The Truth about Thanksgiving By James W. Loewen


"IT WAS WITH GOD'S HELP...FOR HOW ELSE COULD WE HAVE DONE IT?"



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"IT WAS WITH GOD'S HELP...FOR HOW ELSE COULD WE HAVE DONE IT?"

Settlement proceeded, not with God's help but with the Indians'. The Pilgrims chose Plymouth because of its cleared fields, recently planted in corn, "and a brook of fresh water [that] flowed into the harbor," in the words of TRIUMPH OF THE AMERICAN NATION. It was a lovely site for a town. Indeed, until the plague, it had been a town. Everywhere in the hemisphere, Europeans pitched camp right in the middle of native populations---Cuzco, Mexico City, Natchez, Chicago. Throughout New England, colonists appropriated Indian cornfields, which explains why so many town names---Marshfield, Springfield, Deerfield--end in "field".

Inadvertent Indian assistance started on the Pilgrims' second full day in Massachusetts. A colonist's journal tells us:

We marched to the place we called Cornhill, where we had found the corn before. At another place we had seen before, we dug and found some more corn, two or three baskets full, and a bag of beans. ..In all we had about ten bushels, which will be enough for seed. It was with God's help that we found this corn, for how else could we have done it, without meeting some Indians who might trouble us. ...The next morning, we found a place like a grave. We decided to dig it up. We found first a mat, and under that a fine bow...We also found bowls , trays, dishes, and things like that. We took several of the prettiest things to carry away with us, and covered the body up again. A place "like a grave!"

More help came from a live Indian, Squanto. Here my students are on familiar turf, for they have all learned the Squanto legend. LAND OF PROMISE provides an archetypal account.

Squanto had learned their language, the author explained, from English fishermen who ventured into the New England waters each summer. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, squash, and pumpkins. Would the small band of settlers have survived without Squanto's help? We cannot say. But by the fall of 1621, colonists and Indians could sit down to several days of feast and thanksgiving to God (later celebrated as the first Thanksgiving).

What do the books leave out about Squanto? First, how he learned English. As a boy, along with four Penobscots, he was probably stolen by a British captain in about 1605 and taken to England. There he probably spent nine years, two in the employ of a Plymouth merchant who later helped finance the Mayflower. At length, the merchant helped him arrange passage back to Massachusetts. He was to enjoy home life for less than a year, however. In 1614, a British slave raider seized him and two dozen fellow Indians and sold them into slavery in Malaga, Spain. Squanto escaped from slavery, escaped from Spain, made his way back to England, and in 1619 talked a ship captain into taking him along on his next trip to Cape Cod.

It happens that Squanto's fabulous odyssey provides a "hook" into the plague story, a hook that our texts choose to ignore. For now Squanto walked to his home village, only to make the horrifying discovery that, in Simpson's words, "he was the sole member of his village still alive. All the others had perished in the epidemic two years before." No wonder he throws in his lot with the Pilgrims, who rename his village "Plymouth!" Now that is a story worth telling! Compare the pallid account in LAND OF PROMISE. "He had learned their language from English fishermen." What do we make of books that give us the unimportant details--Squanto's name, the occupation of his enslavers--while omitting not only his enslavement, but also the crucial fact of the plague? This is distortion on a grand scale.

William Bradford praised Squanto for many services, including his "bring[ing] them to unknown places for their profit." "Their profit" was the primary reason most Mayflower colonists made the trip. It too came from the Indians, from the fur trade; Plymouth would never have paid for itself without it. Europeans had neither the skill nor the desire to "go boldly where none dared go before.|" They went to the Indians.

Thanksgiving is full of embarrassing facts. The Pilgrims did not introduce the Native Americans to the tradition; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries. Our modern celebrations date back only to 1863; not until the 1890s did the Pilgrims get included in the tradition; no one even called them "Pilgrims" until the 1870s. Plymouth Rock achieved ichnographic status only in the nineteenth century, when some enterprising residents of the town moved it down to the water so its significance as the "holy soil" the Pilgrims first touched might seem more plausible. The Rock has become a shrine, the Mayflower Compact a sacred text, and our textbooks play the same function as the Anglican BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER, teaching us the rudiments of the civil religion of Thanksgiving.



Reproduced with permission from James W. Loewen
Corrections by Frank Smith, November 29, 2002


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