It was 381 years ago, in the autumn of 1621, when Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford invited certain neighboring Wampanoag Indians to join them in a three-day festival of feasting and fun (at least as much fun as Puritans could muster) in gratitude for the bounty of the recent harvest. These were high times, compared to the horrible winter of 1620-21, in which half the colonists died. Indeed, by befriending the Pilgrims in their time of need, you might say that the Wampanoags–specifically Squanto, Samoset, and Massasoit–were the founders of the feast.
Previously, in 1605, Squanto traveled to England with explorer John Weymouth, becoming fluent in English. He returned to New England, only to be captured by a British slaver, and was sent down to the Caribbean. There, he was rescued by a Spanish Franciscan priest, who helped him flee to Spain, and he eventually got back to England. When in England, he met another Indian, Samoset. At this point, Squanto was reunited with Weymouth, who paid his passage back to his homeland, and the two Indians returned together to the New World in 1620.
It was in the spring of 1621 that Squanto and Samoset encountered the Pilgrims, and they were in bad shape. What a sight it must have been for the beleaguered settlers to behold two helpful Indians who spoke English! Squanto brought them deer meat and beaver skins, and showed them how to cultivate the native vegetables. He instructed them on the medicinal and the poisonous plants, and taught them how to get sap from maple trees, among dozens of other survival skills imparted to them during the months he stayed with the colonists.
Massasoit was the grand sachem (intertribal chief) of all the Wampanoags, and was introduced to the Pilgrims by Samoset that same spring. Massasoit instituted the peaceful accord and trade between the two vastly different peoples, which lasted until he died. So revered was he by the colonists that when Plymouth Colony founder Edward Winslow discovered that Masssoit was quite ill in the winter of 1623, he himself trudged several miles through the snow to deliver a nourishing broth to the chief.
As to the original 1621 Thanksgiving feast, Bradford had no idea that his invitation to Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit and their immediate families would produce 90 party-goers. Seeing that this was well beyond what the Pilgrims could handle, Massasoit sent men back to his village to get more food, and they returned with five deer, scores of wild turkeys, fish of all descriptions, beans, squash, corn soup, corn bread, and berries. This occasion marked the first time that the Wampanoag people sat at a table to eat, instead of on mats or furs spread on the ground.
Of course, the goodwill between the Pilgrims and Indians would deteriorate, following the death of Massasoit, culminating in 1675 with the brutal King Philip’s War.
What lessons can we draw from that first Thanksgiving?
It is interesting to note that for the Indians, this would mark the fifth of their six thanksgiving feasts celebrated each year, while the colonists were repeating a European religious tradition that occurred every November. Thus, coming from backgrounds that could not have been more different, both groups demonstrated strong religious faith–and that is the only basis of the holiday.
That the symbiotic existence of these two peoples could not endure says much about the human condition. Take some later settlers who cared nothing of the early cooperation, blend in a few Indian hotheads, officious English bureaucrats, and some Frenchies who loved to stir things up, especially after the Plains of Abraham, and you’ve created the path to where we are today.
The American national holiday was proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, when we were deep into the Civil War, and was officially set as the fourth Thursday in November in 1941, during the worst war in modern world history. Ironically, it was with the inaptly named “Greatest Generation,” that emerged from WWII, that the virtually fascist secularization of our country was to occur, and this included all of our holidays. After all, when you’re prosperous and victorious, who needs to worry about God and His blessings?
Then came our wake up call from Hell on September 11, 2001, when we realized that we were little better off than the Pilgrims, starving in the winter of 1620-21. At least, they had faith. What is to become of us?