Wednesday, November 27, 2013

136.2 - The real story of "the first Thanksgiving"

The real story of "the first Thanksgiving"

[Those of you with long memories may realize that this is an expanded and updated version of a post I wrote in November 2011.]

Updated Gather 'round the campfire, kiddies: As a Thanksgiving Day present, I'm going to tell you the true story of the "first Thanksgiving." Which wasn't the first and it wasn't a 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 here.

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. Edward Winslow was a Mayflower passenger, one of the original settlers of what is now Plymouth, and became an important figure in to town before he moved back to England a few decades later. The letter is dated December 11, 1621.

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 historians are aware was penned by William Bradford, another "first comer" who was governor of the colony for over 30 years. He wrote this 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 what we know. 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. Most 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 of it, 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 and would certainly not involve a multi-day feast. Such days would occur occasionally as the cause arose and 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, well, they were there.

True, the settlers didn't have a good harvest - Bradford describes it as "small" - but they had a harvest. At that point, they could expect 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 actually meant "hunted meat," but which of course includes deer. What's more, Winslow says the natives brought five deer. However, it's unclear if they brought those to the feast, went out and got them during the feast, in which case it seems unlikely they could have been butchered and prepared for eating during the feast, or they may have been brought later as a thank you for having been "entertained and feasted." In any event, they very likely could have had deer, whether supplied by the natives, the settlers, or both.

Lobster and other shellfish is another possibility; elsewhere in the letter from Winslow which I quoted he mentions that they are abundant in the area - as are eels, of which they could take "a hogshead in a night." If you think "eels, eew," know that an English person of the period would have responded "They're just another sort of fish." A hogshead, by the way, is a cask holding about 63 gallons of liquid. Which means Winslow's description was likely something of an exaggeration, but 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 that same letter, Winslow says the barley grew "indifferent good" - that is, 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 Plymouth and the neighboring natives were reasonably good for several decades. There were stresses and strains and disruptions, yes, but for the most part they managed to keep intact the peace agreement-mutual defense pact they made in the spring of 1621.

Things gradually got worse and I won't go into all the reasons why but the biggest two were population pressure and disputes over land that were rooted in vast cultural differences between the natives and the English. The native culture had no concept of land ownership. Not just they didn't own the land or that everyone owned the land, the idea of land as a possession just didn't exist. To own something, for the natives, meant you could pick it up and carry it away with you. How could you own something if you have to leave it behind anytime you go anywhere? Which makes real sense, especially for a semi-nomadic people who live in one area for part of the year and another area the rest of the year. But for the settlers, for any European, land ownership was an everyday concept.

The peace finally, irrevocably, completely 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. This is from Mourt's Relation, this is the message they sent to Massasoit.
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.
That's how "afraid" the natives were of the settlers.

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.

Okay, so this year I came across a new or at least recent revisionist history, one which unfortunately appears to be gaining traction in some very unfortunate places.

This, too, is about why Massasoit was present at the feast with 90 of his men. Why that seems to be a point of contention, why the revisionists can't seem to embrace the idea that they were there simply because they were expected, mystifies me, but leave that aside for now.

Note that Winslow says "amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms." This new revisionist notion is that local natives heard the noise of the militia exercising, took the noise to mean Plymouth was under attack, went and told Massasoit, who rushed to Plymouth with his men, ready to support his ally and honor the mutual defense treaty. That's why there were there.

Now, this is a sort of innocent revisionism in that it doesn't challenge the nature of the relations between Plymouth and Massasoit's people or even change the essential story except to play up the natives' intentions to keep their word or to hint, as some have in the past, that Massasoit had a sort of fatherly attitude toward this handful of clueless doofuses out at the coast, which is actually not too likely since he would have been well aware of how Plymouth had stared down Massasoit's enemy the Narragansetts the previous spring, but still, again, the revisionism here only affects details, not the actual thrust of the story.

