History of Thanksgiving: Friendship at the heart of the holiday

At the heart of what is now known as Thanksgiving exists two reciprocal gestures of genuine friendship. Photo: Carver, Massasoit, Wampanoag Peace Treaty (public domain)

SAN JOSE, November 25, 2013 – This coming Thursday, most Americans will undoubtedly take part in numerous activities celebrating America’s Thanksgiving holiday, which will involve a hearty meal of one sort or another. There will also be many of faith who will sincerely express gratitude for blessings they received during the year. This is the benign manner of celebrating this traditional holiday.

Unfortunately, the history behind the holiday has been romanticized and viewed in almost mythical proportions since the original event. Often, as historical events fade into the shadows of the past, the actual people involved, or original events that occurred, take on mythic proportions.


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The Thanksgiving event is one such event, yet if people could understand this significant event as if they were taking a snapshot of that point in time, they could see the event more for what is was than for what it was not. Although the holiday has been romanticized and viewed from a multitude of perspectives, the event itself in its original form is quite simple, and it has more to do with the Wampanog Indians than the Pilgrims, although it was the Pilgrims who put the facts to paper for the historical record. The event has more to do with compassion and the human heart than what serious academics would be comfortable in acknowledging.

At the heart of what is now known as Thanksgiving exists two reciprocal gestures of genuine friendship. The Thanksgiving event was the direct result of the Wampanoag assistance and friendship extended to a struggling people in dire need. From the genuine gratitude for Squanto’s help, and the general good will of the Wampanoag people, William Bradford invited three key Wampanoags (Massasoit, Squanto, and Samoset) to a simple meal to express thanks on behalf of the Pilgrims. From the other camp, the Indian response to this friendly invitation was overwhelming because it was the Wampanoags who seized the initiative, and transformed a humble meal into a three day feast.

With regard to the event known as the First Thanksgiving, it actually was neither. Prior “thanksgivings” had been celebrated between European and Indian in the Caribbean, or Tejas, or Virginia. Also, the event could not serve as a traditional Protestant ceremony of Thanksgiving. It was more of a harvest festival that provided common ground for two culturally diverse peoples to celebrate the value of life itself.

Part of the essential problem in understanding this event in the context of American history is that it actually took place as part of English colonization history. And, part of properly understanding the “Pilgrims” is complicated because they are usually confused with the Puritans. It may be relevant to note that if the Puritans had landed at Cape Cod in 1620, there probably would not have been a “Thanksgiving” holiday because they probably would have preferred to starve or freeze to death before they would have accepted any help from indigenous peoples. The Pilgrims were not the first of the Puritans to arrive in New England; they were at the time known more accurately as Separatists. 


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The Separatists were Christians who had separated from the Church of England over some serious religious differences as they believed the Church violated the biblical foundations and was not truly Christian. They especially viewed the state-controlled church as corrupt and oppressive. The Separatists fled initially to Holland in the early 1600s to escape rigid persecution in England, but eventually decided to migrate to North America where they imagined they could be free to worship God as they preferred without being forced to obey and worship only the Anglican way. Most Separatists were common people who valued “peace and their spirituall comforte above any other riches…”

Leaders of the Separatist struggled in simply preparing for such a life-changing venture and many issues delayed their historic journey repeatedly. In Holland, they bought a lemon of a ship called the “Speedwell,” which was not seaworthy. After crossing the English Channel to join with the larger Mayflower, the “Speedwell” proved to leak well as they tried twice to set out to open sea. Their delays caused the Pilgrims to leave in September of 1620, a time coinciding with what is now known as “hurricane season.” 102 men, women, and children of the Separatist party had to cram into the Mayflower along with a crew of about 36 sailors as well as various live farm animals for their settlement.

After 11 weeks at sea in high winds, they arrived far north of their intended destination. Their authorized charter only permitted them to settle in the Virginia territory (at the time extended from Jamestown up to New Amsterdam). The high winds ultimately drove the ship away from the area they had a charter to settle (south of New Amsterdam). With no legal authority for settlement, the Pilgrims had to make a serious decision as to what they should do. Rough winter seas prevented them from sailing farther south, so they decided  to explore the shoreline for potential settlement sites. A series of scouting expeditions, led them to decide on settling at an abandoned village of Pautuxet (now Plymouth, MA).

While the Mayflower was still anchored, and the men debated over what to do without legal authority from the British Crown. Reports indicate that “discontented and mutinous speeches” were made which threatened disunity within the group. William Bradford’s account in his History of Plimouth Plantation explains that it was this problem which led to drawing up the famous Mayflower Compact. Bradford indicated that all the adult males would submit to “such government and governors as [they] should by common consent agree to make and choose.” John Carver, who had been a key organizer in the journey and  had chartered the Mayflower, is believed to have led in drawing up the historic document.

The Mayflower Compact contained the seeds of a democratic-republic. The respected John Carver was elected the first governor of the future settlement. Despite success in maintaining unity within the small band of non-conformists and organizing a democratic government for “the good of the colony,” one difficulty seemed to lead to another, The worst of their ill-fated future loomed before them because the good of the colony was threatened by serious practical problems. They had arrived in the dead of winter. Their food supplies were low, and they had no shelter from the harsh weather. Sadly, the last part of their journey held the worst trials.

William Bradford’s account explains that it was extremely difficult to survive the harsh coastal winter for the foreign people from across the ocean. According to Bradford, that time, “was most sad and lamentable… In two or three month’s time half of [our] company died… being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts [and] being infected with scurvy and other diseases.” Ironically, it was a majority of the women and children who had stayed aboard the Mayflower who died due to the unsanitary and disease-bearing conditions on the ship. Yet, not one of the survivors chose to go back with the Mayflower when it returned to England in the spring.

Even Carver and Bradford, the future governor, came down with illness in the early part of 1621, but by March, Wampanoag Indians made contact with the struggling survivors. Samoset was one who had previously learned some English from contacts with British  explorers. Through Samoset, and then Tisquantum (Squanto), who spoke better English (after living in England), the Pilgrims met Massasoit, the Grand Sachem. Massasoit and his brother met with John Carver soon after the first contact, and on behalf of the British Crown, Carver entered into a peace agreement with Massasoit on March 22, 1621. By spring circumstances had improved, and the survivors began regaining their health.

In April, Carver gained confidence to send the Mayflower back to England; but sadly, not long after, he too passed away being only 56 years of age. Subsequently, William Bradford was elected as the new governor. Massasoit kept the peace agreement, and proved to be a gracious leader. He not only allowed the Pilgrims to settle at Pautuxet, but permitted Squanto to assist the Pilgrims. And, it was that help that prompted Bradford to invite the three Wampanoags. In actuality, 90 Indians showed up and turned the gathering into a real celebration. But, they did not come to devour the settlers’ precious harvest, it was the Indians who provided most of the food.      

Such a celebration must have been emotionally overwhelming to the surviving Pilgrims, as they felt cared for in such a generous manner by the Wampanoags at this time of feasting. It truly represents more than an opportunity for two diverse peoples to gorge themselves on good food. The demonstration of goodwill and kindness was reciprocal. In retrospect, it may have given the Pilgrims a bit of hope for their future survival in such a rugged foreign land. At the heart of this incredible event is a demonstration of how two completely diverse groups of human beings overcame their significant differences, and secured common ground to celebrate life itself. These two peoples lived in peace for 50 years while their leaders Massasoit and Bradford still lived; before they passed into the shadows of history.


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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.

 

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