Thanksgiving: The Truth

Sixteenth century Protestants believed religion was the bread and butter of life; The Church of England was an overcooked political turkey; The law was Aunt Bertie’s yam dish, which never tasted right.

Some Protestants believed they could “purify” the Catholic Church. They became Puritans. Later, some Puritans believed it was all just a recipe for disaster. They threw out the cookbook and became Separatists.

Yes, there are food metaphors all over this article. Feast your eyes upon them!

In 1607, a discontented radical faction illegally separated from the Church of England and formed the English Separatist Church. They fled to the Netherlands and lived under the leniency of Dutch laws.

After a decade, they were struck with poverty and fears of culture loss. They went back to England and financed a trip to a land free from corruption: The New World.

A Long Journey
The Separatists first set sail on August 5, 1620. They embarked from Plymouth, England on two ships: the Mayflower and the Speedwell, the latter of which sprung detrimental leaks. After returning to port twice because of it’s unseaworthiness, they decided to leave the smaller ship behind.

It didn’t speed so well after all.

Finally, on September 6, the Mayflower lead its pilgrimage to North America. This large, three-masted merchant ship faced the Atlantic Ocean’s rough waves and seasonal storms. Conditions were also harsh for the 102 passengers (a mixed group of religious followers and land-seekers).

The delays, seasickness, supply shortages and cramped addition of Speedwell voyagers took their toll. Rarely did Pilgrims receive fresh air, except to change their chamber pots.

And these were not the kind of pots used for cooking.

As if that weren’t bad enough, 3 of the 18 women were in their third trimester of pregnancy!

I’m not gonna lie. If I had a pre-colonial bun in my oven, I’d question the decision to travel the Atlantic. I mean, there’s labor and then there’s LABOR.

It’s lucky any of the babies were born healthy, as the main beverage aboard the vessel (due to water’s susceptibility to contamination) was beer. The diets consisted primarily of a hard tack biscuit, salt pork, dried meats like cow tongue, fish, pickled foods, oatmeal and other cereal grains.

They’re still not as bad as Aunt Bertie’s yams.

Mid-journey, turbulent weather cracked the ship’s main beam and caused various leaks. Thankfully, the crew repaired the damage with an iron jackscrew, caulk and mallets. (Tools that would later be used in building homes.)

Unfortunately, the ship was also blown off course. Instead of Virginia, they landed farther north, in Newfoundland. They set course again, but perilous waters ultimately forced a permanent reroute.

On November 11, the Pilgrims disembarked on the tip of Cape Cod (present day Provincetown, Massachusetts). The trip itself spanned 3,000 miles and lasted 65 days. Of the 150 passengers aboard the Mayflower, only one lost his life.

All things considered, the Pilgrims’ journey was pretty fruitful. The oncoming winter, however, would leave their cornucopia a little barren.

The Worst Is Ahead
While still on board the ship, a group of 41 men (including military leader Myles Standish and Separatist leader William Bradford) signed the Mayflower Compact, which became the foundation of the new colony’s government.

The next task was deciding on a settlement site. Under the direction of Capt. Christopher Jones, an exploring party was dispatched. Ill-prepared for the region’s winter, many men slept in freezing temperatures with icy shoes and stockings. They continued to battle the snowy conditions, finding food stores in epidemic-stricken and empty native villages.

William Bradford’s account states they took “some” corn and paid the locals back in six months. According to others, the Pilgrims stole from these storages, desecrated and looted the Native American graves.

If that’s true, they were getting pretty desperate. Like when my mom has to fake it with a store-bought pie.

Their expeditions eventually lead them to Plymouth (coincidentally named by Captain John Smith), where they permanently settled. Supposedly, this is when they relocated the Mayflower to the famed Plymouth Rock. However, no records of the original settlers confirm this.

The Pilgrims began building their first storage and living quarters on Christmas Day. Fearing Native American attacks, Captain Christopher Jones later supervised the mounting of six cannons and a watchtower on a graveyard now known as Burial Hill.

And there were many bodies to bury that first winter. Although everyone lived mostly on the Mayflower during the construction, ferrying to and from shore, it did not prevent death. The passengers suffered a mixed outbreak of scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Probably because they ate Aunt Bertie’s yams.

Disease, harsh conditions and poor nutrition killed 75% of the women, 50% of the men, 36% of the boys and two young girls (18%). In fact, many of the women died because they were on the Mayflower. Constantly tending to the sick without any fresh air was a fatal combination.

Some had worse odds than others. The two girls that passed away were Ellen and Mary More. Born from an affair and banished by their father, they died abandoned children at the ages of 8 and 4, respectively.

When it all ended, only half of the voyagers lived to see Spring.

Natives Save The Day
In March of 1621, the remaining survivors moved ashore to finish building their homes. The next month, the Mayflower and her crew sailed back to England. With little knowledge of the New World, its likely the remaining Pilgrims wouldn’t have made it through the next winter without help.

