Thursday, November 22, 2012

The First Thanksgiving: What Your Third Grade Teacher Didn't Mention

WITH THANKSGIVING UPON US it is time once again to tabulate our blessings. (If you're Donald Trump or any member of the Walton clan that may take longer.) For many Americans it's enough that the Yankees didn't get to the World Series. A majority of our citizens, who apparently received lavish gifts, are thankful Mr. Obama won reelection.

And speaking of stuffing, Rush Limbaugh has angrily been threatening a move to Costa Rica. We should all be so lucky.

Sometimes, you look at the world and wonder if humankind has lost its collective grip on whatever marbles it once had. We might even wonder (if we live in a red state) whether God has forsaken our nation. Our Pilgrim ancestors and their neighbors, the Native Americans, would scoff at our whining.

Maybe, this Thanksgiving, we should start by thanking God for the First Amendment. Religious freedom, which we take for granted (unless we worry about the War on Christmas), was a rarity in the 1600s. In those days it was still possible for judges to order heretics branded on the forehead with an "H" for questioning accepted religious belief. Sometimes you could cut off an ear or two to make the lesson clearer.

So, no. Life wasn't better four centuries ago. When the Pilgrims left England for exile in Holland in 1608, the King James Bible did not yet exist, although arguments about correct church doctrine were still common. Fifty scholars would gather together in 1611 to work on a definitive translation of the ancient texts into English.

Perhaps we should count modern health care among our blessings--including, perhaps, a prayer of thanks to the U. S. Supreme Court for upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare. Disease in the Pilgrim days was a major factor in shaping history. Outbreaks of Black Plague, for example, regularly closed London theaters in the time of Shakespeare, who died in 1616. (Be thankful today that none of your loved ones have to worry about rat-borne killer diseases.)

That same year Shakespeare died (and Pocahontas, visiting England died as well) an epidemic of smallpox brought to the shores of Massachusetts by fishing vessels plying the coastline in search of codfish swept away most of the native population and left the land more or less open for English settlement.

IN 1620, THEN, 105 PASSENGERS BOARDED THE MAYFLOWER and headed for America. Only half of the people aboard, however, were "saints" or church members, technically, real "Pilgrims." London city officials saw a chance to thin out the ranks of orphans, whose support was a drag on the taxpayers. So they packed off Richard More, 7, and Ellen More, his little sister, just to be rid of them. Paul Ryan might have applauded their fiscal discipline. (Then again, Mr. Ryan might recall that the Pilgrims, and the English generally, were no fan of the Roman Catholics.)

Other passengers included William Bradford, who would go on to lead the colony and write a book about it, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, whose romance became the focus of a famous poem by Longfellow (which few today read) and Elizabeth Hopkins, well advanced in her pregnancy. (She gave birth to a child named "Oceanus" during the voyage.) There were also a number of goats on board; but the goats do not play a role in the story.

The Mayflower finally dropped anchor off Cape Cod in November and scouting parties were soon sent out to locate the best possible site for a settlement. In the cold winter ahead tuberculosis, pneumonia and scurvy took a heavy toll among the settlers. Bradford described the Pilgrim’s lowest point:

That which was most sad...was that in 2 or 3 months time half of their company had died, especially in Jan. and February, being in the depth of winter, and lacking houses and other comforts...There died some times 2 or 3 of a day...[so] that of 100 and odd persons, hardly 50 remained. And of these in times of most distress [trouble], there was but 6 or 7 sound [healthy] persons.

Yeah. Good times. (Be thankful for flu shots.)
Meanwhile, the Pilgrims had a number of skirmishes with the previous landowners. And the Pilgrims understood if the Indians chose to attack they had little hope of survival. They buried their dead in secret, planted seeds over the graves, and prayed that the “wild men” would not discover their weakness.

Who knows? Maybe God does work in mysterious ways. (Today, we are told he sends Superstorm Sandy to punish America for supporting legalization of gay marriage.) The Pilgrims were lucky, if nothing else. The Native Americans, not so much. The smallpox outbreak of a few years before had been devastating. Thousands of the original inhabitants were wiped from the land, “they not [even] being able to bury one another. Their skulls and bones,” Bradford recalled later, “were found in many places lying still above the ground, where their houses...had been; a very sad spectacle to behold.”

