Today in the USA is a holiday, a holiday known as Thanksgiving Day. Stories are told, depending upon one’s perspective about the American Indians living in the area hosting a harvest festival for the Pilgrims, newly arrived from England, or that the Pilgrims invited the Indian savages to a meal of giving thanks to the Creator. It is a day set aside to give thanks, regardless of how you celebrate and many will gather with families to do just that. It will not be a typical, ordinary day but rather one with platters of food and desserts, games, and frivolity. It has been welcomed in this tense political climate and many consider it a pleasant change from the daily mood of the country.
In truth, the first Thanksgiving, taking place in 1621, was held amid much the same derision and division as people feel today. The Pilgrims wanted to celebrate their first anniversary in the New World, a pilgrimage for religious freedom that had taken them first to Amsterdam and then Leiden in the Netherlands. These Separatists had broken from the Church of England in 1607 but after a decade decided they needed to join the already established colony of Virginia. Thirty-five members of the English Separatist Church joined other would-be settlers to embark on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Mayflower.
Those undertaking the trans-Atlantic journey included a professional soldier named Myles Standish and the leader of the Separatists, William Bradford. While still on board the ship forty-one men signed a document ensuring they would work together in a “civil body politic”, a document known as the Mayflower Compact. The document would become the foundation for the first independent government of sorts in this new land.
The Mayflower failed to reach its intended destination of Virginia due to rough seas so those aboard hoped to settle in what was called New Amsterdam, now known as New York. It was believed the two settlements were close together; we know today they are not. Arriving in Plymouth Harbor in December, the newly arrived lived mostly on board the ship while they carried supplies to shore to build their living quarters. Of the one hundred that had made the journey, over half died that first winter.
Living in the area were various tribes of the Wampanoag people. The Indians had lived there for over ten thousand years, having originally been descendants of people from the Caucasus Mountain region in Eurasia. [The Arabs called these people Caucasian because of that although today the term is not used for American Indians but for people who came from west of these mountains, those of European descent. Again, perspective has rewritten history.] Those encountered by the Pilgrims as they now called themselves were of a group under Chief Massasoit, known as the Massachusetts tribe. Tisquantum was an Indian living with this tribe, having escaped an attempt to make him a slave several years earlier. Known by his English name Squanto, he had been captured by John Smith in Virginia and taken to England, as much a trophy as a servant/slave. He had escaped and ended up with the Pawtuxet, another tribe living in the area. Tisquantum/Squanto had learned English and served as a go-between for the two groups. The Indians shared agricultural tips and hunting locations and the Pilgrims shared newer techniques for living. In the fall of 1621 a joint feast was held amid the still simmering suspicions each group had of the other.
By 1622 power had corrupted Tisquantum/Squanto and his attempt to lead the Pilgrims in a revolt against Chief Massasoit failed. He died later that year while leading an expedition around Cape Cod. One of Massasoit’s sons, known as Metacomet or Phillip, assumed leadership of his tribe and in 1675, a war broke out between the two factions – Indians and settlers. The conflict left over five thousand inhabitants of New England dead, seventy-five percent being American Indian. IN terms of human loss of life, this was twice as deadly as the American War Between the States and seven times more deadly than the American Revolution or Wear of Independence.
That first ship the Mayflower had arrived in 1620 and was followed by the Fortune in 1621, the Anne and the Little James in 1623. By 1630 some one thousand Pilgrim settlers were living the in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Those first arrivals were known as “Old Comers” and many ended up leaving to go elsewhere due to the politics of the settlers. The term Pilgrim was not used until Daniel Webster adopted it in 1820 at the colony’s bicentennial.
What has not changed in the successive years of celebrating Thanksgiving is the fact that food is involved and groups of people gather, groups with differing opinions and usually lifestyles. The momentum behind the celebration has also not changed – the effort being designed to give thanks. Regardless of the year, the climate or the culture, gratitude is definitely worth our efforts.
Grateful people are healthier people and more successful. They have lower stress levels and seldom suffer from depression. Gratitude is not only seeing the silver lining of a dark cloud, it is living thanksgiving every day. We are seldom if ever in a place where everyone is exactly alike or thinks exactly the same about anything. Today as many gather together around the Thanksgiving table, some will like one style of mashed potatoes while others wanted candied sweet potatoes. Turkey is the traditional meat entrée but many will have sausage dressing with it or oyster stuffing with their fowl.
The fact is that wherever we are, we are among those who are different, who at some point in history have probably been viewed by our ancestors as enemies. Thanksgiving is a time to realize our uniqueness and celebrate our differences while recognizing that we all have something to offer to each other. That first Thanksgiving was not a love-in. It was a coming together with respect to give thanks to the Creator and creation. It was time to celebrate the ordinary in an extraordinary way. Hopefully, one day we can learn their example and live the lessons they passed down to us.