Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving... A Day of Mourning...

So as we Americans get together to break wishbones, watch our children butcher their lines in a school play, and picture in our minds the image of Native Americans sharing a picnic table with a bunch of repressed white folks from across the pond, it occurs to me: How many of us actually know how Thanksgiving actually got started? It's now generally very well known that the Vikings actually "discovered" the new world (but even this encompasses a Euro-centric world view; Asians actually "discovered" America first when they crossed the Bearing Sea when it was frozen to populate this earth...) way before Columbus ever thought how nifty it would be to sail around the world in three ships (the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria) and find some islands he mistakenly thought was China. But once it was established that there was, indeed, a "New World" just ripe for the plundering by all the superpowers of the day, others saw a new land of opportunity for other reasons: some to escape prison, others to escape debts, some to escape religious persecution. These last were not the Pilgrims, despite what twisted history you may have learned in class. I know, I was pretty shocked too! These folks already had religious freedom where they came from--Holland, where they had fled to originally to escape religious persecution. But being the good fundies that they were, they felt they were losing their "identity," and becoming too much a part of the "world" in the Netherlands. So, being even better fundies, instead of trying to tell everyone else how to live, they simply left... (more fundies should be so considerate...) They actually decided to come to the "New World" to preserve their identity, and make some money on the side by contracting with the London Company to fish. Yeah, that's right: fish.
Despite what many believe, they did not land on Plymouth Rock. They actually showed up on Cape Cod, about 37 miles away from the unwarrantedly infamous Plymouth Rock. After having been at sea for a little over two months, the 102 passengers were quite elated when they spied land on November 10, 1620. Their elation would be short-lived. Many were sick, some had died, and most were worried about running out of food before they could find a place to land and repair their severely broken and battered ship, the Mayflower. While navigating the sometimes treacherously shallow water around the cape, small groups went to shore to bathe and find supplies.

They also managed to piss off a few natives.

When the first group landed, led by Myles Standish, they found not only native and euro-style homes, they found a village, a burial site, and some cultivated fields (quite impressive for a bunch of "savages," wouldn't you say?). So what did these god-fearing Europeans do? First, they started by stealing beans and corn, or "maize." They assumed that this was their god providing food for them after their treacherous journey. In fact, William Bradford recorded in his journal,

"And it is to be noted as a special providence of God, and a great mercy to this poor people, that they thus got seed to plant corn the next year, or they might have starved; for they had none, nor any likelihood of getting any, till too late for the planting season."
So after stealing what food they found in the abandoned housing, what did they do next? They desecrated the graves of the deceased natives... Seeing baskets and gifts left at the grave sites of dead natives, they took what they could grab (all with their god smiling down on them) so they wouldn't die. And really, let's be fair--which is worse? Let your family starve or steal a loaf of bread? They stole the bread; but worse, they desecrated the graves of those who had died from the smallpox, a disease brought to the new world five years earlier by the first European traders. The number of natives left was so small after the disease swept through them, it is estimated that, by the times the pilgrims arrived, there were only between 70 and 90 left from what was once a tribe that had covered all of New England. Sad indeed. It is recorded in William Bradford's book:

and shortly after a good quantitie of clear ground wher ye Indeans had formerly set corne, and some of their graves. And proceeding furder they saw new-stuble wher corne had been set ye same year, also they found wher latly a house had been, wher some planks and a great ketle was remaining, and heaps of sand newly padled with their hands, which they, digging up, found in them diverce faire Indean baskets filled with corne, and some in eares, faire and good, of diverce collours, which seemed to them a very goodly sight, (haveing never seen any shuch before). This was near ye place of that supposed river they came to seeck; unto which they wente and found it to open it selfe into 2. armes with a high cliffe of sand in ye enterance, but more like to be crikes of salte water then any fresh, for ought they saw; and that ther was good harborige for their shalope; leaving it further to be discovered by their shalop when she was ready. So their time limeted them being expired, they returned to ye ship, least they should be in fear of their saftie; and tooke with them parte of ye corne, and buried up ye rest, and so like ye men from Eshcoll carried with them of ye fruits of ye land, & showed their breethren; of which, & their returne, they were marvelusly glad, and their harts incouraged.
Well, at least they were honest about their thievery, eh? (Of course, it does make one really want to reconsider claiming their direct descent from a Mayflower occupant, doesn't it?) And here's the part where they "thank god" for his providence in allowing them to steal:

ther was allso found 2. of their houses covered with matts, & sundrie of their implements in them, but ye people were rune away & could not be seen; also ther was found more of their corne, & of their beans of various collours. The corne & beans they brought away, purposing to give them full satisfaction when they should meete with any of them (as about some 6. months afterward they did, to their good contente). And here is to be noted a spetiall providence of God, and a great mercie to this poore people, that hear they gott seed to plant them corne ye next year, or els they might have starved, for they had none, nor any liklybood to get any [50] till ye season had beene past (as ye sequell did manyfest). Neither is it lickly they had had this, if ye first viage had not been made, for the ground was now all covered with snow, & hard frozen. But the Lord is never wanting unto his in their greatest needs; let his holy name have all ye praise.
Now, again, we can't be too hard on them; I mean, they were going to starve to death if they didn't get food now, wouldn't they?

