Who were the real diners at the first Thanksgiving?

November 22, 2021 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

November marks the beginning of the holiday season in the United States with its most important, and uniquely American, event: Thanksgiving.  Interpreters worldwide will interpret speeches by Americans that will include Thanksgiving stories, dinner recipes, family traditions, and Black Friday shopping. Every year I try to share a different part of this celebration that, familiar to all my American colleagues, could be foreign and little-known to others.

This year I picked a topic even unknown to many Americans: The true story of those who gathered over four centuries ago in what we now know as the State of Massachusetts. We all know to a degree the traditional story of a British settlement in what Europeans called the new world; we have heard or read how these individuals who fled the old continent looking for religious freedom had to endure terrible weather, and were on the brink of starvation when a benevolent Native American tribe helped them by teaching them how to grow corn, and where to fish. It all culminated in a peaceful, joint celebration where food was shared. As you probably imagine, things were different in the real world.

The Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims were the English settlers who arrived on the Mayflower and founded Plymouth Colony in what we today know as Plymouth Massachusetts. They gave this name to the settlement to honor the port from where they departed England: Plymouth, Devon. While in Europe, they were part of the Puritan separatist congregation known as the Brownists, who separated from the traditional Puritan Calvinists in the 17th century, arguing their congregations should separate from the state church, and fled religious persecution based on the Act of Uniformity of 1559 in Nottinghamshire, England. They first emigrated to The Netherlands, finding tolerance among the population of Holland where they followed the teachings of Robert Browne who argued true churches were voluntary democratic congregations, not whole Christian nations. They stayed in Leyden, The Netherlands, for several years until they secured the means to emigrate to America, frustrated by the Language barrier and uncomfortable with the “libertine” ways of the Dutch.

The decision to sail to America was not an easy one, there were fears that native people would be violent, there would be no source of food or water, that they may encounter unknown diseases, and that sailing across the ocean was very dangerous. They weighed their options and considered the Dutch settlement of Essequibo, now Guiana, but it was discarded for the same reasons they were leaving Holland. Another option was the Virginia Colony which was attractive because its population was British, they shared language, culture, and it was an established colony. It was discarded because they feared it would produce the same English environment they fled. They thought of the mouth of the Hudson River as a possible settlement, but the land was claimed by the Dutch who founded New Netherland. Finally, a royal patent was secured with the condition that the religion of the Leiden Group, as the Puritans were known in the British Court, were not to receive official recognition. They were told that a land grant north of the Virginia territory had been granted, and the new territory must be called New England. There were other concessions to the investors sponsoring the trip, and they finally left The Netherlands on board a small ship named the Speedwell. They arrived in Southampton where the ship was met by a second, larger vessel: The Mayflower. Unfortunately, by the time they reached Plymouth the Speedwell was deemed unfit to travel, so the Puritans left harbor with only one ship: the Mayflower. 102 passengers made the trip: 73 men and 29 women. There were 19 male servants, 3 female servants, and some sailors and craftsmen who would stay temporarily and then go back to England.

Once on land, the Puritans had several encounters with Native Americans who were familiar with Europeans as they had traded with other French and British Europeans in the past. Only 47 colonists survived the diseases contracted on the Mayflower. Half of the crew also died. The winter of 1619 was devastating. Bad weather ruined their crops and food was scarce. Survival of the settlement required drastic measures such as to request the help of these lands’ original residents: the Wampanoags. These Native Americans, motivated by their own schemes, agreed to help the Puritans providing needed food, water, and teaching them how to grow corn. The following year a good harvest saved the colonists and consolidated the colony. To commemorate the harsh winter of the year before, and to celebrate the brighter future, colonists and Wampanoags feasted together.

The name “Pilgrims.”

