First Thankgiving

The First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the beginning of the "news doldrums" season, that period when legislators and criminals tend to slack their business in preparation for Christmas and the long cold days between Thanksgiving and Easter. In celebration of that poor news period, we bring the first of our holiday fillers: The First Thanksgiving.

Debunking the myth of the First Thanksgiving has become stock, so here’s our offering:

There probably was no "first Thanksgiving" as we like to picture it. Most likely humans first held a thanksgiving feast in the New World about 30,000 years ago. Or, 10,000 years ago when the Baring Sea froze. The "Thanksgiving" we know is a simple harvest festival, celebrated by Native Americans in the new world every year. If not then, perhaps in 1570 when Black slaves escaped a Spanish settlement in modern day South Carolina and settled down to give thanks when the Spaniards skipped back to Haiti. Or, perhaps Thanksgiving was first celebrated in what is now New Mexico by Spanish Jews in the late 1500s or by Dutch wetbacks in Albany, or by Spanish in San Elizario, by present day El Paso, in 1598.

However, it’s the British thanksgiving we’re consumed with here; even then the first Thanksgiving was probably celebrated in James town, in 1607, or a well documented celebration at Berkeley Plantation in 1619.

In truth, the first colonizers were a religious lot, and since life was often arbitrary and short, when things went well, they gave thanks to the Creator.
One of the early boatloads of European illegal aliens that probably gave thanks the minute they leapt off the stinking, rat, tick and disease infested Mayflower were those at Plymouth.  A hundred and three people spent a two-month voyage aboard a 100 by 23 foot ship.  The long voyage from the old country was because they couldn’t land in Virginia, where they were bound. Bad weather, and more importantly, perhaps, the desire to flee English control, delayed their landing until Massachusetts. Even at that, no one set foot on "Plymouth Rock" which didn’t even exist until the 1800s, regardless the "1620" chiseled into it.


The Mayflower landed inside the hook, at the star.

After climbing off the ship on to Plymouth Rock in the early winter of 1620 the "pilgrims" almost certainly thought they were going to die. Indeed, their instincts were accurate; though they stole corn from Native American storage mounds and desecrated graves to steal useful trinkets up and down the coast, nearly half died.

As an interesting side note, only a few of the passengers on board were religious zealots struggling to practice in public; most were just common folk looking for a better life. The "pilgrims" were such a pain in the butt to the rest that the Mayflower Compact was born.

Mayflower invaders landing on Plymouth Rock. This was painted more than 200 years after the fact; the truth is a lot more desperate, difficult and dreary. The feat was made simpler by the fact that thousands of Indians had died from a plague of European illness, leaving settled and cultivated land vacant.  This image is believed to be in the public domain.

The remaining 53 struggled with hardship and the now righteously angry Native Americans until, after a year in the New World, they held a thanksgiving feast, in 1620.

The Native Americans weren’t the problem they would have been a few decades earlier. British fishermen already had made contact with the Natives, who died in the thousands, having no immunities to the various diseases Europeans had caught from cows, sheep, pigs and fowl, like pox, syphilis and so on. Almost 95% of the people (Native Americans) who lived in the area of southern Massachusetts were killed.

This plague set the stage for European invasion of the New World. Indeed, fourteen years later John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony would call the plague which killed Indians but not Europeans a Godsend:

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 small pox 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 fifty, have put themselves under our protection....

Indeed, even those at Plymouth took advantage of the plague, setting up camp in an abandoned village. Still, their delight at the death of the Native Americans didn’t prevent the Mayflower wetbacks from relying on Wampanoag during that first winter. Though the Europeans were strange, mangy, and full of disease, the Native Americans were compelled by decency to help them survive.

Most notable was Squanto, now made famous by a movie. Squanto was a Native American who was stolen, sold into slavery to Britain, made his way back to the New World to be caught by Spaniards and taken to Spain, and who then escaped Spain to return home to find his village deserted, destroyed by the plague. He had little choice but to throw his lot in with the Europeans.

What did they probably enjoy at the "first" Thanksgiving? Beans, corn, squash, fish, lobster, clams, waterfowl, venison, probably wild turkey or swan, and perhaps dried fruit and berries but probably not cranberries.

George Washington proclaimed Thursday, 26 November to be a day of national thanksgiving in 1789, but it was just one day. There were several other such single day observances. Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national thanksgiving day in 1863, as did presidents after him, but each was annual.

Thanksgiving didn’t become a federal holiday until 1941.


"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe  This painting is believed to be in the public domain.  The painting is at Pilgrim Hall Museum.


Having trashed the sacred mythology of the First Thanksgiving, we can now go back and have sympathy for the truly brave people who set out to settle, if not an unsettled land, at least one that was dangerous and wild.

The Pilgrims didn't know any more than the Indians did why the Natives were dying in such huge numbers.  There was no reason for either to credit anyone but God.

This year, Americans will celebrate with 720,000,000 million pounds of turkey, according to some estimates.

Finally, we (non-Native) people can give thanks that the Americas were settled, so that we could live here in Sierra County (again, our apologies to our Native American readers.) We should give thanks every day we’re not stuck at sea on a scurvy ship with religious zealots.


Plymouth rock: fooey.

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