Once the expedition cut-and-run back to their ailing boat, they sailed a little further down the coast, to Plymouth Rock, or, at least, relatively closer than Cape Cod was. When they found that it was a good spot to build their settlement, they erected a barricade of stumps and trees around the perimeter--just in time. The remaining tribesmen who had watched as their graves were desecrated and their food was stolen attacked! Arrows flew through the air as the colonists fired back with their muskets. Even though many pilgrims had died, or were still sick from the voyage, they outnumbered and overwhelmed the native men who were left... And as the natives fled back into the woods over the hills, the pilgrims thanked god for their "victory" over the "savages." From Bradford's book:

But presently, all on ye sudain, they heard a great & strange crie, which they knew to be the same voyces they heard in ye night, though they varied their notes, & one of their company being abroad came runing in, & cried, "Men, Indeans, Indeans"; and wthall, their arowes came flying amongst them. Their men rane with all speed to recover their armes, as by ye good providence of God they did. In ye mean time, of those that were ther ready, tow muskets were discharged at them, & 2. more stood ready in ye enterance of ther randevoue, but were comanded not to shoote till they could take full aime at them; & ye other 2. charged againe with all speed, for ther were only 4. had armes ther, & defended ye baricado which was first assalted. The crie of ye lndeans was dreadfull, espetially when they saw ther men rune out of ye randevoue towourds ye shallop, to recover their armes, the lndeans wheeling aboute upon them. But some runing out with coats of malle on, & cutlasses in their hands, they soone got their armes, & let flye amongs them, and quickly stopped their violence. Yet ther was a lustie man, and no less valiante, stood be-hind a tree within halfe a musket shot, and let his arrows flie at them. He was seen shoot 3. arrowes, which were all avoyded. He stood 3. shot of a musket, till one taking full aime at him, and made ye barke or splinters of ye tree :fly about his ears, after which he gave an extraordinary shrike, and away they wente all of them. They left some to keep ye shalop, and followed them aboute a quarter of a mille, and shouted once or twise, and shot of 2. or 3. peces, & so returned. This they did, that they might conceive that they were not [52] affrade of them or any way discouraged. Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enimies, and give them deliverance; and by his spetiall providence so to dispose that not any one of them were either hurte, or hitt, though their arrows came close by them, & on every side them, and sundry of their coats, which hunge up in ye barricado, were shot throw & throw. Aterwards they
gave God sollamne thanks & praise for their deliverance, & gathered up a bundle of their arrows, & sente them into England afterward by ye mr. of ye ship, and called that place ye first encounter.
It's hard to imagine what it must have been like for both groups of people... One, the natives, who, knowing that the last time white people had arrived, most of their population had been decimated by disease, some had been captured and taken for slavery. The others, the new comers, wondering why they can't get the natives to approach them, near starvation, needing food and medicine and a boat that will stay afloat after being battered on the high seas...

But somehow, over time, a "peace" was made between the natives and those first pilgrims, and they did share a feast together:

They returned in saftie, and brought home a good quanty of beaver, and made reporte of ye place, wishing they had been ther seated; (but it seems ye Lord, who assignes to all men ye bounds of their habitations, had apoynted it for an other use. And thus they found ye Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to blesse their outgoings & incomings, for which let his holy name have ye praise for ever, to all posteritie. They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no wante. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter aproached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to yt proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not rained, but true reports.
So what did the first Thanksgiving basically consist of?
  1. The first Thanksgiving was a harvest celebration in 1621 that lasted for three days.
  2. The feast occurred somewhere between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11.
  3. Approximately 90 Wampanoag Indians and 52 colonists--the latter mostly women and children--participated.
  4. The Wampanoag, led by Chief Massasoit, contributed at least five deer to the feast.
  5. Cranberry sauce, potatoes--white or sweet--and pies were not on the menu.
  6. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag communicated through Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe, who knew English because he had associated with earlier explorers.
And that, my friends, is what started all of the bad school plays across the country that parents adore and friends of families endure...

Not exactly the fuzzy warm feeling you thought you would get, eh? Native Americans throughout the country don't celebrate this day. They actually call it "The Day of Mourning." Appropriately, of course. For when we "discovered" this land, a grand genocide began, wiping out tons of native people due to not only extremely differing cultural norms and misunderstandings, but resulting in the propagandist "Manifest Destiny" in which we just had to own all the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific, relocating anyone we saw fit, killing others... No wonder they call it "Day of Mourning."

Of course, that didn't stop Lincoln from naming it a national holiday in 1863. Fitting, that Lincoln, the man that essentially brought about the end of slavery, also made a holiday out of another part of our history which ruined another race of people...

Let us remember that, while our history certainly isn't a bed of roses, there are still things to be thankful for...

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!
To read William Bradford's complete book in pdf form, click here.

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