Thanksgiving: Fact or Fiction?
by Jonathan Holmes
In the minds of many Americans, when asked the question, “When was the United States first settled?”, invariably the response will be, “in 1620 when the Pilgrims landed.” This so called “origin myth” has frequently been termed “the story of the first Thanksgiving” in many children’s books about the subject. However, beginning the story of America’s settlement with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in 1620 leaves out not only the Native population, but also the Spanish, African and French as well. As a matter of fact, the very first non-Indian or non-Native settlers in this country know called the United States, were African slaves left in Georgia in 1526 by Spaniards who abandoned a settlement attempt. This settlement attempt, according to Jeannine Cook, in Columbus and the Land of Ayllón: The Exploration and Settlement of the Southeast published in 1992, took place in the summer of 1526. Approximately five hundred Spanish colonists and one hundred African slaves, and perhaps some free African colonists, under the command of Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, founded a settlement in America called San Miguel de Gualdape. These colonists had sailed from the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in July 1526 aboard six ships. By August, they had landed at Winyah Bay on the mouth of the Pedee River, in what is now near present-day Georgetown in South Carolina. However, they failed to find a Native village, which they felt from past experience, would be necessary as a source for food until crops could be planted and harvested. Therefore, they sailed further southward. On what would later become the Georgia coast, Ayllón and his colonists found a village of Guale Natives and chose to settle nearby. Although physical remains of their settlement have not been found, historians and geographers have utilized surviving navigation logs and other records to reconstruct Ayllón’s 1526 voyage. Based on the latest research, the San Miguel de Gualdape settlement probably was situated on the mainland of what today is McIntosh County in Georgia, opposite Sapelo Sound. Disease and disputes with the local Guale Native village caused many deaths in the settlement, and finally in November 1526, the African slaves rebelled, killed some of their Spaniard masters, and escaped to live with the local Guale tribe. By now only 150 Spaniards survived, so they evacuated to the island of Haiti. The former slaves elected to remain behind. Consequently, the first non-Native settlers in this country we now know as the United States, were Africans. In 1564, approximately 250 French Protestants, also known as Huguenots and commanded by René Goulaine de Laudonniere, established a settlement on the St. John’s River near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. They called the settlement La Caroline. However, a year later in August 1565, some 600 Spanish soldiers and settlers under Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés came ashore at the site of a Timucuan Native village in what is now northeastern Florida, and soon fortified the fledgling settlement of La Caroline and re-named it Saint Augustine. According to findings by Kathleen Teltsch, which were published in the New York Times in 1990 under the title, Scholars and Descendants Uncover Hidden Legacy of Jews in Southwest, when the long arm of the Spanish Inquisition established itself in Mexico City, some Spanish Jews, (called Sephardim in Hebrew, which were the descendants of Jews whose ancestors lived on the Iberian Peninsula), fled with Don Juan de Oñate in 1598 and established permanent settlements in what is today New Mexico and Colorado. In addition, beginning the origin story in 1620 at Plymouth, Massachusetts, omits recognition of the first British settlement in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, and also omits the Dutch, who were living in a settlement in what is now Albany, New York by 1614. Just before the Pilgrims landed in what is now Massachusetts Bay, a process started in southern New England which would lay a foundation for the Plymouth Colony which was to come later. By 1617, British and French fishermen had been fishing off the Massachusetts coast for decades. After filling the hulls of the ships with Cod, they would go ashore to gather firewood and fresh water, and while ashore, often they would capture a few Natives to sell into slavery in Europe. It is now considered likely by many historians that these European fishermen transmitted some illness to the Native population. The Plague which started escalating in the southeastern coast of New England in 1617 made the European “Black Plague” of 1348-1350, which killed an estimated 30% of the population of Europe, pale by comparison. Some Historians theorize the New England Plague was Bubonic, others suggest it was Viral Hepatitis or Influenza. In any event, within three years the New England Plague had wiped out close to 96% of the Native population of coastal New England. Native tribal societies were devastated. During the next fifteen years additional epidemics, most of which we now know to have been Smallpox, struck Native Indian populations repeatedly. John Winthrop, who served as Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Plymouth beginning in 1629, called the Plague which struck the Native population, “miraculous.” According to R. C. Winthrop in Life and Letters of John Winthrop, 2 volumes, 1864–67, Gov. John Winthrop wrote a close friend in England in 1634 saying,