The first use of the word pilgrims for the Mayflower passengers appeared in William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.” He used the imagery of Hebrews 11:13-16 about Old Testament’s “strangers and pilgrims” who had the opportunity to return to their old country but instead longed for a better, heavenly country. There is no record of the term Pilgrims being used to describe Plymouth’s founders for 150 years after Bradford wrote this passage, unless quoting him. The Mayflower’s story was retold by historians Nathaniel Morton (in 1669) and Cotton Mather (in 1702), and both paraphrased Bradford’s passage and used his word pilgrims. The first documented use of the term was at a December 22, 1798 celebration of Forefathers’ Day in Boston. Daniel Webster repeatedly referred to “the Pilgrims” in his December 22, 1820 address for Plymouth’s bicentennial which was widely read. Harriet Vaughan Cheney used it in her 1824 novel “A Peep at the Pilgrims in Sixteen Thirty-Six”, and the term also gained popularity with the 1825 publication of Felicia Heman’s poem “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers”.

The Wampanoag.

Though meetings between European explorers and Native Americans tended to degenerate into bloodshed, the lure of trade was too enticing for either party to resist. Europeans sought furs, particularly beaver pelts, to sell back home. The Wampanoags, a nation living in what we now know as Massachusetts, wanted to pick through the strangers’ merchandise of metal tools, jewelry, and cloth. A number of them, including a man named Tisquantum, or Squanto, went to Europe when the vessels returned.

Wampanoags and other nations fell victim of disadvantageous deals with the colonists, sometimes were killed during hostilities or simple differences of opinion, and many died from diseases brought from the old world for which Native Americans’ lacked immunity. In 1614 Captain Thomas Hunt had double-crossed them and took 16 of them to Europe by force, among them an individual destined to play a major role as an interpreter during the First Thanksgiving in later years: Squanto. First, he was taken to Málaga where he spent some time, and probably learned functional Spanish, before convincing a merchant to take him to London where in 1618 he ran into Captain Thomas Dermer. By then Squanto spoke English and convinced Dermer to take him back to America on his next trip.

The Wampanoags were deeply divided over what to do, given the enslavement, murder, and disease that Europeans had inflicted on them. Chief Ousamequin favored cultivating the English as military allies and sources of metal weaponry to fend off the Narragansett nation to the west, who had escaped the epidemic and were using their newfound advantage in strength to reduce the Wampanoags to tributaries. In later years, Ousamequin acknowledged that he would have peace with the English because “he has a potent adversary in the Narragansetts, that are at war with him, against whom he thinks we may be of some strength to him, for our pieces (guns) are terrible to them.” Ousamequin also seems to have believed that the English had weaponized disease, which he hoped to put to Wampanoag use. At one point he asked the English to send the plague against another Narragansett leader whose territories bordered the Wampanoags’.

Many Wampanoags disagreed with Ousamequin. Some attributed the epidemic to a curse put on them by a shipwrecked Frenchman whom they had held as a slave. This Frenchman had admonished the Indians “that God was angry with them for their wickedness, and would destroy them, and give their country to another people.” Several Wampanoags feared that the Pilgrims were conquerors of this prophecy and therefore favored cutting them off. Others saw the Pilgrims as belonging to the same class of men slaving and slaughtering their way along the coast.

A noble Wampanoag named Corbitant conspired with the Narragansetts to unseat Ousamequin and destroy Plymouth. It took an English military strike orchestrated by Ousamequin to snuff out this fire. A year later, Ousamequin warned Plymouth that Wampanoags from the Vineyard and Cape Cod were plotting with the Massachusett nation to attack Plymouth. He stopped these plans by directing an English attack, this time against the Massachusett. It was his way of warning Wampanoag dissidents they would be next if they continued to undermine his leadership.

The First Thanksgiving was the fruit of a political decision on Ousamequin’s part. Politics played a much more important role in shaping the Wampanoag-English alliance than the famous feast. At least in the short term, Ousamequin’s league with the newcomers was the right gamble, insofar as the English helped to fend off the rival Narragansetts and uphold Ousamequin’s authority. In the long term, however, it was a grave miscalculation. Plymouth and the other New England colonies would soon conquer Ousamequin’s people, just as the Frenchman’s curse had augured and just as the Wampanoags who opposed the Pilgrims feared that they would.

Despite all good and all terrible consequences of the colonization of Massachusetts, Thanksgiving Day, as we understand it now, four centuries later, has become a day of peace, family, and sharing. Because it is a lay celebration, it is the most democratic holiday in the United States, held universally across all cultures in all 50 States. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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