Keeping a Good Thanksgiving: Part 4

Part 4: For Strangers Who Became Friends

So they made their way finally to another safe harbor they named Plymouth and around December 12 began to explore what would be their new home. December 20 they decided to begin building. They chose a 165 foot hill. They named it Plymouth Plantation.

An Indian leader, Massasoit, watched all of this with both fear and fascination. Ultimately he decided not to attack and kill them all and instead sent delegates, first Samoset and then Squanto – who spoke English – to investigate.

And then they started to become ill and die. The harsh northeastern winter, the poor diet – they were still eating the small rations left from what they had brought along.  On some days that winter only ten men were healthy enough to work. By springtime, exactly half of them were dead. Every family had lost someone.

They cleared land and knew that their one chance to survive was a successful crop. It was then that Squanto appeared with advice that literally saved them. He showed them how to plant and how to fertilize. The crop succeeded: they had squash, corn, beans, peas and barley for their beloved beer. And they learned to hunt and fish. That autumn when the crop was in and the small huts – 19 of them – secure, Governor William Bradford declared “a time to rejoice after a more special manner.” He sent four men “fowling,” with their muskets to bring geese and ducks and gathered abundant shellfish, oysters, and mussels, and they welcomed their new friends to the feast. Massasoit and one hundred men showed up and brought along five freshly killed deer.

It wasn’t exactly a Currier and Ives Thanksgiving. There was no long table with a white linen tablecloth. In fact, they all stood, throwing pieces of meat into a large boiling pot. They ate the stew with their fingers. Forks had not yet appeared. And there probably was no turkey (wild turkeys are fast and hard to kill) and filling – or stuffing – or dressing. And there certainly was no cranberry sauce.

What there was, was a sense of profound gratitude for life – for their survival, for hope for the future, for an amazingly fertile and productive world, for strangers who became life-giving friends, and for one another.

All this information, by the way, is from Mayflower, A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. It is a fascinating, reliable and complete history. In it Philbrick summarizes: “The first Thanksgiving marked the conclusion of a remarkable year. Eleven months earlier the Pilgrims arrived at the tip of Cape Cod, fearful and uninformed. They had spent the next month alienating and angering every Native American they happened to come across. By all rights, none of the Pilgrims should have emerged from the first winter alive. That it worked – was a testament not only to the Pilgrims’ great resolve and faith, but to their ability to take advantage of an extraordinary opportunity.” Philbrick says the Pilgrims learned quickly about diversity and were pushed out of their extremely tight, inward, almost cult-like worldview. They learned to regard the Native Americans as friends – at least as a resource, some even as brothers and sisters. And that saved their lives.

It would not last. King Philip’s war a few years later pitted Native Americans against European settlers in an all-out, incredibly violent war. In terms of percentage of fatalities against total population, it was the worst war ever fought. But that is another story in the book.

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