Thanksgiving, or how we used Squanto to survive..

24th November 2011

*I am publishing this again this year because it’s so exactly what I want to say. The only thing I’d add this year is what I’m thankful for: for health for my family; gainful employment and a job I love; for the ability to undertake crazy house projects and be able to complete them; for my friendships and my family; for my Maddie, my faithful and fun puppy companion; for life. Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy every bit of it.*

Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends. For those in other places, I am most thankful for your blogs, your comments, and this community. In teaching American Literature, early American writings are, by far, the most painful. I am certainly glad we have them for historical purposes, but boy – talking about “how many people have died of that awful disease because we have displeased God” is kind of a downer.

But – the Thanksgiving story fascinates me, or rather, the holiday we have come to know as Thanksgiving and its origins fascinate me. A few lines in journals and memoirs created what is now one of America’s most dearly-loved holidays.

Basically, in 1621, the Pilgrims (or Separatists, as they were also known) were so dang happy everyone had stopped dropping like flies. Half their party had died within three months of landing. Squanto, who could communicate with them because he learned English as a captive, taught them how to best use the land, and Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag, befriended them. So the Pilgrims had actually learned how to navigate this New World, and it was time to party Pilgrim style – with thanks to God, hunting, and boasting to friends and family back in England (even then we were a bunch of disrespectful upstarts).

So here it is folks: a couple of the passages behind your ovens full of turkey and sweet potatoes, stoves with bubbling pots of vegetables, televisions blaring football and parades, and of course, houses packed with family. It’s truly an American holiday, and I love it, even though it marks the beginning of the end for Native Americans and the tenuous friendship we once shared.

From William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation:

Thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity. They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

And Edward Winslow, in Mourt’s Relation:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

  • Lisa Moseley

    Gah, I’ve never really like William Bradford. Thanksgiving always reminds me of what ultimately became of the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, and how we celebrate the end of “people dying,” while in history, this marked the beginning of the end for those indigenous people of North America. I have mixed emotions about the holiday. Obviously I wouldn’t be here had we not had Pilgrims and settlers, but I have Sioux Indian in my blood, and that tends to make me analyze the plight of the Native Americans later in history. Such a paradox, as most American holidays are. Thanks for sharing!

    • I know. It really is awful, but I so love the holiday. I have Choctaw Indian in me, so I definitely think about it differently – especially after teaching the lit/history from this time.

  • Sommer

    Like the post.

  • Greed eventually kills — those coming over saw such a plentiful bounty that they just went nuts and destroyed any friendships and future generations . So very, very sad. It’s important to remember this as well during this holiday — I love Thanksgiving, but sometimes we can forget about history, and to me, history is so incredibly important. Great post.

  • Liz

    You might enjoy Suzanne Adair’s week of posts on Thanksgiving:

    As well: “Thanksgiving Day comes, by statute, once a year; to the honest man it comes as frequently as the heart of gratitude will allow.”–Edward Sandford Martin