I’ve blogged about this before – 2007, in particular, but in the recent past, I’ve come to learn that the “First Thanksgiving” has only a nodding acquaintance with the mythology we’re taught in school. At the end of the day, it boils down to our country’s harvest festival and, as such, the literal history probably isn’t that important.
As I recall the version I learned in school, the Pilgrims left England because they hated religious oppression, they arrived a Plymouth Rock, hewed a settlement out of the wilderness, received the help of some friendly Indians; in particular an English speaking one named Squanto; they were taught how to plant corn with the help of fish fertilizer; and then, at harvest time, had a feast to celebrate.
The reality is a little more complicated. The Pilgrims mostly did not think the right kind of religious oppression was underway in England. The Pilgrims had left England and settled in Holland for about 10 years; but, among other things, they thought the environment was a little too permissive for the kids and that the congregation was losing its identity. Their trip was poorly timed, bringing them to New England in November 1620. While on the Mayflower, the Mayflower Compact was created and signed in response to the suggestion of certain passengers that, once in the New World, they would be at liberty to do as they pleased.
Arriving in New England at the beginning of winter was a bad idea. Fortunately for the Pilgrims, the Native Americans along the coast had been decimated by disease – leaving empty villages with at least a little in the way of food and supplies. The eventual site of Plymouth Colony was in an area that had been cleared by the Patuxet before they had been ravaged by smallpox.
The Pilgrims were assisted by Squanto (Tisquantum), a Patuxet who had been kidnapped years earlier and enslaved by Thomas Hunt and taken to Spain to be sold. Some friars intervened, and Squanto was not sold. He made his way to England and worked for some time as a shipbuilder. After about 5 years away from America, he got back to find his tribe had been wiped out by disease. Shortly thereafter, he seems to have been captured by the Wampanoag people and may have still been a captive when he was acting as an intermediary between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims; leading to some tension later on between Squanto and Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader. Squanto may have been playing the two sides against each other to some extent. I even read that the actual Thanksgiving feast was as much a display of arms and strength among the competing sides as a celebration of the harvest. I’m not sure how much to credit that.
Regardless of the beginnings, what I think is important to remember is that the tradition stems from a time where people can and did starve. Survival was uncertain from year to year where a bad harvest could mean famine in the winter. People had an incomplete understanding of the science behind weather and agriculture, so Native Americans and Europeans mixed their gratitude with a fair amount of superstition, believing, perhaps, that angry gods would cause famine in the future and gods who felt well respected would be more beneficent. Even without incorporating the supernatural, gratitude is entirely appropriate. I am thankful to live in a society (if not necessarily a world) with a secure food supply. And, of course, I have a lot of other things for which to be grateful – a loving family, a good job, and a warm place to sleep primary among them.
So, take stock of what you have going for you; and if you’re not cold and hungry tonight, you have it a lot better than a good chunk of the multitudes that have lived over the course of human history. And, if you think your good fortune is attributable to God or the Great Spirit or Ceres or Demeter or being responsible for good harvest; by all means offer thanks to them as well. Gratitude isn’t a limited resource; but should be spent freely.