Thanksgiving is among the MOST misunderstood of the holidays. In knowing documented truths, we are able to see beauty among the traditions that have grown their own appendages and heads.
On all accounts, the first Thanksgiving happened in Plymouth Plantation, or near about...a three-day celebration that included feasting, cultural exchange, gambling, and story-telling.
Compare what you’ve learned to the most reliable information I’ve collected over the years: served up to Elementary kids as a feast of knowledge.
“Pilgrim” means “seeker of Religious Freedom” and America wasn’t their first choice for Utopia.
In the winter of 1607 a band of people , literate farmers, refused to be intimidated by the King of England, James I. Since they knew the Bible, they saw the abusive powers of the church and e decided to separate from the Church of England. They called themselves Separatists, and faced criminal prosecution if King James, found out. Since he had forbidden any other churches to form or to worship British soil, these separatists fled to Holland (Leyden) and set up a colony of just themselves where they could worship God in freedom. There were hardships: They were in a sea port city of Leyden had only jobs for the business owners or traders. They were simple farmers. Their children – who before were only influenced by the English society, were greatly seduced by the Dutch freedoms and language, and in their parents’ eyes, fell vulnerable to the “things of the world, above the things of heaven”. They soon decided to travel to distant America (remember, still a British colony) and farm there, in a secure, safe and utopic society to belong only to them.
THE MAYFLOWER wasn’t the only ship – but the other one leaked.
In 1620 the first group of the separatists left Leyden for London to sail off (hopefully) for the New World in America. They chartered two boats: the grand Speedwell and a smaller Mayflower to hold 120 passengers. The Speedwell, however was a little to “heavily masted” as early journals say, and it had to be abandoned because it had a leak. They took the smaller Mayflower, and took 102 passengers, setting sail on September 16, 1620.
Halfway on the journey, The Mayflower herself began to leak, and the leaders made a decision to sail toward America rather than turn around.
While on board, the leaders of the Separatists began to draft a constitution of sorts, a one-page document that our founding fathers used as a model for the Constitution. It was called The Mayflower Compact.
After 65 days of sailing, the highlands of Cape Cod were spotted by a crew member, and the Pilgrims gave thanks to God for allowing them to see the New World. Quite a few of them were sick with scurvy.
Plymouth Rock isn’t where the Pilgrims landed.
The famous rock we all were taught the Pilgrims valiantly stepped upon and entered the new world isn’t even mentioned in the early journals of the Pilgrims, in the Mayflower Compact or in the historical “Mourt’s Relation”, the most reliable source of the journey and early years.
In fact, the Pilgrims first “landed” the ship (set anchor) at modern day Provincetown on November 21, 1620. When they set anchor, a ceremonial reading of the Mayflower Compact was read and nearly everyone signed it. Even women.
Years later (as in 1741) a town records keeper in Plymouth loudly opposed a dock being built on the site near Plymouth plantation (which the Pilgrims eventually sailed into). He pointed out a block of marble that his father had sworn was the very spot that the Pilgrims landed. This “Plymouth Rock” was homage as a landmark and a National Park now is there.
Pretty, but not truth.
The first home of the Pilgrim was The Mayflower.
While the men built up the plantation they dreamed about, they had to keep returning to the Mayflower to sleep. The weather was cold and the work was exhausting. Every tree that built up the homes has to be chopped down – and a common house to store supplies had to be erected before any private home was finished.
By mid-January the common-house was completed, and the little village began to take shape. The "Great Sickness" raged through the winter months. Half of the colonists would soon be dead. Even the crew of the Mayflower was not spared. Nearly half of her crew would not survive to make the return trip to England in the spring.
The only hope was the native people, who had every reason to be suspicious of strangers. In years previous, they had brought guns, the plague and food only for themselves. They had also kidnapped some of them and taken them back to England.
Still, a few who had returned to their people knew how to make “the white words” and offered to see if the new, desparate strangers may need help. In their journals, the pilgrims all say that they were near death and without hope until a man named Samoset came.
Samoset and Squanto were keys to the Pilgrims surviving their first winter.
When the Pilgrims met them in 1620, the Wampanoag (“the People” in Algonquin) were competent farmers, fishers, hunters and gatherers. Even so, they had no plans of befriending the whites. Too much of the death that they had recently suffered was at the hands of white men.
A man named Samoset (who was not chief, but rather a returning slave who spoke English) walked boldly into the plantation crying out, "Welcome! Welcome, Englishmen!"
He introduced himself to the shocked Pilgrims in English as Samoset, an Abnaki Indian from Maine, who had been kidnapped by explorers and taken to England, only to be dropped off in Algonquin country two years later.
