Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Stuff-yer-face Day

Otherwise known as Thanksgiving. As a Thanksgiving Day gift to all of you, I'm going to tell you everything we know about the "first Thanksgiving," that 1621 event featuring the settlers of Plymouth colony and the natives.
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And though it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
That's it. That's all of it. That is the only roughly contemporaneous description of the event that has survived. It comes from a letter dated December 11, 1621 which was written by, it is believed, Edward Winslow (although no name is actually attached). It was published in 1622 in a book commonly called Mourt's Relation.

The only other even near-contemporaneous account comes from William Bradford who wrote about it in his journal (published as Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647) at least 10 to 12 years later. Even there he just sort of brushes by it, endorsing Winslow by referring to "not feigned but true reports."
They now began to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses against the 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 in good store, of which every family had its portion. All the 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 waterfowl 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, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so large of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
So there you have it. That's what the entire "first Thanksgiving" story is built on. Yes, there are reasonable guesses that can be made and even reasonable conclusions that can be drawn about additional details, but the point is those range from "maybes" to "very likelys" and do not reach the level of "we knows."

We can say, for example, that the celebration very likely took place in late September or early October (because it was shortly after harvest). Among the foods, we can confident they had fowl (such as duck or goose and quite possibly turkey because Bradford specifically mentions turkeys), fish, and deer, since those are mentioned. We can assume some others such as squash (a common feature of household gardens) and a sort of coarse corn bread. It is very likely water was the only beverage as their supply of barley would be limited (Bradford elsewhere says the English grains "grew indifferent good") and there would not have been enough time for brewing since harvest.

One important thing - which actually does rise to the level of a "we know" - is that this was not a "thanksgiving" as they would have understood the term. To them, a thanksgiving was a day set aside for prayer to give thanks to God for some special and unexpected blessing. The first public day of thanksgiving in the town was in the summer of 1623: A crop-threatening drought had lead to a day of "humiliation," a day of fasting and prayer to beg forgiveness for whatever they had done to cause God to bring this on them. Literally immediately after, there came a soaking rain which saved the crops and so a day of thanksgiving seemed appropriate.

So no, this was not a thanksgiving. It was a very traditional, very secular, English harvest feast, a celebration of a good harvest to which it was customary to invite those who had been helpful to you over the course of the year (which is why the natives were there). Their harvest wasn't big (note that Bradford called it "small"), but they had one, which surely raised everyone's spirits and gave them confidence in the success of the venture: reason enough to celebrate, especially considering what they had been through so far.

It is truly amazing just how much misinformation, mythology, and general muddle-headedness there is out there on this topic, ranging from images of picnic tables laden with turkey, mashed potatoes, and apple pies surrounded by natives dressed like plains peoples and smiling "Pilgrims" dressed in the fashions of the 1690s to, more recently, scowling tales of drunken, bloodthirsty settlers facing natives "crashing the party" and doing it in such numbers because Massasoit feared he'd be kidnapped or killed otherwise. Both visions are an attempt to overwrite history with ideology.

Plymouth in the fall of 1621 genuinely was a scene of peaceful and friendly relations, of good feeling, between English settlers and their nearest native neighbors. It was brief enough, lasting by even a generous understanding no more than a few decades, and rare enough in our nation's history such that while "the first Thanksgiving" shouldn't be a source of happily-ever-after "why can't we all just get along" fairy stories, neither is there any need to co-opt it into the service of revisionist history that merely looks to change childhood tales of noble settlers and savage natives into one of noble natives and savage settlers. Let it stand on what the actual history tells us and be enjoyed for what it was: a moment of hope and fellowship.

Happy Thanksgiving.


JM said...

what about the genocide? Did that happen after or during or what?

LarryE said...

Just referring to "the genocide" presents an impossibly wide question. Remember, we're talking about hundreds of years of varying contacts spanning an entire hemisphere.

I'll give you an example: One of the reasons people settled at Plymouth was they found cleared but abandoned fields. They discovered later that there had been "a plague" (widespread infectious disease) among the natives that had killed many. It appears that it was brought by a French ship that came in 1617 because it broke out among the natives shortly thereafter.

The thing is, lacking a germ theory and any knowledge of a related incubation period, there's no rational way it could be said the French knew they caused this plague or did it deliberately - especially because they had no intention of settling and the natives were a source of profitable goods such as furs and so there was no gain (and potential loss) for them to do it even if they wanted to.

Even so, the disease they unknowingly inflicted on the natives killed thousands of those who lived in what's now eastern Massachusetts. So was that genocide or not?

The actual record of what Europeans inflicted on the natives of North (and South) America over the years makes it unnecessary to engage in the kind of ahistorical revisionism that goes "European setters = bloodthirsty = genocide on peaceful natives."

The historical record says that the fall of 1621, the time of the "first Thanksgiving," was indeed a time of good and friendly relations between European settlers and nearby natives. As I said, it was brief enough and rare enough. I have said to a good number of folks that the story plays out like a Greek tragedy where, looking back on it from our perspective hundreds of years later, we can easily see where the story was going to go, that as some point it was going to end in violent, bloody conflict. But we also know (or at least should know) that the people actually living it at the time did not see what was coming.

So I have no trouble accepting that harvest feast for what it was - no more but also no less.

LarryE said...

Quick addendum: The phrase "between European settlers and nearby natives" should have read "between a certain group of European settlers and nearby natives."

JM said...

Ah, I see. Ol Robert Jensen's somewhat wrong then:

Always thought his approach was somewhat smug and lifestyle anarchistish anyway.

LarryE said...

Robert Jensen is more than somewhat wrong, his premise is wrong, that premise being, in essence, that the entire history of the US (and major parts of the rest of the Western Hemisphere) can be swept up under the rubric "all European settlers came to 'the New World' with the intention of killing all the natives and stealing their land."

It shouldn't be necessary to say - but in such cases usually is - that this does not mean that the same history does not run red with the blood of, and black with brutality toward, the native peoples of the Americas. What is does mean is that the broader the brush, the worst the history and the more intrusive the ideology.

Ideology can actually provide a useful filter through which to view history with an appropriately critical eye. But while a good servant, it is a poor master and when ideology replaces history - as it has with Jensen - the result is to take an event could serve as a mark of hope, of what, if you will, "might have been" and should have been (or, alternatively, as the exception that proves the rule) and turn it itself into a heart of darkness. And that is not only bad history, it's bad ideology.

I suppose the bottom line for me is that as I have said before, the actual history of the treatment of natives at the hands of European settlers and their descendants is bad enough that it needs no exaggeration. And ignoring the exceptions is just that sort of exaggeration, one that by insisting that nothing was different of necessity questions how anything can be different, slighting the possibility of change in the future. Which despite everything I still refuse to do.

As a footnote, you may be interested in knowing that the natives of eastern MA and Cape Cod, who now go by the general name Wampanoag, don't really take part in the National Day of Mourning protests that still occur in Plymouth every Thanksgiving. They soured on the protest some time back when they came to realize that they were mostly being used merely as backdrops for someone else's arguments. Now, every year some of them hold a round-the-clock vigil in a tent containing exhibits on native life and history and present it as a celebration of the treaty that was concluded between Plymouth's leaders and the native leader Massasoit in the spring of 1621, a treaty that kept the peace between the two groups for nearly 50 years.

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