The Algonquian were just the people they needed. These tribes first occupied New England about 10,000 years ago. They were nomadic hunters and gatherers. Their agriculture (particularly corn, beans and squash) started around 1,000 AD.

After their first contact with European settlers, they started fur trades.

In exchange, they received small pox, measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, influenza, tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, chickenpox and syphilis. All resulting in severe depopulation over the next century. And then, we stole their land and shoved them into Oklahoma. It’s called the Trail of Tears. But it’s not for another 200 years.

In 1614, Captain Thomas Hunt (a lieutenant to Captain John Smith) decided to take 24 Native Americans back to Spain as slaves.  He lured them aboard his ship with the promise of trading beaver skins and locked them away. One of these slaves was Tisquantum (“Squanto”), who later returned to New England with Captain Thomas Dermer.

On March 22, 1621, an Algonquian-speaking Abenaki lesser chief (Samoset) introduced Squanto (whose spoke better English) to the Pilgrims. They told the Pilgrims the Wampanoag greater chief and leader of Pokanoket tribe (Massasoit) was nearby. Massasoit arrived shortly after on hilltop, bringing with him 60 men.

You would think that’s overkill, unless you’re the kind of person who brings marshmallow-stuffed sweet potatoes to Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a real thing! What do you even call that?! A sweeter potato?

Squanto relayed a message to Massasoit that King James of England saluted him with love and peace, and accepted him as a friend and ally. This pleased Massasoit, and he came down to negotiate with Governor John Carver. The two agreed on a peace treaty, in which they basically promised not to kill each other.

This life-saving bond also made Squanto a vital mediator between the colonial leaders and Native American chiefs. He taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, extract sap from maples, avoid poisonous plants, where to fish and where to hunt beaver.

Two other Wamapnoag men were also crucial ambassadors: Hobomok and Tokamahaman.

Hobomok was actually favored more by Massasoit, who distrusted Squanto. Much like I distrust Aunt Bertie’s yams.

In November of 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest succeeded, the newly elected Governor William Bradford organized a three-day celebratory feast with the Native American allies, including Massasoit. This is generally regarded by Americans as the “First Thanksgiving,” although it did not have that title at the time.

The dinner likely included fowl, deer, fruits, vegetables, traditional spices and celebratory gunfire.

The Christian Separatist Pilgrims were thankful for God and His blessings. The 90 Wampanoags that joined them were thankful for Mother Earth and all her spirits.

And both parties were probably happy nobody killed anyone.

Yet, it wasn’t exactly the first example of Thanksgiving. In 1565, for instance, Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited Timucua tribe members to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida. It was a thanks for their safe arrival.

In fact, harvest-themed ceremonies that gave thanks are present in many cultures around the world.

Sometimes scholars get a little saucy and neglect due credit.

Growth of Recognition
In 1623, the Pilgrims had a second Thanksgiving after a long drought. It was common practice to fast and give thanks.

In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the United States government, in gratitude of winning the Revolutionary War. In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday, while the South was still mostly unfamiliar with the tradition.

As I am still mostly unfamiliar with the true contents of bologna.

A decade later, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Sarah Josepha Hale, pushed to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She published articles and wrote letters to many politicians. It took 36 years, but Abraham Lincoln finally accepted in 1863. During the Civil War’s height, he established Thanksgiving as the final Thursday in November.

In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt made the holiday a week earlier, in hopes it would increase retail sales during the Great Depression.

People didn’t buy much, including his plan, so Congress had to make it official in 1941.

Today, we still celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November.

Modern Traditions
George Washington marked November 26, 1789 “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” Today, the President issues a similar proclamation and “pardons” one or two turkeys.

In the last couple years, we’ve been able to vote for our favorite bird online. The campaign features gobble recordings and Twitter hashtags. Last year, both turkeys Popcorn and Caramel, went on to live a happy free range lives.

Where they can relish their freedom, no longer hungry for independence.

Although the Pilgrims had a relatively plain Thanksgiving, we usually go all out nowadays with cakes, pies and deep-fried foods. The Pilgrims might not have even had a turkey, but according to the National Turkey Federation, 90% of Americans have Thanksgiving turkeys today.

And the bountiful meals always leave me as stuffed as the bird itself.

Volunteering and food drives are common holiday activities, as well as parades. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is by far the largest, attracting some 2 or 3 million spectators and a nationwide television audience.

I’m a personal fan of the Peanuts characters.

Many modern day participants still maintain the religious roots, but others have left the Christian themes behind for just a family-centered holiday.

Closing Remarks
Thanksgiving started at a treacherous journey for English Separatists overseas. Half gave their lives to the cause of religious freedom in the first harsh winter. A political bond with the Wampanoag tribe saved them, while offering protection to the natives.

Tragically, it’s one of the sole examples of harmony between Europeans and Native Americans. Perhaps, that makes it all the more meaningful.

The fourth Thursday in November marks a deep cultural gratitude that brings loved ones together and is truly a time of thanks giving.

Even if that means you have to be thankful for Aunt Bertie’s yams.


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