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    a painting of the first Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

    Not for the Full but for the Hungry

    By Jared Lucky

    November 23, 2020
    • Peter Walters

      Very grateful for these much needed, thought provoking, prayer provoking prayer incites.

    “Our corn did prove well, and God be praised . . . our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together.” When Edward Winslow wrote these lines in December of 1621, he could hardly have imagined that he was signing a death warrant for countless future turkeys. His short letter, written to a friend back home in England, is not just the only evidence of poultry at the “First Thanksgiving” – it’s the only direct evidence of the “First Thanksgiving,” period. His enticing depiction of Plymouth life was clearly aimed at potential recruits for the new colony:

    Amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation. . . . And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

    Many Americans can supply the dramatis personae for Winslow’s barebones account. William Bradford, the pious, bookish governor of the Pilgrims. Myles Standish, their red-headed and hot-tempered military adviser. Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, the Indian who appeared in the colony’s midst, miraculously speaking English. Massasoit, the generous leader of the Wampanoag, who taught the Pilgrims to plant corn and beans and kept them from starving.

    The reason we imagine these particular figures seated around the cornucopia has much more to do with the twentieth century than the seventeenth. As Thanksgiving grew from a regional to a national holiday, school-curriculum writers seized on Winslow’s scraps to craft pageants that connected the modern observance with the fragmentary historical record. Countless American schoolchildren have delivered lines like this one, from a widely used script first published in 1907:

    GOVERNOR BRADFORD: What part of the turkey do you like, Massasoit, white meat or dark? Tell him what I say, Squanto.

    Historians, nitpickers by profession, have often raised their eyebrows at this version of the story. With cumbersome early fowling pieces, the colonists may not have taken any birds that day – and in any case they were more likely ducks and geese than turkey. Whatever the main course, there was certainly no cranberry sauce; without access to sugar, the Pilgrims used the tart fruit to dye their coats rather than dress their meat. (Yes, they wore clothes of many colors, not just black.) Nor were there pies of any kind, since the cash-strapped colonists had sold their butter to pay their debts before the voyage, and brought no cows. But the popular idea has remained mostly intact. Thanksgiving still serves as a pageant of social harmony and rustic comfort; and the Pilgrims’ remarkable deliverance is often couched as a preview, or even a divine covenant, of American flourishing.

    a painting of the first Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

    Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving, 1621 (Public domain)

    With the quadricentennial of the Plymouth landing arriving during a national reckoning over race, that may be changing. This summer, Frederick Douglass’s classic speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” was performed around the country as a pointed comment on the meaning of 1776 for black Americans. Last year, the New York Times’s 1619 Project sought to “reframe the country’s history” in the context of slavery – marking four centuries since Africans were first sold into bondage at Jamestown. More Americans than ever before are being asked to view the country’s history as an open wound. December 22, 1620 – the day Bradford and Standish came ashore – is no exception.

    The “First Thanksgiving,” long taken for the whole story, suddenly looks more like the second act of a three-part tragedy. Act I opens in a Patuxet village at the site of what would later be Plymouth Harbor, in 1614. English Captain Thomas Hunt, exploring the area on a mapping expedition, offers to trade for furs; Tisquantum is captured and bound with twenty other Indians; Hunt sells them into slavery in Spain for a “little private gaine.” The first act closes with the “Great Dying,” as an epidemic disease from Europe, likely smallpox, devastates the coastal tribes by 1619, causing countless Indians “to die like rotten sheep,” as Bradford would later describe it.

    Act III takes us to August 17, 1676, at the Plymouth Meeting House on Burial Hill. Another Winslow – Edward’s son, Josiah, now governor of the Massachusetts colony – has proclaimed a public thanksgiving. As the colonists conclude a lengthy church service, militiamen arrive bearing the head of Massasoit’s son, Metacomet – known to the colonists as King Philip – impaled on a stake. In the town below, ragged widows and orphans mill around wounded soldiers from the frontier towns. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of Indian captives languish in crude restraints, waiting to be “sold out of the country” into slavery in Barbados per an Act of the Plymouth Assembly, their children left behind to “such of the English as may use them well.”

