Friday, November 24, 2017

This is why I do the Thanksgiving post

This is why I do the Thanksgiving post

I came across this by chance; it's from the blog of a group called Global Immersions, based in Boston.
In 1620 the Mayflower, a small ship carrying 102 passengers landed in Plymouth. They journeyed across the ocean seeking religious freedom and prosperity. Their first winter in Massachusetts was brutal and many of the original passengers and crew died before they could see the spring. They were greeted by the indigenous people who taught them how to survive in their new environment. They were taught to cultivate the land and how to live off of the land. In the fall of 1621, their successful harvest prompted a celebratory feast and select Native Americans were invited. This is considered to be America’s first Thanksgiving.
There are at least eight historical errors in that one paragraph:

1. The Mayflower was not a "small" ship by the standard of the times. In fact, at 180 tun, it was somewhat larger than average for a merchant ship; typically such ships were 140-160 tun. (A tun is a large cask. Merchant ships were measured by the capacity of the hold.)

2. Seeking prosperity, yes. Seeking religious freedom, no. Not only did they not believe in religious freedom as we understand the term, to the degree they wanted such freedom for themselves, they had it in Holland - in fact, that's why they went to Holland in the first place. (On a technical point, in the period "freedom" was equated with anarchy. The term used would have been "liberty of conscience.")

3. There's no reason to think the winter of 1620-21 was any more brutal than any of those surrounding it. The problem was that they were delayed six weeks in their departure from England and so got to Cape Cod six weeks later than intended. Discovering it was too late in the year to safely sail around the Cape to their planned destination - the mouth of the Hudson River - they spent a month finding a good place to stay in New England. By then it was late December so they had inadequate time to prepare and living in such close quarters for so long made it easy to spread disease. And it was disease, not the brutality of the winter, that killed so many.

4. They were not "greeted by the indigenous people." In fact, they didn't speak to a native until March and that was to Samoset, an Abenaki from what's now Maine. It was a couple of weeks after that when they first spoke to a local (Squanto, aka Tisquantum).

5. The natives did not "teach them how to survive." Rather, the settlers were determined to remain as English as possible, doing things, including dressing and behaving and living, as they already knew how to do. It took a few decades or more before it began to sink in that hey, maybe the people who have lived here a few thousand have some good ideas.

6. and 7. The natives did not teach the settlers how to "cultivate the land" and most certainly did not teach them "how to live off the land." They did do one thing that proved very important: They showed how to cultivate what the settlers called "native corn," "Indian corn," or "turkey wheat," which we now just call corn, which had to be dealt with differently from the grains and pulse the English brought with them (wheat, oats, rye, barley, peas, beans, and such). But the idea that pretty much any ordinary English person of the period would be unfamiliar with cultivation and fishing is just silly and as for hunting, while both sides were familiar with traps, snares, and nets, the settlers hunted with guns, with which the natives were unfamiliar. (Not that they were unfamiliar with guns but that they were unfamiliar with hunting with them.)

8. "Select" Native Americans? "[M]any of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men...." Which means there were at least 90 natives present, so there were at least close to twice as many natives as settlers!

The paragraph under consideration here is an example of poor history rather than revisionist history, but it still indicates the happy-talk mythologies we were taught as children and so still has the same lack of balance.

One final note on this: In reading this year's examples of revisionist history I became struck with how the ultimate intent seems to be to conflate a single event - or, more broadly and accurately, a few decades in the history of New England - with the entire history of the treatment of Native Americans, leading to or more likely drawn from the conclusion that there just had to be something evil about the settlers, about the "first Thanksgiving," about all of it.

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