The First Thanksgiving – What Your Third Grade Teacher Might Not Have Mentioned

WITH THANKSGIVING UPON US it is time once again to count our blessings. (If you’re Donald Trump or any member of the Walton clan, that may take a bit longer.) For many of us, it’s enough that the Yankees didn’t win another World Series. For a majority of Americans, those who received lovely gifts from the president, it is time to be glad Mr. Obama won reelection. And speaking of stuffing, Rush Limbaugh has been threatening to move to Costa Rica. We should be so lucky.

Sometimes, it’s easy to look at the world today and assume humankind has lost its collective grip on whatever marbles it had. (We might even wonder, if we live in a red state, whether God has forsaken our nation.) Our Pilgrim ancestors and their favorite neighbors, the Native Americans, would scoff at our whining.

Maybe, this Thanksgiving we should start by thanking God for the First Amendment. Religious freedom, which we take for granted (unless we watch Fox News and worry about the War on Christmas), was a rarity in the 1600s. In those days it was still possible for judges to order heretics branded on the forehead with an “H” for questioning accepted religious belief. Sometimes you could cut off an ear or two to make the lesson clearer.

So, no. Life wasn’t better four centuries ago.

We might also count modern health care among our blessings–including, perhaps, a prayer of thanks to the U. S. Supreme Court for upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare. Disease in those days was a major factor in shaping history. Outbreaks of the Black Plague, for example, still forced the closing of London theaters in the time of Shakespeare, who died in 1616. That same year an epidemic of smallpox brought to the shores of Massachusetts by fishing vessels plying the Atlantic for codfish swept away most of the native population and left the land more or less open for English settlement.

AT LAST, IN 1620, 105 PASSENGERS BOARDED THE MAYFLOWER and headed for America. Only half of the people aboard, however, were “saints” or church members. London city officials, for example, saw a chance to thin out the ranks of the orphans, whose support was a drag on taxpayers. So they packed off Richard More, 7, and Ellen More, his little sister. Paul Ryan might have applauded their fiscal conservatism. (Then again, Mr. Ryan might want to remember that the Pilgrims were no fan of the Roman Catholics.)

Other passengers included William Bradford, who would go on to lead the colony and write a book about it, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, whose romance became the focus of a famous poem by Longfellow (which no one reads today) and Elizabeth Hopkins, well advanced in her pregnancy. There were also a number of goats on board; but the goats do not play a role in our story.

The Mayflower finally dropped anchor off Cape Cod in November and scouting parties were soon sent out to locate the best possible site for a settlement. In the cold winter ahead tuberculosis, pneumonia and scurvy took a heavy toll among the settlers. Bradford described the Pilgrim’s lowest point:

That which was most sad…was that in 2 or 3 months time half of their company had died, especially in Jan. and February, being in the depth of winter, and lacking houses and other comforts…There died some times 2 or 3 of a day…[so] that of 100 and odd persons, hardly 50 remained.And of these in times of most distress [trouble], there was but 6 or 7 sound [healthy] persons.

Yeah. Good times.

Meanwhile, the Pilgrims had a number of skirmishes with the previous landowners. And the Pilgrims knew if the Indians chose to attack they had little hope of survival. They buried their dead in secret, planted seeds over the graves, and prayed that the “wild men” would not discover their weakness.

Who knows? Maybe God does work in mysterious ways. (Today, we are told he sends Superstorm Sandy to punish America for supporting legalization of gay marriage.) The Pilgrims were lucky, if nothing else. The Native Americans, not so much. The smallpox outbreak four years before had proved devastating. Thousands of the original inhabitants were wiped from the land, as Bradford recalled later:

“they not [even] being able to bury one another. Their skulls and bones were found in many places lying still above the ground, where their houses…had been; a very sad spectacle to behold.”

You may recall this part of the story from back when your teacher talked to you in third grade: How the Pilgrims met Samoset, who stepped out of the forest shadows and greeted them in good English (he had been hanging out with some of the crewmen from those earlier fishing expeditions). Samoset introduced the Pilgrims to Squanto, who really understood English, since he’d been kidnapped by the fishermen and taken to England earlier as a slave, before he escaped, which is a long story. (See: People were more religious in those days. Followed all the Ten Commandments. Never lied. Never stole.) Squanto showed his new buddies where to catch lobster and how to raise corn, using fish as fertilizer.

The plot thickened. Squanto introduced his new friends to Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe and ruler of the lands surrounding Plymouth Bay. His people had been hard hit by the plague which hit the coast four years before and he was anxious to sign a treaty of peace. In turn, Massoit hoped for help against his powerful neighbors, the Narragansetts, long his tribe’s bloody rivals, and a people almost unscathed by the great outbreak of disease. (Or: as Mitt Romney put it, “We need to be sure we always have a strong military. With plenty of bayonets.)

Well, that’s pretty much the key to the story. The Pilgrims didn’t want to get wiped out after a tough winter. The Wampanoags knew that the enemy of their enemy was their friend and everyone agreed to sign a treaty and keep the peace for half a century. (All the factions in Syria today could understand.)

The invitations went out and the pumpkin pies were baked and Massasoit, with ninety followers, attended the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621. The guests brought five deer. The hosts provided fresh bread, roast duck, goose, and wine. (One drunk Englishman started going on about how Obama wanted to take away everyone’s right to own an assault rifle but he soon passed out and was heard from no more.) Believe it or not, turkey was not mentioned by a single eyewitness.

Of course, the Pilgrim’s survived hard times and thrived. (This is why NFL players still point to the sky when they score touchdowns.) Even troubles with tribes beyond Massasoit’s control could not break English spirits. When a sachem named Wituwamat threatened them the Pilgrims took quick action. The chief and three followers were invited into the settlements to talk. There, without warning, Captain Myles Standish and his soldiers fell upon them and cut them to pieces. Then they chopped off Wituwamat’s head and spiked it atop their fort wall. It remained there for years, but apparently did not spoil anyone’s appetite at future Thanksgiving dinners.

Nothing about humanity has really changed in four centuries. The first Pilgrim minister seemed to be “crazed in the brain” and was thrown out of the colony. (Pat Robertson?) John Sprague drank too much and was arrested after he rode his horse into a friend’s house. A married woman was caught having an affair with an Indian. So she was whipped and ordered to wear the letters “AD” for adultery on her sleeve. In another case of married people behaving very badly, a young wife got in trouble after she was left behind while her husband went away on business. When she, too, had an affair, Pilgrim officials arrested everyone involved. All three individuals, husband, wife, and lover were locked, side by side, in the stocks. (Hear that Paula Broadwell and General Petraeus?)

Finally, in 1648, Bradford sat down to write a history of the Plymouth Bay Colony. He was proud that his people had helped English roots take hold in America and compared the Pilgrims to the first candle that helped light a thousand others. (If Wituwamet had been writing the story he might have told it differently; but his head was no longer attached, which did have an effect on his writing ability.)

With a deep sense of satisfaction Bradford noted:

Our fathers were Englishmen who came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice. Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good; and His mercies endure forever.

So, there you have it. The story of the First Thanksgiving, with details added. Tomorrow, thank God for your blessings. And be thankful that you weren’t born in the seventeenth century. May you all digest your turkey in peace and harmony.

As for Rush? Hope he sends us a postcard.