    Does the school-pageant version of the First Thanksgiving capture America’s exceptional mission and national prosperity, or disguise a brutal legacy of betrayal and genocide?

    The messy history of Plymouth may be coming into sharper focus in 2020, but grief and ambivalence over America’s civic holidays is nothing new for the Wampanoags’ descendants. As early as 1836, William Apess, a part-Indian Methodist minister who claimed King Philip as an ancestor, anticipated Douglass in a remarkable speech: “We say, therefore, let every man of color wrap himself in mourning, for the 22nd of December and the 4th of July are days of mourning and not of joy.” In 1970, a group of Mayflower descendants invited Frank Wamsutta James, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, to speak at a banquet commemorating the 350th anniversary of the landing. Pointing to the Pilgrims’ own histories and memoirs, James planned to remind his audience that the colonists’ first act after landing was to desecrate Indian graves and steal some corn stores; nonetheless Massasoit sustained them through the winter. “This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake,” he lamented.

    Unsurprisingly, his invitation was rescinded when the organizers read his written remarks; he never gave the speech. But James and other New England Indians did go on to organize the first “National Day of Mourning,” held each November in lieu of Thanksgiving. Fifty years later, what once seemed like a distinctively indigenous protest now has broader currency. Does the school-pageant version of the story capture America’s exceptional mission and national prosperity, or disguise a brutal legacy of betrayal and genocide? What’s left for us to celebrate when holiday and history collide?

    A starting point is recognizing that the “First Thanksgiving” was not a thanksgiving either in our modern sense of the word, or the Pilgrims’ sense. The meeting described by Winslow, with both English and Indians hunting and performing military drills, was much closer to a diplomatic conference. In fact, “Massasoit” was not the name of the Wampanoag leader, but his title. The colonists understood him to be a “king,” but in the Algonquian language of the Wampanoag, the term massasoit sachem may have meant something like “great representative.” As historian David J. Silverman puts it, “the so-called first Thanksgiving was the fruit of a political decision” on the part of this man, whose real name was Ousamequin.

    With the neighboring Narragansett tribe pressuring the Wampanoags from without, and many individuals within the tribe jockeying for his position, Ousamequin badly needed an ally. (In the summer of 1621, Squanto had actually been kidnapped by another sachem flouting Ousamequin’s authority; Myles Standish and other Plymouth men had forcibly rescued him with the Massasoit’s blessing.) The trade goods and guns of the Pilgrims could bolster the fortunes of both the tribe and the Massasoit; something Ousamequin understood well when he tolerated the grave-robbing of the English and even fed them during the brutal winter of 1620.

    Plymouth’s sordid record of Native American relations appears even worse in light of the Pilgrims’ self-conception: a people of God, specially marked by Providence to inherit a new Promised Land.

    For both European sovereigns and coastal Northeastern tribes, diplomatic accords were marked by feasts, hunting, and displays of military might – a fortunate cultural alignment that made Winslow’s event possible and meaningful. The feast sealed a military alliance between two small communities in dire straits. (Their compact would be solidified even further in 1623, when Winslow helped Ousamequin recover from a sudden debilitating sickness; one of the reasons we know the Pilgrims had brought poultry with them is that Winslow gave the sachem chicken broth.)

    Recovering the context of this non-Thanksgiving helps us see the participants as human beings making difficult choices, instead of mindless aggressors or passive victims. At different times, both sides have been compressed into these dehumanizing roles. On the other hand, the historical facts remind us that interaction with Europe destabilized the coastal tribes to begin with, and ultimately destroyed their independence. As more and more colonists arrived, Edward Winslow’s son Josiah oversaw the dubious land sales that expropriated the Wampanoag. In a terrible irony, Ousamequin’s son Wamsutta died under suspicious circumstances in Josiah’s custody – provoking his brother, King Philip, to make war on the English. This is what critics of Thanksgiving find so galling: the concord of the feast itself seems like a bitter joke in light of the cruel betrayals that followed. Plymouth’s sordid record of Native American relations appears even worse in light of the Pilgrims’ self-conception: a people of God, specially marked by Providence to inherit a new Promised Land.

