I know, I know. We simply can’t let a Thanksgiving go by without being made to feel simply awful as a result of rapacious white Europeans betraying and eventually murdering Rousseau’s “noble savage” in bunches. This line of thinking leads to a rather interesting conclusion; Europeans should have stayed in Europe, allowing only Asians to emigrate to North and South America.
If European naval technology had been just a little less advanced, we very well could be speaking some Asian tongue today – or perhaps even Polynesian given the enormous skill and intrepidness of their sailors. The last great migration from Asia may have occurred as recently as 6,000 BC according to some exhaustive yet controversial linguistic studies. But if European ship building improvements had lagged by just a couple of hundred years, North America would have been a ripe target for settlement by any number of Asian cultures. Then, it would have been rapacious yellow men who would have gotten tagged with killing the native population.
That’s because it didn’t matter who came, the clash of civilizations was inevitable. Failing to understand our early history in the context of the history of migrating peoples from the time that Homo Sapiens first moved out of Africa is shallow, stupid, and these days, politically motivated. It doesn’t absolve white people of murder nor does it lessen the tragedy of the destruction of native American culture. But thinking in these terms should animate our total understanding of the history of our continent and our country – something the modern day left, whose guilt-ridden diatribes against our ancestors always sounds such a discordant note on this, the most unique of American holidays, deliberately ignores in order to prove their solidarity with the oppressed.
All of that was in the future when the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 in recognition of the help given to them by the Cape Cod Indian tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag. By that time, the Pilgrim’s numbers had been dramatically reduced by disease, losing more than half the number that landed at Plymouth Rock. The Indians had no doubt contributed to the survival of the remainder by showing them how and where to fish as well as introducing them to some native American crops like Maize and beans.
But what we tend to forget about the Pilgrims is that they were not explorers or people inured to hardship. They were country folk from the Midlands of England – most of them were not farmers or possessing the skills necessary to begin a colony. They were simple townsfolk whose separatist ideas about the Church of England landed them in trouble with the authorities – so much so that they were driven out of the country. First to Holland, where their religious views were tolerated but where parents were concerned that the children were losing their essential “Englishness” and pined for the homeland. That’s when William Bradford made a deal with the London Company for a land patent and the crossing was planned.
So here they were, arriving in the waters of the New World in early November, 1620 but not making a landing until nearly a month later. It was then they began to hack a civilization out of the wilderness. Whatever skills they had with the ax or hammer, they were forced to perfect while constructing a few rough hewn buildings over the winter of 1620-21. Only 47 of the original 102 Pilgrims who began the crossing survived to see that first spring.
The Mayflower stuck around until April, 1621, supplying the colonists with whatever food they couldn’t beg, trade for, or steal from the Indians. They were poor hunters, had few firelocks, and were not familiar with the local fauna so were unable to procure food through the gathering of nuts and berries as the native Americans did. The Indians worked diligently to remedy this and by the summer of 1621, the Pilgrims were nearly self-sufficient.
Thanks to Massasoit, Sachem of the Wampanoags who had signed a peace treaty with the Pilgrims earlier in the Spring, the new Americans were able to plant, tend, and harvest their first crop with little trouble. It wasn’t much. A peck of corn meal for each family a week (a peck is 8 dry quarts) during the winter along with some salt fish. They supplemented this with wild fowl they hunted and trapped. All in all, barely enough to survive on. But considering their hardships suffered during the previous year, it seemed bountiful enough that they were able to entertain and feed 90 Wampanoags and the entire colony for a week of feasting.
These were hardy, determined people who put up with difficulties almost all of us today would never survive. We tend to forget that these first Pilgrims made something out of absolutely nothing with just a few tools and the sweat of their brow. And a nice assist from the Wampanoags who had their own selfish reasons for helping. A devastating plague – probably an extremely virulent form of smallpox that the Wampanoags caught from French traders – reduced their numbers dramatically leaving them vulnerable to their enemies, the Narragansett tribe. No doubt Massasoit eyed the Pilgrim flintlocks with more than a little envy.
I realize that many native Americans are not celebrating today. More the pity for them. Recognizing the achievement of the Pilgrims, taken by itself as an admirable effort by people regardless of their color to survive and prosper in a hostile and unfamiliar world, should elicit the praise of all who can appreciate their extraordinary accomplishments. What followed may have been a tragedy. But don’t take it out on the original Pilgrims. They lived in peace with the Indians for 50 years, long after the last Mayflower survivor died.
Perhaps we could leave this tiny corner of American history alone this year by allowing us the pleasure of remembering the Pilgrims for what they were; brave souls who conquered their fears and with an indomitable spirit, created a settlement of Godly men and women who were able to express their religious beliefs freely as an example to all.