But while it may be harmless, the fact is, it is almost certainly total nonsense. First we have to suppose that the natives who thought Plymouth was being attacked ran to tell Massasoit without ever checking to see if it was true. Second, Massasoit's chief town, Pokanoket, was 40 miles away. Allowing time to get there, assemble a force, and get back, I think it's safe to say we're talking a day and a-half or maybe more. Winslow says Massasoit and his men were feasted for three days - so now the feast is not three days, it's four or five, which is getting pretty long. And third, all the time Massasoit is going to Plymouth, he had to have encountered no one, no native, no settler off hunting, to say "What are you talking about? There's nothing going on there. They're just making a lot of noise. You know how they like to do that." The story just doesn't track.

This version is supposedly based on an oral tradition among the Wampanoag, and I say supposedly because I don't know of any references to this tradition before a rather few years ago. In an admittedly by no means in-depth search, the earliest reference to this oral tradition I found was in 2006. And when I worked at Plimoth Plantation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including at the native site, I never heard about this oral tradition, even from the director of the native program or the man who was as the time the chief of the Wampanoag.

But perhaps it is an actual oral tradition, something consciously preserved, as opposed to just a mere story easily subject to revision and reinvention over even a short time. Oral traditions can be very useful and very accurate - but the fact is, when a nearly 400-year-old oral tradition directly conflicts with contemporaneous written accounts, I can't put a lot of credence in it.

Again, take note of Winslow's account, written within several weeks after the event. It betrays not the slightest hint of surprise at Massasoit's arrival. And, as I've already noted, Edward Winslow was not one to downplay events or to be reticent in his descriptions; if anything, he was prone to some exaggeration. If there was any truth to the account that the natives came expecting to go into battle, what possible reason, what possible rational basis, could there be for Winslow to have not said something like "Massasoit, with some 90 of his men, came upon us all of a sudden, prepared for battle, having heard reports that we were under attack. But having assuaged their fears, we bid them join the feast."

Why wouldn't he have said that, particularly since in describing other events, Winslow was not one to be overly miserly with details? Why wouldn't he, especially since he almost immediately afterwards says the natives have been "very faithful in their covenant of peace with us," which such an event would have served to illustrate? The only reason I can see, frankly, is that it didn't happen.

So I reject the revisionist histories, indeed I resent the revisionist histories. I resent them first because they are lousy history. They are based on ideology instead of information; they look to satisfy demands of political belief, not of history, and they are every bit as full of false tales and mythology as the nonsense and pap that we got fed as schoolchildren.

And there's something else, another reason I resent them: The "first Thanksgiving" was a moment of celebration when everyone on both sides, even if they were still wary each of the other, believed that yes, this 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 or re-engineer that one moment of hope in pursuit of a modern political or cultural agenda. And I choose to express that resentment by laying out what we do know about the event, little though it may be.

So I hope you enjoyed your Turkey day, I hope you had time to spend with your family or friends or better yet both and I hope you can understand why I celebrate the day less as an expression 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, the only force, the only energy, that can provide the fuel that can make that future a better one.

Updated to make a rather subtle point more clearly: Europeans of the 17th century - especially the more religiously-conservative sorts, such as those that lead the Plimoth settlement - did not make the sort of clear distinctions between what is "religious" and what is "secular" that we do today. The sense of, a feeling of an awareness of, the "hand of God" or the "will of God" was much more central to their lives than it is to most of us now.

What that means here is that the 1621 harvest feast would surely have included prayers of thanks to God and perhaps a sermon from their religious leader, Elder William Brewster, as significant features of the event, just as prayer would have been a frequent feature of their everyday lives, from meals to musket drills to mucking about in their fields, tending the crops. However, they would not have regarded this as "a day of thanksgiving" as they understood the term: While the prayers would have been significant features of the event, they would not have been the central features; not the purpose, not the point, not the driver behind it. Celebration was, feasting was.

Put another way, had we been able to witness the 1621 feast, to our modern eyes there would very likely have been more than enough praying, giving thanks, and singing of psalms and hymns to make it look like a religious or at least religiously-inspired event, but to a person of the 17th century it would have looked about as secular as things got.


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