Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Turkey Day

Gather 'round the campfire, kiddies: As a T-day present, I'm going to tell you the true story of the "First Thanksgiving." Now, there have been a number of places claiming to have had the first Thanksgiving, but when we say the phrase, we're all but invariably thinking of an event that took place in what's now Plymouth, Massachusetts in the fall of 1621. So that's what I'm referring to.

I'll begin by citing a book with the rather ponderous title of A Relation or Journal of the beginning and procedings of the English Plantation settled at Plimoth in New England, by certain English Adventurers both Merchants and others.

It's popularly known today by the less cumbersome name of Mourt's Relation. In that volume, published in England in 1622, there is a letter from Edward Winslow to a "loving and old friend" in England. Winslow was a Mayflower passenger, one of the original settlers of what is now Plymouth. The letter is dated December 11, 1621 (old style).

This is quoted from that letter:
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 fruit 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 although 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.
Got that? The thing you need to know, friends, is that that is the only contemporaneous account of the event known to exist. The only other even near-contemporaneous account of which I'm aware was penned by William Bradford, another "first comer," who wrote in the early 1630s, ten or twelve years after the event:
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings 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 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 of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned, but true reports.
That's it. That's all we know. Well, that and the fact that based on other references in those two sources, the 1621 feast took place after September 18 and before November 9. Mostly likely, it was in late September or the beginning of October, as that would have been shortly after harvest. Everything else is based on assumptions, interpretations, and guesswork - some of the latter informed, some (too much of it) not.

The first thing to realize is that this was not a "thanksgiving." In the period, a thanksgiving was a religious occasion, a day set aside to give thanks to God for some special and unexpected blessing. Such days would occur occasionally as the cause arose; to plan for one every year would be regarded as a gross presumption on God's intentions. What this was instead was a very traditional, very secular, very English, harvest feast. It was a tradition that if you had a good harvest, you would have a feast, to which you would invite everyone who had been helpful to you in your fields that year. As the natives had been helpful, they were invited.

True, the settlers didn't have a good harvest - Bradford describes it as "small" - but they had a harvest. At that point, they knew they were going to survive, they could feel confident they were going to make it. Reason enough for a celebration.

As for the eternal question of what they ate, we don't know for certain as nothing is specified. But based on the sources we can make reasonable guesses.

They surely could have had fish, specifically cod and bass. Waterfowl - duck and goose - seems likely and yes, they probably did have turkey (Bradford says "they took many" so they were certainly available). They may have had deer; Bradford mentions "venison," which at the time meant "hunted meat" - which of course includes deer. (The deer the natives brought may have been part of the meal, but it's unclear if they were brought in time to be butchered and prepared for the feast or were they a later thank you for having been "entertained and feasted.") Lobster and other shellfish is another possibility; elsewhere in the letter Winslow mentions that they are abundant in the area - as are eels, of which they could take "a hogshead" (a cask holding about 63 gallons of liquid) "in a night." (Yeah, that's likely an exaggeration: Winslow was like that.)

More tentatively, there could have been a sort of pie made from squash from their gardens, sweetened with dried fruit brought from England. Salads made from other stuff from the gardens is a fair bet, too.

To drink it was likely mostly water. In the same letter, Winslow says the barley grew "indifferent good" - i.e., it was a so-so crop - and there is no mention of hops. No hops, no beer. Not much barley, not much ale. So they might have had some ale, but again is was likely mostly water.

So that's pretty much it, kiddies. Not a lot to build a whole mythology on, is it?

Now for the reason I bring this whole story up: Every year around this time, unfailingly, I come across revisionist histories of the event. Years ago in grammar school I along with everyone else got fed tales that roused images of noble settlers and savage natives. Now, there are those who want to change that to a tale of savage settlers and noble natives - they want to simply flip who were the angels and who were the demons. We are regaled with tales of bloodthirsty settlers and how Massasoit brought 90 men to the feast because he was afraid that without a massive show of force he would be kidnapped or killed.

That's bunk, pure and simple.

