November 28, 2013

The First Thanksgiving

Having grown up in Europe, I'm very ignorant of American history (I know, shame on me!).  So, in celebration of this year's Thanksgiving, I decided to read a little into the history of the holiday.

According to the American textbook The American Tradition, here's how the first Thanksgiving took place:

After some exploring, the Pilgrims chose the land around Plymouth
Harbor for their settlement.  Unfortunately, they had arrived in December
and were not prepared for the new England winter.  However, they were
aided by friendly Indians, who gave them food and showed them how to grow
corn. When warm weather came, the colonists planted, fished, hunted, and
prepared themselves for the next winter. After harvesting their first
crop, they and their Indian friends celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving

However, when delving further into the history of this country, I came up with some interesting facts which shows the truth behind this almost Disney-filtered version of history (as in happy endings for all):

  • Summer of 1526:  500 Spaniards accompanied by a hundred or so slaves, found a town near the mouth of the Pee Dee River, SC.
  • November 1526:  Slave rebellion. The 150 surviving Spaniards leave while the slaves flee to the Natives (and thereby become the first true settlers of the United States).
  • 1565:  Spaniards massacre a settlement of French Protestants at St. Augustine, FL.  They then spread out throughout the US, introducing horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs, among other things.
  • Late 1500s:  Spanish Jews settle in New Mexico.
  • 1607:  The London Company sends settlers to Jamestown, VA.
  • 1614:  Dutch living in Albany.
  • 1617:  A plague strikes in New England, making the Black Plague of Europe pale in comparison:  within 3 years, it wipes out between 90-96% of the population in southern New England.  Survivors flee the corpse-infested fields to the next tribe, bringing the disease with them so that even Natives who had never seen a white person die as well.  King James of England gives thanks to the "Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us," for sending "this wonderful plague among the savages."
Pilgrims and colonists land from the Mayflower
  • 1620:  "Mythic origin of the country we now know as the United States," Plymouth Rock. The truth is that the plague has weakened the Wampanoags so much that, fearing the Narrangansetts to the west, the chief of the tribe, Massasoit, allies himself with the Pilgrims.  The Pilgrims and other colonists chose Plymouth because it already had clear fields recently planted with corn while being located near a source of fresh water.  They're helped by Squanto, a Native who's escaped slavery in Spain only to return to his devastated village and who, therefore, can't help but to throw his lot with the Pilgrims & co.
Chief Massasoit and his warriors
- Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
  • Fall 1621:  celebration of the first Thanksgiving which is, in fact, a Native American observation of the autumnal harvest celebrations. 

Additional notes:  The Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth also suffered from disease and half of them died in the first year after their settlement in the New World.  Relations between the Pilgrims and the local natives still alive at the time also started off reasonably well.  But for the next 15 years or so, more epidemics wiped out the natives (mostly via smallpox).  Many natives surrendered then to alcohol and began to listen to Christianity (the only religion present at the time which supposedly explained the reason behind those devastating times).  This decimation of the Native tribes allowed the settlers to spread out their territory without being challenged for the next fifty years.

James W. Loewen article.

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