    It is one of history’s oddities that we credit the Pilgrims with inventing a holiday which most of us spend watching sports, when they abominated both holidays and sports. In fact, holidays were a major reason the dissenters left England, and later Holland, behind. Before the Reformation, there were dozens of saint’s days, feasts of the church, and vigils in England. Old habits died hard, and even after England became a Protestant country, many people celebrated these occasions with drinking, feasting, and dancing. From the perspective of some zealous Puritans, excessive holidays interfered with work, encouraged immorality, and promoted a superstitious devotion to “externals.” When the Pilgrims first fled to the Netherlands, they were distressed to find their supposedly reformed Dutch neighbors still celebrating Christmas, and worse, playing sports. In Plymouth, Bradford once broke up a game of stoolball (an ancestor of baseball) on Christmas, and he could not have looked kindly on football, whose precursor one Puritan moralist called a “bloody and murthering practice.”

    But in addition to showing what Thanksgiving was not, the historical context of the Pilgrims can show us what it was: a spiritual discipline. Rather than a set holiday which could descend into rote observance, Pilgrim thanksgivings were decreed for specific occasions. These days went hand in hand with fasts. After many days of prayer and abstention, the colonists would pronounce a thanksgiving in recognition of a particular divine mercy – for example, “the soft, sweet, and moderate showers of rain” that fell after days of intense prayer in 1623, relieving Plymouth from a brutal drought. Though the Pilgrims ate together on thanksgivings, they were not primarily feasts. They spent most of the day at church, hearing lengthy corporate prayers from their civil and religious leaders.

    In the Geneva Bible, the preferred translation of the Pilgrims, an editor’s note for Psalm 50 explains that “because the Church is always full of hypocrites,” caught up in external ceremonies, the Psalmist declares “the worship of God to be spiritual, whereof are two principal parts, invocation and thanksgiving.” Pilgrim thanksgiving was an act of worship, but also collective introspection, a brace against the insidious vanity and hypocrisy of the community. One year after the Plymouth landing, a colonist captured this spirit in an anniversary sermon: “That bird of self-love which was hatched at home, if it be not looked to, will eat out the life of all grace and goodness; and though men have escaped the danger of the Sea . . . yet except they purge out this self-love, a worse mischief is prepared for them.”

    The Christian adventurers at Plymouth, so vigilant against moral contamination in other spheres, permitted “self-love” to blind them to the rights of their indigenous neighbors. Too many of the Pilgrims encouraged their heirs to believe that Native Americans were “made by God on purpose for them to destroy,” as Apess, the nineteenth-century Pequot preacher, put it. “We might say, God understood his work better than this.”

    But thanksgiving, the spiritual discipline, may be capacious enough to redeem Thanksgiving, the historical myth. In the Bible, the English word “thanksgiving” usually renders the Greek eucharistia. Christians have always noted the powerful connection between thanksgiving and the Last Supper. As Anglican theologian Rowan Williams puts it, “the Eucharist reminds us of the need for honest repentance – of the need to confront our capacity to betray and forget the gift we have been given.” In other words, we take communion “not because we are full, but because we are hungry.”

    A penitential Thanksgiving may be the best holiday for hypocrites: a time to acknowledge the blessings celebrated by the colonists – while still mourning, and repairing, the damage done by their sins.

    As Thanksgiving took modern shape in the nineteenth century, abolitionists adopted the holiday for their movement – as an occasion for collective soul-searching and getting right with the Almighty. Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, months after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. He gave thanks for abundance, but also enjoined Americans to “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.”

    As we mark four centuries since the landing, the traditional picture of America as a “city on a hill,” marked out by God for special favor, will collide ever more forcefully with the revisionist interpretation of the holiday – as a white supremacist myth, created to paper over a genocide. Perhaps both sides miss something essential from Lincoln’s declaration. A day of gratitude is a most fitting thing, so long as our national Thanksgiving prayer does not become that of the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” A penitential Thanksgiving may be the best holiday for hypocrites: a time to acknowledge the blessings celebrated by the colonists – while still mourning, and repairing, the damage done by their sins.

    Contributed By

    Jared Lucky is a PhD candidate at Yale University, working on a dissertation about colonial New England. He is originally from El Paso, Texas.

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