“But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the Smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection…”
The result of the Plague of 1617, which is said to have reduced the coastal Native tribes from 30,000 to approximately 300, helped to prompt the myth of the legendary “warm reception” the Pilgrims enjoyed in 1620 from the Wampanoag Federation of Tribes. In actuality, Massasoit (born 1580 – died 1661) of the Pokanoket Tribe, and leader or Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation, was eager to ally with the colonists that arrived in 1620 because the plague had so weakened his villages, that he feared the stronger Narragansett Federation of Tribes in Rhode Island and the Tarratine Federation of Tribes in Maine that would likely take advantage of the situation. Especially since war had broken out between the Tarratines and the Penobscots in 1615. When Nanapashamet, the Grand Sachem of the eleven villages of the Massachusett Federation of Tribes offered help to the Penobscots, the Tarratines of Maine hunted him down and killed him in 1619. The Massachusett Federation of Tribes, around what is now Boston Harbor, had been powerful enough to drive off Samuel de Champlain and his men when they tried to settle in Massachusetts in 1606. A year later in 1607, the Abenaki Tribes successfully expelled the first Plymouth Company settlement from the coast of Maine. However, by the time the Native populations of southeastern New England had replenished themselves to some degree, after so many being killed by Plagues in 1617, it was too late to expel the new European intruders which arrived in 1620.We need to keep in mind that there were only 35 Puritans, later known as Pilgrims, out of the 102 settlers on board the Mayflower. The other 67 persons on board were ordinary folk seeking their fortunes in the new Colony established at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Why the Mayflower never arrived in Virginia, but ended up in Massachusetts Bay, is still up to debate. The “origin myth” states that the Mayflower was blown off course. However, a great majority of Historians now believe that the Dutch bribed the Mayflower’s captain and part owner, Christopher Jones, to sail north so the Pilgrims would not settle near their settlement of New Amsterdam, which later became known as New York City. It is further believed by most historians that Massachusetts Bay was chosen as a good site for the Mayflower colonists because of the known absence of Natives, as a result of the Plague three years earlier in 1617, in addition to the good fishing known to be off Cape Cod. In fact, John Smith had studied the Massachusetts Bay area previously in 1614 and he published the result of his land and coastal survey in a guidebook called, A Description of New England printed in London in 1616. The guidebook included a map drawn by Smith himself, of the land he named New England. A guidebook one of the 35 Pilgrims carried with them on the Mayflower. Despite having ended up many miles from other European settlements, the Pilgrims hardly “started from scratch in a wilderness” as the “origin myth” would have us believe. Throughout southern New England, Native Tribes had repeatedly burned the underbrush, creating a park-like environment. After first landing at the tip of Cape Cod in what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts, the Pilgrims assembled a boat for exploring and began looking around for a site for their new home. They chose Plymouth perhaps because of it’s beautifully cleared fields, recently planted with corn, it’s sheltered harbor, and a brook of fresh water nearby. It was a great site for a town, because before the Plague of 1617, this had been the village site of the Patuxet Tribe. The new Plymouth colonists did not encounter a wilderness. In fact, in Three Visitors To Early Plymouth: Letters about the Pilgrim Settlement in New England During its First Seven Years by John Pory, Emmanuel Altham, and Isaack deRasieres, edited by Sydney V. James, Plymouth colonist Emmanuel Altham noted in a letter in 1622 that,
“In this bay wherein we live, in former time, hath lived about two thousand Indians.”