You may recall this part of the story from back when your teacher talked about it in third grade:  How the Pilgrims met Samoset, who stepped out of the forest shadows and greeted them in good English (he had been hanging out with some of the crewmen from those earlier fishing expeditions). He called out to them hearty: “Welcome!”

Then he asked if they had beer. (Fans of watching the NFL this afternoon can relate.)

Anyway, moving along:  Samoset introduced the Pilgrims to Squanto, who understood English even better, since he'd been kidnapped by fishermen and taken to England as a slave, before he escaped, was captured's a long story. (See:  People were more religious in those days, more honest, still followed all ten of the Ten Commandments!) Squanto showed his new buddies where to catch lobster and how to raise corn, using fish as fertilizer. (The colony was saved and the way to the foundation of the Red Lobster chain was opened.)
The plot thickened. Squanto introduced his new friends to Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe and ruler of the lands surrounding Plymouth Bay. His people had been hard hit by the plague four years before and he was anxious to sign a treaty of peace. In turn, Massasoit hoped for aid against his powerful neighbors, the Narragansetts, long the Wampanoags bloody rivals, and a people almost unscathed by the great disease outbreak. (Or:  as Mitt Romney once put it, "We need to be sure we always have a strong military. With plenty of bayonets.)

Well, that's pretty much the story. The Pilgrims didn't want to get wiped out after a rough winter. The Wampanoags knew that the enemy of their enemy was their friend and a treaty of peace was signed and both sides kept it for half a century.

The pumpkin pies were baked. The invitations went out. Massasoit, with ninety followers, attended the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621. The guests brought five deer. The hosts provided fresh bread, roast duck, goose, and wine. Together they celebrated and feasted for three days. There were foot races and games of shooting skill and much fun to be had. (One drunk settler started going on about how Obama wanted to deny hunters the right to carry assault rifles but he soon passed out and was heard from no more.) 

Believe it or not, turkey is not mentioned by any of the eyewitnesses.

Of course, the Pilgrim's survived and thrived. (This is why NFL players still point when they score touchdowns and thank God for granting us the inalienable right to watch football.) Even troubles with tribes beyond Massasoit’s control could not break their spirits. When a sachem named Wituwamat threatened Plymouth the Pilgrims took quick action. The chief and three followers were invited into the settlements to talk. There, without warning, Captain Myles Standish and his soldiers fell upon them and cut them to pieces. Then they chopped off Wituwamat’s head and spiked it atop their fort wall. It remained there for many years as a warning, but apparently did not spoil anyone's appetite at future Thanksgiving dinners. 

Nothing about humanity has changed in four centuries. The first Pilgrim minister seemed “crazed in the brain” and was booted out of the colony. (Pat Robertson?) John Sprague drank too much and was arrested after riding his horse into a friend’s house. (Lindsay Lohan?) John Billington, an original Mayflower passenger, committed murder and was hanged. A married woman was caught having an affair with an Indian. She was whipped and ordered to wear the letters “AD” for adultery on her sleeve. 

In another case of married people behaving badly, a young wife got in trouble after she was left behind while her husband went away on business. When she, too, had an affair, Pilgrim officials arrested everyone involved. All three individuals, husband, wife, and lover were locked up, side by side, in the stocks. (Hear that Paula Broadwell and General David Petraeus?)
Years later, Bradford sat down to write a history of the Plymouth Bay Colony. He was proud that his people had helped English roots take hold in America and compared the Pilgrims to the first candle that helped light a thousand others. (If Wituwamet had been writing the story he might have told it differently.)

With a deep sense of satisfaction Bradford noted:   

Our fathers were Englishmen who came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice.  Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good; and His mercies endure forever.

So, there you have it. The story of the First Thanksgiving, with a few details added. (And I'm sorry I had to leave the story of the two Indians who mooned the Pilgrims one day out.) Today, thank God for all your blessings. Be thankful, if for nothing else, that you weren't born in the seventeenth century.

Good wishes to all Americans, liberal and conservative alike. May you all digest your turkey in peace and harmony.

As for Rush? Maybe he'll send us a postcard.

There's myth; and there's history.
Happy holidays to all.

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