He had been visiting the Wampanoags for the past eight months, but he intended to return to his own people within a short time.
Since he was the first Indian with whom the Pilgrims had spoken since they arrived in New England, they questioned him for some time, learning from him that the Patuxets, who formerly owned the land on which they had built their settlement, had all died four years before from the plague, and that their nearest neighbors were the Nemaskets, a tribe of about 300 people.
He told them that the Massasoit, Great Sachem of the Wampanoags, was then staying nearby and he would be happy to introduce them. The Pilgrims were leery, but desparate.
Samoset returned a few days later, this time accompanied by Squanto who amazed the Pilgrims with his almost flawless command of English. He told them that the Massasoit, the Great Leader of the Wampanoag Nation, who was waiting in the nearby woods, intended to come to Plymouth later in the day. Ashort time later the Great Sachem did appear at the top of a nearby hill, attended by 60 of his men – a gesture that showed he was a higher being...and he knew they were there. The Pilgrims were in lonely country now...and could feel it.
Squanto, like Samoset, was a rescued slave. He unpacked his story to the Pilgrims in the same was Samoset did. He was a Pawtuxet Indian who was captured in 1614 by English seamen and taken to Spain where he was sold as a slave. From there, he escaped to England, where he lived for several years and learned to speak English. Upon returning the year before, Squanto found most of his people of his tribe had died of disease. He joined the Wampanoag who were living near Plymouth.
It was Squanto who would teach the Pilgrims how to find herring fish, and to use it as a fertilizer when planting corn, pumpkins and beans. This was especially important to the Pilgrims because the seeds they had brought with them from England did not do well in the New England soil. Squanto also showed them how to find clams and eels in the rivers and how to hunt for deer, bears and turkeys. The children also learned where to find nuts and berries of all kinds. Which ones were poisonous, which ones were okay to eat.
Cod, eel and gambling. The First Thanksgiving, 1621
The first celebration of life and harvest was in 1621 in November. William Bradford, the Governor of the Plantation wrote in his “history”:
"They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwelling against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All summer there was no want. And now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first, but afterward decreased by degrees. And besides water fowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, and now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.--And thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their out-goings and in-comings..."
There was no invitation issued. The feast was a mutual idea of both tribes, at peace with one another. For three days the Pilgrims and their Indian guests gorged themselves on venison, roast duck, goose and turkey, clams and other shell-fish, eels, corn bread, leeks and water-cress and other "sallet herbes," (the coarse spelling of the Pilgrim English). For dessert there were stewed wild plums and dried berries, all washed down with wine made of the wild grape.
This meant the preparation of unusually large quantities of food, some of it unfamiliar. Only four of their married women had survived, and only five teenage girls, three of those being the sole survivors of their families. I used to complain about the ladies being asked to wash dishes while our men watched football!! For the women who prepared the feast for a three day event (to say nothing of the clean-up) under brutal conditions, these women set a standard for celebration that Martha Stewart couldn’t touch.
One of the lesser spoken about pieces of the celebration were the contests: running, jumping, and wrestling. There were also exchanges of games and a new ball game “kick” was played. The Wampanoag told elaborate stories, performed in dance and song. Miles Standish , not to be outdone, challenged his troops to a military review: marksmanship, drills, marching. In the end, there was a small game of muskets vs. bows and arrows. In the end, the party was called for snow...and everyone went home.
Thus they elaborately celebrated the prospect of abundance until their next harvest.
Peace doesn’t last if people forget the price of war.
The peace that was so desparately needed for the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag to work together eventually eroded. Another plague (the small pox epidemic of 1633-34) swept away thousands of Algonquins and made more land available.
Only between fifteen to eighteen thousand Native People still survived in all of New England. New England was receiving thousands of new arrivals, eager to start claiming and clearing their own piece of America. They all had no idea (like the Pilgrims) how important peace between the peoples were.
Land transfer was not a simple matter. Simple Colonial law guarded the rights of the natives, and demanded an amicable transfer.
In 1675, a full-scale war erupted between the increasing number of colonists and the Indians. Now known as King Phillip's War, after the name of the Massasoit's son, who was then chief, the clash lasted eleven years and caused great destruction on both sides... but that is another story.
Why we should celebrate:
The day is given to us to remember working together, making room in your heart for other beliefs and cultures and to share land – the ultimate blessing of God (a belief held by Wampanoag and Pilgrims). We can grow something, eat what we grow and share...and stop to remember that we should be thankful, even in the midst of death, disease and hard work.
A day that I remember my whole life as being turkey and stuffing and spending with family, I value this holiday. Here, it is 1000 degrees outside (and I’m exaggerating). So eat roasted turkey for me...and a slice of pumpkin pie.