Thoughts on the First Thanksgiving

Almost 400 years ago, the Mayflower, with 191 men, women and children, reached Plymouth after a grueling 66 days at sea. They had been blown off course from their planned destination at the mouth of the Hudson River.

            After exploring Cape Cod for another month because it was so perfect for settlement, another storm blew them off course again into Plymouth Harbor. It was also so perfect they decided to build there, beginning on Christmas Day in the year of 1621.

            However, it was already too late to plant crops, and many settlers died due to scurvy and malnutrition during the horrible winter to come. Of the original 102 passengers, only 44 survived because of the kindness and generosity of Native Americans, who saved them from almost certain death from starvation. By then, early in the year 1621, they had built crude huts on the shores of Plymouth Bay.

            Almost immediately, they were visited by the Wampanoag Chief Massasoit, as in my illustration, who welcomed them because he wanted an alliance with the pilgrims to offset the threat of the powerful Narragansett tribe, whose nearby, inland location had isolated an immunity to the white man’s smallpox that had nearly decimated the Wampanoag population to become vulnerable in Plymouth.

            By the autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims had much to be thankful for, from help in growing crops from the Indians. They invited Massasoit to join them for an autumn festival that was to become the first Thanksgiving. No less than 100 Indians accepted the invitation, and they stayed for three days of celebration and feasting on venison, turkeys, waterfowl and native dishes of fried corn.

            Massasoit, in his old age, was sent a solid-silver, peace pipe from King James of England for saving his latest colony settlement in the new world. However, there was already a conflicting attitude by the Puritans in Boston, who practiced taking Indian land without paying for it and subsequently acquired land with negotiations that left native people without property and survival cultures.

            The Pilgrims, on the other hand, had sailed across the sea to practice the ideology of the freedom of religion and their negotiations with native people who believed that they had a spiritual respect that the land itself was sacred and could not be taken away or traded without compensation. They called themselves people of the rising sun, the first to see it come up out of the ocean that gave them a spiritual relationship with the land.

            When today we sit at the table for Thanksgiving, we bow our heads to thank God for all our blessings. We might also give thanks for the first Thanksgiving, even if it took place almost a half millennium ago. As I have done my best to describe and portray how it came about, we might also give thanks for its ultimate significance in the history of this country.

By George B. Emmons

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