicians might try to tax it out of us.
But every time they do, that same character resurfaces and proclaims loudly that the Spirit of America is vibrant and alive.
In the 1970s, as interest rates climbed with unemployment and outside enemies targeted a weakening superpower, many were convinced America's time was ending. Then people of both parties stood behind a presidential candidate who stood for something. He was elected, and gradually, things got better. Our nation was strong again.
Today is much the same. Unemployment has remained high for a year and a half. The days of 5 percent or lower unemployment from both Clinton and Bush are long forgotten. Stocks go up, but the economy barely putters along unsure when a recovery will occur.
Where Japan's economic strength once challenged us, now China is on the rise. Enemies old and new threaten our servicemen and women and terrorism emboldens our government to treat law-abiding citizens like criminals.
All that can change, if we want it. But the place to start is to give thanks.
Give thanks that we have the freedom to argue and disagree, not just with other, but with our government.
Give thanks that our freedom is protected every second of every day by brave souls in the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines.
Give thanks here at home that, even as we relax with our families, some man our hospitals, guard our homes from thieves or protect our loved ones from fire.
Give thanks that, no matter what God you might worship, you can see His hand on this land we call home.
Americans have come a long way from the first Thanksgiving where all we needed were the basic necessities of life - food and shelter and faith. New things matter to us - from incredible technologies to seemingly limitless information. But in hearts we remain the same simple people our forefathers were. And we have the same needs they had.
The first thing we need is to give thanks.
Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Fellow and the Media Research Center's Vice President for Business and Culture. His column appears each week on The Fox Forum. He can also be contacted on FaceBook and Twitter as dangainor.