The American holiday of Thanksgiving is this coming Thursday, and here in America we have a host of traditions about it, from the food to the story of the first one. In fact, we have a lot of stories about a lot of things, some of which are outright myths (Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox), some stories which may or may not be true (George Washington and the cherry tree), and the story of the first Thanksgiving, which we all learn as wee children.
Here’s how that story goes. The Pilgrims came to America from England, in search of religious freedom. They landed on Plymouth Rock, in Massachusetts, in 1620. They were befriended by a Native American named Squanto, who taught them how to plant native plants such as corn, squash, and beans, and how to make the crops thrive by planting them with dead fish. The next year, when it was time to harvest, they had their first Thanksgiving feast. In drawings, this is usually depicted as the Pilgrims and their native American friends seated side by side at a long table, enjoying turkey and a bounty of other dishes. And they all lived happily ever after.
So by coincidence, I’m reading the book “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” by Nathaniel Philbrick. This is the third book by Philbrick I will have read. The first was “In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, for which he won the National Book Award in 2000. The second was “Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition”. He’s written two others, one about the battle of the Little Bighorn, and another about Bunker Hill. I’m quite sure I’ll read them too.
The thing that used to confuse me the most about the Pilgrims was the religious freedom part. When you look at the later history of the Pilgrims (take the Salem witch trials, for example), and indeed the history of our country to this day, religious freedom had nothing to do with it, except for their own. They weren’t interested in religious freedom for everyone, just for themselves, because they were right, and everyone else was wrong. Also only half, or slightly less than half of the “Pilgrims” were Separatists (from the Church of England), coming to America for religious freedom for themselves. The rest were people coming for various reasons, including the hope of bettering themselves financially. Plus, the Separatists didn’t live in England. They’d already left and lived in Leiden, Holland. They had to go back to England to board the Mayflower. Some things they believed I wish we’d kept, such as a firm belief in the separation of church and state. They thought marriage was a secular ceremony, not a religious one. While they thought they were right, there’s been no mention of them attempting to “convert” their Native American friends…so there is in fact evidence of tolerance. And that was a good move.
There actually is a big rock at Plymouth, but they didn’t “land” on it. In fact, their first landing was at Cape Cod.
They did have ceremonies called “thanksgivings” on a regular basis, but the First Thanksgiving was more like a harvest feast. There was a Squanto, and he apparently did teach them to plant corn, squash, and beans, using dead fish as fertilizer. But there probably weren’t any turkeys on the menu. The English were familiar with turkeys, they’d been imported to England long before, but the wild turkeys in America were very hard to catch. Probably they had ducks, geese, and corn, squash and beans 🙂 But probably no fish. They’d been farmers, and didn’t know how to fish. It’s thought that the Native Americans brought some deer. And they may have brought some fish too. Let’s hope they had a dessert or two. Maybe something with pumpkin or apples. They could have sweetened them with honey or maybe maple syrup.
The long table is probably completely made up. They barely had houses, much less furniture.
All in all, while the story has been simplified, much of it is true in essence. Except for the part about living happily ever after. After an auspicious beginning, things go to hell in a handbasket as far as relations between the settlers and the Native Americans.
It remains a good story. They really were courageous and endured many hardships, both on the ship and in their first year in a strange land. They had much to be thankful for…having food, having each other, having new friends, and surviving. If parts of the story aren’t quite true, it’s still a good life to aspire to.