In addition, the colonists received help and support from sources not fully known by the majority of Americans today. In his sailor’s journal, written by a colonist on his second full day in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and published in the work done in 1901 by Azel Ames titled, The Mayflower and Her Log, July 15, 1620-May 6, 1621, Edward Winslow writes of he and a companion, saying,
“…we marched to the place where we had the corn formerly, which place we called Cornhill, and digged and found the rest, of which we were very glad. We also digged in a place a little further off, and found a bottle of oil. We went to another place which we had seen before, and digged, and found more corn, viz. Two or three baskets full of Indian wheat, and a bag of beans, with a good many of fair wheat ears. Whilst some of us were digging up this, some others found another heap of corn, which they digged up also, so as we had in all about ten bushels, which will serve us sufficiently for seed”…. “The next morning we followed certain beaten paths and tracks of the Indians into the woods, supposing they would have led us into some town, or houses”…. “When we had marched five or six miles into the woods and could find no signs of any people, we returned again another way, and as we came into the plain ground we found a place like a grave, but it was much bigger and longer than any we had yet seen. It was also covered with boards, so as we mused what it should be, and resolved to dig it up, where we found, first a mat, and under that a fair bow”….. “Also between the mats we found bowls, trays, dishes, and such like trinkets. At length we came to a fair new mat, and under that two bundles, the one bigger, the other less. We opened the greater and found in it a great quantity of fine and perfect red powder, and in it the bones and skull of a man”…. “We brought sundry of the prettiest things away with us, and covered the corpse up again. After this, we digged in sundry like places, but found no more corn, nor any thing else but graves.”
In Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s book titled, Settling with the Indians: The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640, published in London by J. M. Dent in 1980, she states that the Pilgrims continued to rob graves for years. However, more help came to the Pilgrims from an even more unlikely source named Squanto, who was also known as Tisquantum. In the “origin myth,” Squanto was a solitary member of the Pautuxet tribe, part of the Wampanoag Federation of Tribes, who had supposedly learned English from fisherman, and as a “God sent savior”, taught the Pilgrims how to hunt and fish in the new wilderness, which helped them survive their first winter in New England. However, according to Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a leader of the Plymouth Company in England, around 1605 a British Captain stole Squanto from Massachusetts when he was still a boy, along with four members of the Penobscot Tribe, and took them to England. There Squanto spent nine years, three of them in the employ of Sir Ferdinando Gorges. After which, in 1614, Gorges arranged for Squanto to be returned to Massachusetts. ater in 1614, after skirmishing against, and then making peace with the Patuxet Tribe, John Smith returned to England, leaving a second ship to fish for Cod under the command of one Thomas Hunt. Luring Squanto and about twenty other Wampanoags on board, Hunt kidnapped them and then seized about seven other Natives on Cape Cod before sailing for Málaga, Spain. Once there, Hunt began selling his Native captives as slaves until some Catholic Priests intervened and redeemed the rest, including Squanto, in hopes of converting them to Christianity. Squanto’s movements are unclear for the next three years until 1617, by which time he had somehow managed to get to London. Living in the home of John Slany, the treasurer of the Newfoundland Company, Squanto became immersed in the English language and culture. Soon Squanto began to see in the colonial ambitions of John Slany and his associates, the means by which he could return home to Massachusetts. Squanto’s plans moved closer to realization when, on an expedition to Newfoundland, he became reacquainted with Thomas Dermer, an officer under John Smith in 1614. Like Smith, Dermer had left Patuxet before the fateful kidnapping. Thomas Dermer took Squanto back to his former employer, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who was by then the most determined colonizer of New England. Although he had already failed in several attempts to use kidnapped Natives to advance his endeavors, Gorges was persuaded by Squanto’s evident knowledge of the region, his apparent standing among his people, and his professed loyalty. So with Thomas Dermer at the helm, Squanto finally sailed for Massachusetts in the spring of 1619. When Squanto set foot again in Massachusetts and walked to his home village of the Patuxet Tribe, he made the horrifying discovery that he was the sole member of his village left alive. All other Patuxet Natives having perished in the Plague epidemic two years earlier in 1617. By the winter of 1620, struggling to survive, half the unprepared Plymouth colonists succumbed to starvation and disease during the harsh winter. Finally in March of 1621, members of the Pokanoket and Nemasket tribe convinced Samoset, a visiting Abenaki with ties to English traders, to sound out the beleaguered colonists. Finding them receptive, Samoset returned a few days later with Squanto, whose knowledge of the English and their language exceeded his own. As translator, ambassador and technical advisor, Squanto was essential to the survival of the Plymouth Colony in it’s first two years. In the book edited by Samuel Morrison in 1981 titled, Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647 the first Governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, called Squanto,
“…a special instrument sent of God for our good beyond expectation. He directed us how to set our corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also our pilot to bring us to unknown places for our profit.”
