Here we are, coming up on Thanksgiving 2020, our national day of giving thanks. This year sandwiched as we are, between a very difficult past eight months and an uncertain but hopeful future, many of us are weighing the benefits of giving thanks. And that is where the original Thanksgiving might give us some perspective. We all know the story of how the Pilgrims struggled through that first difficult winter only to reap a bountiful harvest the next Fall. A harvest they shared in brotherly love with their native neighbors. Truly an inspiring story. Except that wasn’t the end of the story, not for the Pilgrims and certainly not for the indigenous people.
400 years ago, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock founding what would later be known as Plymouth Colony. The Pilgrims were part of a breakaway sect of the Anglican Church that sought to “purify” its teachings, ergo the name Puritans. The Anglican Church itself was a breakaway Protestant church, having split off from Catholicism under Henry VIII (over his divorce), less than 100 years before. The Pilgrims held several extreme beliefs: they didn’t celebrate traditional Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas, believing them to have come from man and not God; they didn’t consider marriage a religious matter preferring simple civil unions (presided over by a civil authority and not a religious one); they didn’t wear or use crosses, believing them to be idolatry and they also didn’t acknowledge formal prayer, believing the Lord’s Prayer was a guide, not a mantra. Furthermore, they didn’t celebrate mass, preferring occasional feasts of thanksgiving. And the Pilgrims also didn’t bathe.
The story goes that Samoset, a member of the Abenaki tribe walked boldly into the Pilgrims Plymouth settlement and asked them, in English, for beer. He later brought “Squanto” (real name: Tisquantum), a member of the Patuxet tribe, to visit the Pilgrims. Squanto then spent 20 months helping those Pilgrims survive. The part often left out of that story is that Squanto had been enslaved by Europeans on a previous trip. He had been sold to the Spanish, taken to Europe, escaped to England before making his way back to his ancestral homeland, only to then discover that disease from those original Europeans had wiped out his entire tribe. In fact, Plymouth Colony was built on the remains of his empty village.
Squanto is often praised as a part of the first Thanksgiving, being instrumental in getting Massasoit, the chief of a neighboring tribe to the table. Again, left out of that story is that Massasoit originally wanted Squanto turned over to him, or rather his head, believing him to be a traitor.
Massasoit himself did manage to live in relative harmony with the Pilgrims. It was his two sons who did not. His eldest, Wamsutta (given the English name Alexander), was imprisoned by the Pilgrims on trumped up charges, upon his release, he died a few days later. Poisoning was suspected. His brother, Metacomet (also known as King Philip) launched a three year war against Pilgrim settlements. Of the 60 or so settlements in New England, 12 were completely destroyed, (including Providence, the principal city of Rhode Island). Historians estimate that up to 10 percent of the colony’s settlers died as a result of the war. The Wampanoags (Massasoit’s tribe) fared much worse, losing as much as 80 percent of their total population. Afterwards, Metacomet’s severed head was displayed in Plymouth for 25 years, and his wife and son were sold into slavery in the West Indies. According to Massachusetts historian James Drake, King Philip’s War was “the greatest calamity in 17th century New England” and the “deadliest war in Colonial American history,” happening as it did, just 50 years after the very first Thanksgiving.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
-Happy endings are never permanent.
-One of the first acts by the newly formed U.S. government established by the Constitution in 1789, was to declare a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin.”
-In some parts of Massachusetts, Christian celebrations such as Christmas and Easter were outlawed by Puritan governing bodies. In fact, the State of Massachusetts only recognized Christmas as a holiday in 1856.
-The Pilgrims didn’t have any beer to give Samoset, they had run out, which is one of the reasons the crew of the Mayflower put them ashore at Plymouth Rock; the crew didn’t want to share theirs! The Pilgrims did have “strong water,” or liquor, which seemed to suit everyone just fine.
-American history is a much more complex and convoluted story than the simple fables we were told as children.
-Squanto died of so-called “Indian Fever” which in actuality was probably a disease brought by the Europeans
-Have a safe Thanksgiving, for yourselves, and for the rest of us, as well.