It’s that time of year, folks. Thanksgiving is upon us, and here in Plymouth, Massachusetts and all over America we’ll be feasting on turkey and pie and giving thanks for all the good things that bless our lives and our country. Yes, even with all the divisiveness and numerous challenges of our current times, we have so very much to be grateful for.
And one thing of the many things I’m grateful for is the beginning of my new blog that will showcase interesting stories of New England and related self-guided tours, beginning in my adopted hometown of Plymouth.
This is my inaugural post, and what perfect timing it is. Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away, and it’s not just any old year, either. This Thanksgiving, in 2021, marks the 400th anniversary of that event in 1621 that we have since labeled “the first Thanksgiving”.
The First “Thanksgiving”
In recognition of this momentous occasion, I want to take you back to that “first” feast. While it wasn’t called Thanksgiving at that time, it certainly was a joyful celebration filled with heartfelt gratitude for the desperately needed first harvest in the fledgling Plymouth Colony. And celebrated with the Pokanoket tribe of the Wampanoag – who had their own long history of showing gratitude for the natural world that sustained them – it makes for a pretty special time, when we were at peace with our native American neighbors, even if that was temporary and the result of devastating times for the Wampanoag, instigated by Europeans.
And that brings us to where I want to begin this story, not in Europe, but here on this land, in America, say about 17,000 years ago…
17,000 years ago, there were no humans in North America and much of continent was covered by an ice sheet. But the lowered sea levels caused by the glacial period created a convenient (and temporary) land bridge from Siberia into Alaska, allowing for a migration of far ranging hunters. Around about 16,000 years ago, with the gradual melting as the glacial period waned, the progeny of those who had crossed over were able to venture further into the Americas. By about 9,000 years ago, there were people throughout the Americas, all the way down to the tip of South America.
In this Paleo period, big game hunting was the thing – slow, lumbering mammoths, mastodons, bison, horses and camels that were easy prey.
So all was good for our early hunters. That is, until they over-hunted and their big game died out.
That led to the Archaic period about 9,000 to 3,000 years ago, where the glaciers gave way to the return of grasslands and forests. Our intrepid natives then learned to hunt more difficult and smaller prey, like deer, antelope, moose, and elk, along with harvesting more of their diet from fishing and gathering foods such as shellfish, nuts, seeds and berries. This seems to have been a good thing, as the human population grew to about 1 million. They gathered in larger groups by waterways and began modifying their environments in small ways to encourage wild food sources to proliferate.
Horses and camels first evolved in North America, migrated to Asia, and became extinct in America.
This is all is known as the Pre-Columbian period – before Christopher Columbus set in motion the conquering of the New World. By the time the first Europeans ventured across the Atlantic in the 15th century, North and Central America was populated with diverse and advanced cultures. There were at least 375 distinct languages by the time Columbus set sail in 1492. Complex urban areas had developed and the peoples had by now incorporated horticulture, complex systems of housing, irrigation, and urban centers with societal hierarchies and law and order systems. The New England area is estimated to have had more than 70,000 natives, the varied nations including the Wampanoag (which factors strongly in our current tale), the Narraganset in Rhode Island and surrounds, along with several others all over what is now New England. Many names are familiar today, like the Mohegan, Mohican, Penobscot, and of course, Massachusett.
Further south, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City is now), had an estimated population of 200,000 for the city proper and a population of close to five million for the extended empire. Even Cahokia, near the Mississippi River (east of today’s St. Louis) had a population of at least ten thousand, perhaps as much as forty thousand. To compare this to Europe, England’s entire population in 1523 was under three million. The largest European city, Constantinople, had a population of 300,000, and Paris 200,000. The Americas were teeming with humanity.
One wonders, then, how the Europeans managed to conquer this New World. Glad you asked.
There were three key factors. First, and most obvious, was the advanced maritime and military technology that the Europeans had achieved.
The second factor, and likely the most important, was the plethora of pathogens the Europeans carried with them to the New World. Having already a long history of domesticating animals like pigs and sheep, and with populations that interacted much more intimately in the homeland than did the indigenous tribes of America, they had developed a robust resistance to a much greater variety of pathogens, and were thus protected from whatever natural biological warfare the indigenous people could throw at them. Not so for these poor natives whose populations, as we know, were devastated by the diseases brought by the unwitting Europeans.
And the third factor? Simply, the European desire for expansionism and material enrichment, which was a foreign notion (in many ways) to the American natives. Their belief system was (and is) founded in animism, where the supernatural is present in all of nature from rocks to humans. This should not be confused, as it often is, with a desire to preserve and protect nature. They were all for exploitation of natural resources for their benefit. But they were also fearful of angering those supernatural forces, and suffering the resulting punishments, and so avoided being too aggressive with their environment. They thus learned to live as part of and in balance with nature, a happy outcome from today’s perspective, but in the end their undoing. Because, unfortunately for the natives, the European belief was (and is) in a deity that was distant and encouraging of mastering the environment for the betterment of humankind, with little regard for the consequences.
The outcome was predictable.
