13 November, 2011  |   3 Comments

History of Thanksgiving

Reading about celebrations soothes me, gives me a sense of calm as I imagine my ancestors chucking all their worries to just stop and appreciate the moment no matter what the moment might be.

So I as a little more than surprised when reading about the history of Thanksgiving.

Bleak!
Meager!
Hardscrabble!

Dirty, cold and religious beyond my greatest fears, the first Thanksgiving gives me chills to imagine. The chills aren’t only the bad part, I get good chills too.

Because of this guy.

Thanks Squanto!

Learning about how much of this whole event is squarely the responsibility of a Pauxet Indian named Squanto (Real name: Tisquantum) has made me proud of humanity.

When the Pilgrims first arrived at Plymouth, the town was abandoned. Three years of smallpox had utterly decimated the local Indian population.
THREE YEARS of PLAGUE.
Now complain about your runny nose on Twitter.

Five years earlier, in 1615, it was a rough year to be a North American native. Tisquantum had lived happily near Plymouth until he was captured and sold into slavery in Spain (with 26 other locals). Eventually he escaped to England and went to return home, only to find that smallpox had taken most everyone he knew. Gee, thanks white men.

Tisquantum returns to devastation.
Six months later, the Pilgrims arrived.
And. He. Helps. Them.

Tisquantum was the whole reason they survived their first winter.
Tisquantum was the whole reason they weren’t at war with the local tribes.

For the Pilgrims’ first harvest the 20 acres of corn grew well (the English plants failed). Being humans, they decided to celebrate with a holiday to give thanks for the harvest. They even doubled their weekly individual food ration to get a bonus peck of corn along with the previous peck of meal.

This first Thanksgiving lasted three days. Captain Myles Standish paraded his group of soldiers and they tooted their bugles. They played stool ball, a sort of croquet. And best of all, they invited Native Americans to join in the fun. Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, came with ninety guests. They played sports – and competed in races and feats of athletic skill. (Sssh. Don’t tell anyone, but the partiers are even rumored to have played games of chance.)

Eventually things would go sour between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims, but for now, there were races to run. Deer to eat.

For once in their hardscrabble lives, there was an abundance of food. On the menu was venison, duck, goose, eels, corn bread, leeks, watercress, and greens. Like all good guests should, the Indian braves added five deer to the feast. Naturally, they rounded out the meal with wild grape wine.

Wild grape wine sounds romantic on first imagining but not the second.

Dessert was wild plums and dried berries, as one would expect.
Grin.

So thanks, Tisquantum, for that help. Without you becoming an advisor to the Pilgrims, without your translating and negotiating, without you there wouldn’t be us. There wouldn’t be this uniquely American holiday rooted in gratitude.

Gratitude that we weren’t sold into slavery,
Gratitude for grocery stores.
Gratitude for decoratively atmospheric fireplaces.
Gratitude for that extra peck of cornmeal.

And especially perspective.


3 thoughts on “History of Thanksgiving

  1. 1
    Cat says:

    BIG LIKE. Thanks for this write-up. I’ve been diving into Thanksgiving this week for Offbeat Home and having a hard time knowing how to balance the gratitude-y good bits with the hard history of the day. This is very, very helpful — I just needed to think bigger than the idea that one group of people was awful to another group of people. Bigger and bigger until I get to, “There have been really good humans who took care of other humans.”

  2. 2

    […] Thanksgiving week. Here are some three things I wrote about Thanksgiving: Where would we be without Tisquantum? How I set a Thanksgiving budget. The best cranberry bread recipe that also happens to be our family […]

  3. 3

    […] week is Thanksgiving. One of our guests is a chef, so I’m planning ahead so I secretly make him say, “DAMN! […]

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