In 1621, Pilgrim settlers of Plymouth Rock set aside several days to celebrate an abundance of food and nature's graciousness in killing fewer of them as in previous years. The story of the amicable relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans is one of the first we learn as children. It fills us with the warm fuzziness of Man's generosity to others, despite cultural differences. But as we have come to learn about factual history, that endearing story was actually a prelude to horrific conflicts caused in large part by ignorance of cultural differences. Of course, greed and misplaced ambition also played a significant role.
Thanksgiving feasts occurred in the New World prior to 1621. Spanish settlers and Native Americans of the Seloy tribe in Florida celebrated a feast of pork and garbanzo beans, along with a Mass in 1565. This is also in line with Thanksgiving being a religious holiday, with fasting and prayer being the preferred means of giving thanks. That tradition has obviously gone by the wayside as evidenced by the excessive amounts of cooking, gluttony and lethargy we indulge in every fourth Thursday of November.
Sarah Josepha Hale, an author of many writings including "Mary Had a Little Lamb," began a campaign in 1827 to instill Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Abraham Lincoln finally gave in to her requests in 1863. Miss Hale's fondness for sheep may explain why lamb is not a Thanksgiving Day food staple.
In the telling of Thanksgiving's history, specific incidents are omitted from most school curriculums. Tisquantum, or Squanto, (the English were apparently averse to using names longer than two syllables), was the helpful Patuxet native who introduced the settlers to the local Natives. He spoke English because he had been kidnapped as a boy by the explorer Thomas Hunt and taken to Spain. There he was sold as a slave and bought by local monks who educated him. He eventually found himself in England, joined a ship, and traveled back to the New World only to find his tribe eliminated by disease. On the bright side, his kidnapping allowed him to escape the disease that killed off his tribe. He joined another tribe, the Wampanoags. Their chief, Massasoit, formed a pact with the settlers using Squanto's helpful knowledge of Europeans. His primary interest in doing so was as protection from other tribes, such as the Narragansetts.
Poor Tisquantum only celebrated the one Thanksgiving, as he passed away in 1622. Cause of death was attributed to "Indian fever" but was more likely leptospirosis, a disease brought to the New World by the rats found on explorer's sailing vessels. The urine of these rats, loaded with the disease, would contaminate water supplies. Europeans were evidently more fastidious when it came to protection of water supplies than the Natives. The disease was a lucky occurrence for the incoming Europeans as it organically cleared the New World of the majority of Natives, allowing easier access to their territories.
There was some confusion as to property rights. The Natives, obviously socialists, believed in property shared by all. Everyone could use the land, but no one owned it. The settlers' idea of property rights was more in line with European thinking, which was "if I use it and want it, it's mine." The Natives were also unaware that more English would be crossing their borders illegally, using up available resources, breeding like rabbits, not paying taxes, and taking away jobs from the English. OK, perhaps I embellished those points slightly.
Immigration became a more significant issue when the settlers decided to enforce their will through violence. In 1637, the Massachusetts colony governor declared a day of Thanksgiving after colonial soldiers killed 700 Pequot men, women, and children in what is now Connecticut. To be fair, the killings were in response to the Pequot's killing of eight settlers, which was preceded by the Dutch killing of a Pequot leader. Nothing like a good cycle of murderous violence to help achieve manifest destiny.
A few years later, Massasoit's son Metacomet, known as King Philip to the English settlers for some unknown reason, became the leader of the tribe. By this time, relations between the Natives and the settlers were frayed as the colonists exerted more control over the Natives' lives. Several of Metacomet's men, accused of murdering two settlers, were executed. A war between the Colonies and the Wampanoag tribe was declared in 1675. Natives burned Springfield, Mass., to the ground and abducted colonists for ransom. Hundreds of Natives were killed, their winter food stores destroyed. Natives took advantage of the opportunity to plunder other tribes. Metacomet journeyed to New York in search of allies. Instead, he was attacked by the Mohawks. Barely escaping, he made it home only to be betrayed by an informant and killed in the final battle of what became known as King Philip's War. His head was placed on a pike and displayed in Plymouth, Mass., for the next 25 years. A colonist tribunal gave the remaining Pequots to the Mohegans and Narragansetts. A covenant was made such that the Pequots could never inhabit their native land, nor could they be referred to as Pequots from that time on. Others were sold into slavery and shipped to Bermuda and the West Indies. The colonists declared that God had granted them a great victory and they most likely held a Thanksgiving feast. The menu was not disclosed.
So, sit with family and friends this Thanksgiving Day, the abundant feast spread before you. Think back to that time when people of different races and faiths joined together in a similar fashion for a while, and all was right with the world. Enjoy now, as Man cannot be content or peaceful for long.
-- Devin Houston is the president/CEO of Houston Enzymes. Send comments or questions to [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.