Starting with the first voyage of Columbus in 1492 up to the time of the Mayflower voyage, the New World (specifically the West Indies, Central America, the America’s southwest and today’s Florida) were overrun with the Spanish, English and French exploiting the lands and the people to plunder all the riches and bounty that the region could provide. And that’s not to mention the newly established settlement up north in Quebec, laying the foundation for “New France” and the westward movement of French fur traders up the Saint Lawrence River to the Great Lakes. All this, before the Pilgrims stepped foot on the rock, if indeed they stepped on it at all.
The Pilgrims & The Mayflower Compact
You might wonder what all this has to do with our small band of Pilgrims seeking refuge in the harsh climate and rocky soil of what is now Plymouth? What makes them so special, when Spanish had already established (still thriving) St. Augustine in Florida, which makes it legitimately the first permanent European settlement in the U.S. And what about English Jamestown after that?
The difference, in a word, is motive. Up to this time, all the colonies had one primary motive in common – economics. Or specifically, profit to the shareholders and monarchs back home. Now, to be sure, there were profiteers on the Mayflower, as only 41 of the 102 passengers were actually Separatists. And there was an obvious need for economic survival. But the key difference was that, unlike the colonists to date, the Separatists came for a permanent place where they could practice their religion in peace.
History can take many unexpected turns and the history of New England, and indeed, the United States as a whole, might be wholly different from what we now know had a few happenstance events not occurred.
First, the Mayflower was decidedly NOT headed for Plymouth, or anywhere in its vicinity. After all, who in their right minds would have wanted to arrive in a harsh climate, empty of fellow Europeans, and start from scratch? Our Pilgrims certainly did not. They were expecting to land near the Hudson River in Northern Virginia. They had a signed contract with the Virginia Company in hand and were financed by London stockholders who expected repayment with profit.
But blown off course, the Mayflower arrived first on the tip of Cape Cod, then moved on across the bay to a small harbor. The travelers found themselves frighteningly far from established law and society, with winter approaching, and with some of the sixty-one non-Separatists (called “Strangers”) on board arguing that the Virginia Company contract was void since they were out of their jurisdiction. The situation was dire. The Strangers refused to follow any rules, and it looked like anarchy could follow. The leaders naturally determined that they needed some sort of societal structure, and drew up what we know as the Mayflower Compact.
The document, the first to create self-government in the New World, established that they would create a unified society, establish laws and such, and live in the Christian faith. Despite the fact that it affirmed that they would remain loyal to King James, it was important in forming a governance structure separate from the laws of its sovereign power, and no doubt played a role in later events in Boston, which I will cover in a separate post.
Survival and a Harvest Celebration
Anyway, with that settled, they sent out search parties and located an abandoned village with conveniently cleared fields, formerly occupied by a Wampanoag community who had been decimated by an epidemic of European origin. John Carver was elected Governor and the Pilgrims hoped for the best, spending the first winter mostly on the boat until they could build housing and plant crops on land. About half made it through to spring.
Fortunately for the survivors, the local Indians, themselves in dire circumstances, were somewhat welcoming, hoping for some alliance and strength against their tribal enemies, the Narragansett. In March of 1621, Governor Carver worked with Wampanoag leader Massasoit on a treaty that established peace and mutual protection, which lasted for more than half a century. This was a key factor in the Pilgrims’ survival. Had the Wampanoag not been so weakened by disease, the story might have been very different. Instead, that first devastating winter was followed by good crops and a firm foothold.
And that brings us at last to the harvest celebration of 1621, much later referred to as the “First Thanksgiving”. Our surviving Pilgrims, now numbering only about 50, over half of which were teenagers and children, along with 90 Pokanoket, including Massasoit himself, certainly were grateful for the harvest, and found a common heritage of celebration and thanks for the bounty of the earth.
Sadly, John Carver did not enjoy this shared feast, having died in the spring. Instead, it was his successor, Governor Bradford who, once the harvest was gathered in, sent four men out to hunt wild fowl. According to Edward Winslow’s journal, this foray yielded in one day enough to feed the Pilgrims for almost a week. (This may have included wild turkeys, which were abundant in the area, as attested by Governor Bradford in his account of Plymouth Colony, but they definitely would not have been the centerpiece.)
Together, the Separatists, Strangers and Pokanoket (who brought five deer to the party) feasted and played games for three days. Along with the venison and wild fowl, they would have enjoyed fish and shellfish, corn mush or some sort of corn bread, and fruits and vegetables from the gardens (things like cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, leeks, lettuce, parsnips and pumpkins). The women (only four housewives had survived of the original 20), would also have been learning how to cook native plants like Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, cranberries, Concord grapes, walnuts and chestnuts.
They may have had to make do with what was on hand, foregoing some of the treats from back in the homeland like potatoes, pies (no flour, butter or ovens) and puddings (no sugar), but they had the precious promise of a new beginning.
And that, my friends, is the perspective from America. While the natives fared very badly through the colonization of America, I feel that we should remember this promising period in Plymouth, and remind ourselves that we can do this – live in peace and harmony with each other and respect and support our diverse histories and cultures.
I wish you the very best on this Thanksgiving and hope you enjoy your own celebratory harvest feast.
References and further reading:
For an excellent book on the subject that will open your eyes beyond our myopic Pilgrim story, I encourage you to pick up a copy of American Colonies: The Settling of North America, Vol. 1, by Alan Taylor. The title may sound a bit uninspired, but it’s actually a fascinating read.