Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The First Thanksgiving

As it is about Thanksgiving, I thought I would talk about the first Thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in November 1620. They settled in a patch of land that had previously been a Native American settlement but that had been wiped out due to disease. The Pilgrims tried to work the land but winter was rolling in and they could do nothing but try to trap a few animals, gather winter fruit, and consume the supplies from the Mayflower. According to the original plan drawn up in the Mayflower Compact, everything was shared equally. However, many of the Pilgrims died due to malnourishment over the winter.

In the Spring, the Pilgrims were approached by a tribe of Native Americans living nearby. They had as one of their guests, Squanto, one of the only survivors of the tribe whose land the Pilgrims now lived upon. Squanto had been held as a slave in England for several years and spoke English well. Being familiar with the advanced technology of the Europeans, Squanto convinced his host tribe to assist the Pilgrims to earn their trust and then use them as leverage in the power play with neighboring tribes.

The Pilgrims used the farming and hunting techniques taught to them by the Natives, but Governor Bradford found that they were still not accumulating enough food to last through the next Winter. At that time, the Pilgrims worked the land commonly and were to store all food in a common grainary that would be distributed equally. Bradford saw that many of the young men were not working or were working a bare minimum because they didn't want to exhaust themselves when it did not directly benefit their own families.

Bradford called a meeting and changed the Compact. He took all the common land and distributed a plot to each family. They were to work it and they were to be dependent on that plot. Should they not produce enough food, they would be required to live on their neighbor's charity, but there would be no obligation to share and no common grainary available.

Faced with this promise and threat, the Pilgrim men threw themselves into the land and production exploded. In that first full year, the Pilgrims produced both enough to feed themselve and send a surplus back to England to be sold and pay off their creditors who had financed their voyage.

In October, Governor Bradford called for a day of Thanksgiving in a model of the old Harvest Home celebration. The Pilgrims invited the members of the Native tribe to the feast, not only to share the bounty with those who had aided them, but also to work in converting the Natives to Christianity.

Much of this story get's truncated and it is important to recognize all factors (good and bad) that went into setting up the holidays we practice today.

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