The most famous Pilgrim couple of all, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, were among those who participated in the Plymouth Colony’s first Thanksgiving feast during the fall of 1621. John and Priscilla would marry about two years later and go on to have 11 children. Historians now estimate that the Aldens have more descendants than any of the other original Pilgrims who rode the Mayflower ship from England to the land that would become the United States of America.

John and Priscilla’s courtship and marriage became part of American folklore after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about it in his epic poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish” (1858). The poem describes stories that passed down through generations of the Alden family through oral tradition. In the poem’s narrative, widowed Mayflower captain Miles Standish is shy about expressing his love for Priscilla, so he asks John (who worked aboard the Mayflower as a barrel inspector and in Plymouth Colony as a magistrate) to propose to Priscilla on his behalf. Priscilla, sensing that John himself is in love with her, replies: “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”

The poem ends by describing John and Priscilla’s glorious wedding day, making it seem like a storybook fantasy:

“Onward the bridal procession now moved to their new habitation/Happy husband and wife, and friends conversing together. / Pleasantly murmured the brook, as they crossed the ford in the forest / Pleased with the image that passed, like a dream of love through its bosom / Tremulous, floating in air, o'er the depths of the azure abysses.”

As every married couple learns, however, each day of marriage brings challenges to overcome – no matter how perfect their wedding day may have seemed.

John and Priscilla suffered through many challenges in their storied relationship, just as all spouses do. Some of those challenges included:

  • Grief: One of their 11 children died in infancy, and both John and Priscilla lost many friends and family members to death during the first harsh winter at Plymouth Colony, where Priscilla’s entire family died.
  • Exhaustion: Both had to work hard at the many demanding chores involved in developing the new colony and parenting their children.
  • Anxiety: They had to deal with the uncertainty of whether or not they would successfully survive in the New World amid threats such as famine and violent attacks from Native Americans and rivals from other colonies.
  • Illness: They fell ill at various times during their marriage, as colonists lacked the advantages of modern medicine.
  • Gossip and slander: John was arrested for a fight he didn’t participate in (between the Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, over trading rights) because rival colonists were looking for a high-ranking Plymouth Colony member to punish and John happened to be nearby. One-sided accounts of what happened then landed John in prison until Plymouth Colony officials intervened to tell their side of the story, and John was finally released to go home to Priscilla.

Yet despite the many hard times they suffered through together, John and Priscilla are best known today for giving thanks to God.

Gratitude is a key ingredient of a strong marriage. A 2013 research study from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill showed that the more romantic partners expressed gratitude to each other, the more satisfied they reported feeling about their relationships. Couples also developed more positive attitudes about their partners when they both communicated thankfulness for loving actions that they had done for each other recently.