Pilgrims: Grave Robbers And Fashion Plates
Forget What You Learned In Elementary School
The usual depiction of the first thanksgiving, bolstered by nearly a century of elementary school construction paper projects, includes happy Wampanoag Indians and brightly smiling Pilgrims in drab, black clothing with outlandish buckles on their shoes. A first look at the materials at hand would seem to support this vision: Indeed, Edward Winslow, present on that day in 1621, described a bucolic scene, reporting that the Pilgrims and Indians "rejoice[d] together" and hunted for amusement.
Sounds peachy. However, the "Pilgrims" weren't straitlaced Puritans; they were Separationists, which essentially meant that they were supposed to be a little more fun. This is not to say that early New England was all conga lines and margaritas: a few short weeks after the first Thanksgiving, the Plymouth church was treated to a sermon entitled "The Sin and Danger of Self-Love", which reads like an ecumenical root canal.
Folks didn't even apply the term "Pilgrim" to this group until the 1870s. Examinations of their wills suggests, while not exactly Liberaces, they possessed quite fine senses of color. However, looking for a historical antecedent to the holiday, historian Alexander Young fleshed out the mythology of joyous, if monochromatic, Pilgrims in 1841. Certain, shall we say, less flattering bits of information about them got lost. For example, few folks know only thirty-five of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower could be demonstrably called Separationists. The rest were regular Joes and Janes seeking their fortunes in Virginia, which, in the words of Virginia's first historian, was not meant to be so much a homeland as a target for easy plunder:
The chief Design of all Parties concern'd was to fetch away the Treasure from thence, aiming more at a sudden Gain, than to form any regular Colony.
A Grim Undertaking
These fortune-hunters were frequently incompetent. They bickered incessantly. Rather than forage for food or plant crops, they occupied themselves wantonly digging holes in the ground futilely searching for gold. Then again, not all of that digging was fruitless. A letter from an early visitor to Plymouth reveals
...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 again.
Giving thanks for having nearby Indian graves to raid probably strikes even casual readers as somewhat callous, which is why they don't tell these stories in elementary school. Despite such early colonial foibles, the Plymouth Plantation survived. However, Plymouth was not the first colony in America, nor was it the first one to give thanks for its presumed good fortune. That latter distinction possibly goes to the Berkeley Plantation, which was founded (and gave thanks) on December 4, 1619. They got to give thanks for two years, after which everyone fled back to England or succumbed to natives and disease.
At this point, the only person who seemed to have a reason to be thankful was England's King James, who, prior to the Mayflower's departure, gave thanks to "Almighty God in His great goodness and bounty towards us," for sending a "wonderful plague among the savages" that obliterated much of New England's native population at the beginning of the seventeenth century. It's a good thing for the history books that the Plymouth Plantation started a few years later and gave the holiday arguably benign beginnings: at least that colony made it, despite early bouts of wretched filth, penury, and starvation. Fortunately for our amusement, Thanksgiving was just as curious in the eighteenth century, and had cross-dressing to boot.
Next month: Thanksgiving before it sold out.
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