Pilgrims not the first to give thanks
November 24, 1999
Before modern technology, people were never so self-centered to believe a trip to the grocery store was their sole contribution to storing winter food. People understood their connection to the earth and that hard work and the bounty provided by soil and sunlight was their only security against uncertainties of winter.
All Thanksgiving celebrations originated as harvest festivals where both the efforts and rewards of a harvest were celebrated with feasts of fresh meat and vegetables.
In colonial times in England, people set aside a day to give thanks for the harvest that fed them, clothed them and saw them through the cold season. The rituals and origin of Thanksgiving can be traced beyond Celtic times when the late fall ritual of Mabon was used to honor the earth for its fertility.
Before English pilgrims landed on Plymouth rock, Native American tribes across the United States held similar ceremonies of Thanksgiving. The Corn Harvest is one of the more well known when the Pawnee Indians erected a frame of corn husks and danced to thank Mother Corn for the harvest.
The Jewish festival of Thanksgiving is Sukkot, an eight-day harvest festival celebrated in September or October to give thanks for the good things of the earth.
What is generally referred to as the first Thanksgiving was the first Thanksgiving shared between the English and Native American Indians, not the first ever. But it lives in minds because it is a story of overcoming odds, uncertain friendships and the establishment of the first English colony in America.
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Plymouth colonists arrived in the “New World” in 1620 completely unprepared for the challenges awaiting them. They brought a supply of wheat to plant, but found it couldn’t survive in the rocky soils surrounding their settlement. That first winter, 47 of the 102 settlers died. Their food was low and they were at a loss as to how to survive in the New World.
Their salvation came in a unique manner.
They were approached by two English-speaking Wampanoag Indians and were warily befriended by a people whose custom was to feed all the hungry that came to their doors.
One of those Indians, Tisquantum, or Squanto, taught settlers how to exist and thrive in America.
By the fall of 1621, Pilgrims were living comfortably and had enough food stored for the winter. The territorial governor, William Bradford, proclaimed a day to be set aside for thanksgiving and prayer to be shared by both the colonists and Native Americans.
Three Indians and their immediate families were invited, but an Indian’s immediate family is extensive and 90 Indians arrived to celebrate with the Pilgrims. Bradford sent colonists back to their homes for more food because the Indians had brought their share of deer, turkeys, fish, corn, squash and berries and the two groups feasted for three days.
It was an unusual table with both sides being surprised by the unfamiliar customs of the other. During the meal, Indian women sat with their men to eat, but Pilgrim women stood behind the table and waited until the men had eaten as was their custom.
Years passed and the friendship faltered as more English came to the New World. The new settlers didn’t need the help the first ones did mistrust grew and religious rifts widened and the shaky relationship first formed ended in bloodshed.
Today, the town of Plymouth Rock has a ceremony each year to remember the first Thanksgiving. There are still Wampanoag people living in Massachusetts. In 1970, one was asked to speak at the ceremony to mark the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. Here is part of what was said:
“Today is a time of celebrating for you a time of looking back to the first days of white people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my people. When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them. Let us always remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white people.
“Although our way of life is almost gone, we, the Wampanoags, still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed. But today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important.”