Their “profit” was the primary reason most Plymouth colonists made the voyage. Contrary to the “origin myth”, religious freedom was only a secondary motive for the Plymouth colonists. Squanto was not the only advisor for the Pilgrims either. As critical as he was to the colonist’s fortunes, Squanto’s usefulness was limited because he had no power base among the remaining Wampanoag Tribes, or other local Native Tribes. In the summer of 1621 the colony invited a second Native, a man from the Pokanoket Tribe named Hobbamock, to live among them. Hobbamock stayed for several years serving as a guide and ambassador. In fact, Hobbamock helped the Plymouth colonists to set up fur trading posts at the mouth of the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers in Maine; along the Aptucxet River in Massachusetts; and along the Windsor River in Connecticut. All this background brings us to the Thanksgiving Celebration. However once again, contrary to popular opinion, the Plymouth colonists did not introduce the Fall Harvest Thanksgiving Celebration. Native Tribes in New England had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries. However, in the Fall of 1621, the Governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, decided to have a harvest thanksgiving celebration of at the Plymouth Colony settlement. Gov. Bradford and other men started with games of marksmanship. Alarmed by the sound of gunfire, Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation of Tribes, with ninety other Wampanoag warriors, came to investigate. Seeing only a peaceful harvest celebration, they decided to stay after the Colonists assured them they were welcome. With many more to feed, some of the Wampanoag warriors left, but soon returned with five Deer to add to the feast. It is said that some of the food used for the shared celebration included lobster, clams, smoked fish, smoked eel, deer, turkey, duck, goose, corn, squash, and apple cider. The Wampanoag group remained at the Plymouth Colony settlement for three days, but the thanksgiving celebration continued for several more days after they left. When the next great wave of Puritans settled in the newly named Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, there was such a shortage of food, that the new Governor, John Winthrop, sent one of the ships back to England to purchase as much food as possible. When the ship returned in February 1631, Governor Winthrop ordered another day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated by all the settlements in the colony. The first such celebration to be held in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in ten years since 1621. Other than in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they were held as a local custom every year from 1631 on, thanksgiving celebrations were held sporadically in the different European colonies in America during the 1600s and 1700s. However, during the American Revolution in the 1780s, the Continental Congress recommended that each of the colonies observe a day of thanksgiving every year. Later, when George Washington became President, he proclaimed November 26th to be a National Day of Thanksgiving. The custom fell into disuse in a short time, and the States that did observe an annual thanksgiving day celebration, did so on a day that best suited them. Although they all observed it in the Month of November. During the Civil War in 1863, when President Lincoln felt that the Union needed all the patriotism that such as observance might muster, he proclaimed Thanksgiving a National Holiday to be observed on the last Thursday in November. However, the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony were not included in the celebrations at that time. It would not be until the 1890s that the Pilgrims were included in the celebration traditions. In fact, Americans did not even use the term “Pilgrim” until the 1870s. Lastly, because the Puritans had banned outright the Christmas Holiday in the 1640s, and the majority of settlers in New England refused to recognize or observe it as a Holiday for many years later, some historians believe that Thanksgiving became such an important holiday in the New England States, as an attempt to replace the Christmas Holiday. Although this may have been the case in the early years, both holidays became important to all New Englanders after Christmas became a legal holiday in the United States in 1856.
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