In fact, relations between Plimoth (as it was often spelled at the time) and the neighboring natives were reasonably good for several decades. There were stresses and strains, yes, but for the most part they managed to keep intact the peace agreement they made in the spring of 1621. (See the Footnote for details.)

Things gradually got worse and I won't go into all the reasons why but the biggest single reason was disputes over land there were rooted in vast cultural differences between the natives (whose culture had no concept of land ownership) and the English (to who land ownership was an everyday concept). The peace finally, irrevocably, broke down - but that was in 1675, more than 50 years after the "First Thanksgiving." The point here is that at that time, in the fall of 1621, native-settler relations were good.

In fact, the very next sentences of the Winslow letter I quoted above are these:
We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us. We often go to them, and they come to us; some of us have been fifty miles by land in the country with them.
Winslow also says that all the other native leaders in the vicinity have made peace with Plymouth on the same terms as Massasoit, as a result of which, he asserts, "there is now great peace amongst the Indians themselves, which was not formerly." He goes on to say that:
We for our parts walk as peaceably and safely in the wood as in the highways in England. We entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as friendly bestowing their venison on us. They are a people without any religion or knowledge of God, yet very trusty, quick of apprehension, ripe-witted, just.
(Just to be certain you know, "quick of apprehension" does not mean quick to be afraid. It means quick to understand, quick to grasp the meaning of something.)

That does not sound either like bloodthirsty settlers eager to kill natives or like natives who feared contact with those same settlers or felt they had to display mass force to avoid being kidnapped or killed. If you're still not convinced, consider that in June 1621, three or four months earlier, the town felt it necessary to send a message to Massasoit requesting that he restrain his people from coming to the settlement in such numbers. From Mourt's Relation:
But whereas his people came very often, and very many together unto us, bringing for the most part their wives and children with them, they were welcome; yet we being but strangers as yet at Patuxet, alias New Plymouth, and not knowing how our corn might prosper, we could no longer give them such entertainment as we had done, and as we desired still to do.
Simply flipping who is an angel and who is a demon is trash: Neither of these peoples were either. Neither was a saint, neither was a devil.

So I reject the revisionist history, indeed I resent the revisionist history. I resent it first because it’s lousy history. It's based on ideology instead of information; it looks to satisfy demands of politics, not of history, and it is every bit as full of false tales and mythology as the nonsense and pap that we got fed as schoolchildren.

The "First Thanksgiving" was a moment of celebration when everyone on both sides believed this yes, was going to work out. That wasn’t going to happen; it was a false hope, even a foolish hope - but it did exist. And considering what Europeans of various sorts have inflicted on the natives of North America over the ensuing couple of centuries - well, that is more than bad enough to make exaggerations and false claims unnecessary.

So I quite frankly resent the attempts to strip away that one moment of hope in pursuit of a modern political agenda. And I decided to express that resentment by laying out what we do know.

So I hope you enjoy your Turkey day, I hope you have time to spend with your family or friends or better yet both and I hope you can understand why I celebrate the day as an expression less of thankfulness for the past (or even the present) than as an expression of hope for the future. That hope, too, may prove as foolish as that of 1621 - but the blunt fact is, hope is also the only thing that can make that future a better one.

Oh, and as a PS: You want to help build hope, and I mean real hope, not the phony manipulative "hope" proffered by those who want you to think that the political advancement of this or that politico's campaign is the be-all and end-all of the future of justice? Then Occupy!

Footnote: According to Mourt's Relation, this was the 1621 peace agreement:
1. That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people.

2. And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him.

3. That if any of our tools were taken away when our people are at work, he should cause them to be restored, and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the likewise to them.

4. If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, he should aid us.

5. He should send to his neighbor confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.

6. That when their men came to us, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them, as we should do our pieces when we came to them.
Expressed simply, it came down to "You won't attack us, we won't attack you. You get attacked, we'll help. We get attacked, you'll help. One of us does something wrong to one of you, they go to you for punishment. One of you does something wrong to one of us, they come to us for punishment. Deal? Deal."

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