Thanksgiving is seen as an iconic American tradition dating back to the Pilgrim fathers and their first settlements. In fact, Americans aren’t the only folk who celebrate this thanks to God–Europeans do also, but they don’t have it as a significant event embedded into their culture. Historically, many people have given thanks to God: individuals offered up sacrifices in Genesis, and the Israelites sang a song of thanksgiving for being delivered from Pharaoh’s army after crossing the Red Sea, as in Exodus 15. Yet it is to America that most people turn when they think of Thanksgiving.
Ingrained into American history is the story of how the Pilgrim settlers, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, celebrated the day as a breakthrough for the infant colony during their second year in 1621. During the previous winter 44 of the original 102 colonists died due to malnourishment and disease. These early settlers were a devout, subgroup of Puritans, known as Separatist or Pilgrims. They could readily quote the Bible but knew extremely little about farming and hunting in their New World. The story goes that they were reduced to eating five kernels of corn a day when an unexpected trading vessel arrived and exchanged beaver pelts for corn. This unexpected trading vessel would have been an Indian canoe, most probably either the Wampanoag or Pequot tribes . For decades the Indians had been trading beaver pelts with the French and English in Canada and surrounds. Beaver pelts were a highly prized fashion commodity in Europe–particularly for the hat trade[i]–so that the Indians were happy to exchange some cheap corn (of which they grew in abundance) for expensive pelts shouldn’t be surprising.
The pilgrims used some of the Indian corn as seed and the next summer’s crop was bountiful. The then Governor, William Bradford, decreed that December 13th 1621 be set aside as a day of prayer and feasting in gratitude to God for his providence.
If it weren’t for the local Indians, who took pity on the starving wretches at their doorstep, probably none of the settlers would have survived.
What is revealing is that the Pilgrim settlers had the pelts to begin with. Instead of trying to ensure the survival of their settlement they were out hunting beavers to make money. These original settlers were not men and women of the land, they were city folk, bound by charters and contracts to investors and merchants in England.
Why these Puritans came to the New World without any practical survival skills predated their arrival by 17 years. In 1603 James Stuart became the King of England, combining the crowns of Scotland and England. James, now James I, was a bon vivant who enjoyed the finer things in life and wasn’t adverse to dancing, drinking; seeing plays, and having a good time. As the Head of the Church of England his lifestyle and predilections brought him into conflict with the Puritans who followed Calvinist doctrine.
By rejecting the Anglican Church the Puritans were, if tried, guilty of High Treason. The full sentence [i]passed upon men convicted of this crime, up to 1870, was : “That you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure.” Women, for the sake of decency, were to be burned at the stake.
To overcome the prospect of being hung, drawn, and quartered (or burned) groups of Puritans, known as Separatists, fled to protestant European countries in 1608-9, particularly to Holland. As the Dutch were tolerant of their religious beliefs they stayed there for 10 years and probably would have stayed longer if the truce between Holland and Spain was not drawing to a close in 1621. The danger for them was that Spain (Catholic) would invade Holland and they’d be persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition.
The idea of returning to England to live was an option but that would mean living under an Anglican king that they’d previously rejected: it would be tantamount to admitting failure. Also if the Spanish were to invade England–a distinct possibility to revert England to Catholicism–the Inquisition would also hound them there.
William Bradford, a leader of the Separatists, and later of the Plymouth colony, put the reasons for leaving Holland for the New World thus: “…a better, and easier place of living”; the “children” of the group being “drawne away by evill examples into extravagence and dangerous courses”; the “great hope, for the propagating and advancing the gospell of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world[ii]“.
Bradford, and others, had heard about the Jamestown Colony, in Virginia (America). Jamestown was a venture by the Virginia Company[iii]. This company sent 214 settlers to the colony in 1607; by 1609 only 60 were still alive.
What Bradford realised was that the Jamestown colony was settled by ‘gentlemen’ who didn’t know how to survive in the wilderness.To call the original Jamestown settlers gentlemen was an overstatement by Bradford. The folk who went and those who backed them were only interested in what financial returns the colony could make for them.
In 1606 two groups of investors, from London and Plymouth petitioned King James for charters to venture into the New World. James gave the charters allowing two colonies. The purpose of the colonies was to, ‘dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold, Silver, and Copper. George Cawston, an American historian of the early colonies said of them, ‘ No privileges were yet granted to the settlers, who were thus left at the mercy of the Governor, himself the agent of a soulless corporation whose main object was gain.’
In 1607 the Jamestown colony, in Virginia, was founded. Hostilities among the settlers and the local Powhatan Indians didn’t take long to break out, almost ruining the colony from the outset. To begin with, the settlers constructed the colony on top of an Indian cornfield! Despite the early difficulties, John Smith, of fame with Pocahontas and the leader of the expedition, returned to England and persuaded the London financiers to keep investing in the colony. In 1609 the first joint stock company was formed–The London Company. To boost the company’s stock early subscribers were promised tracts of colonial land, and if an investor went in person to the colony they’d receive 40 hectares of land. The original share price was approximately $5000.00.
Eight ships left that same year for the new colony. The colony struggled and reports back to England were far from encouraging. Subscribers to the company began defaulting. Despite borrowing money, appointing a new Governor; growing tobacco, and enticing Italian and Polish skilled to try their hand there the company failed to return a dividend until 1616: even then it wasn’t in cash it was in land. The land offer involved the selling of special patents to settlers wishing to establish private plantations–a scheme that was already failing. In 1624 King James revoked [iv]the company’s charter.
While all of this was happening, Bradford and the other Pilgrims saw economic opportunities[v] in the New World, as well as the religious freedom they were after. They became acquainted with Thomas Weston, one of the London Merchants, through the marriage of one of their members to a Weston employee. The London Merchants, under Weston’s direction, eager to enter into colonial trade viewed the Pilgrims expedition as they would have any other commercial venture.
In 1619 Bradford and the other Pilgrims returned to England and signed a charter with the Virginia Company of Plymouth (London Merchants) to underwrite the new colony. The charter required the labour of the Pilgrims for seven years as well as guaranteeing them various amounts of equity within the company.
The pilgrims were indentured workers to the Virginia Company of Plymouth. The company was willing to offer equity them company after their labour contract was finished. This equity offer was an attempt to ensure two things: that the pilgrims had a financial incentive to remain in the colony and see it prosper, and that the company could produce a list of equity holders to prospective clients in England. Indenturing workers to the colony was common practice. Richard Lee, the famous General Robert E. Lee’s great, great grandfather, arrived with a host of indentured workers to Virginia in 1641. After having released them upon expiry of their contract they were offered a tract of land. It was a profitable business as Richard returned quickly to England to indenture another group. Lee became a favourite at King Charles II court. He returned to London nearly every year and brought back indentured servants who became free settlers. By 1659, his tobacco crop was worth approximately $400,000 dollars. At his death he owned 8,000 hectares of land, half a dozen homes, and another fortune in ships, livestock and crops.[vi]
The Pilgrims had sold most of their possessions in Holland to purchase a ship, the Speedwell, and to hire another, the Mayflower, to take them to Virginia. The Pilgrims, and Weston, knew they needed help if they were to establish themselves in the new colony. As the Pilgrims had been out of England for ten years the recruitment of that help was left to Weston. Carpenters, blacksmiths, tanners and other tradespeople were recruited; however, these new recruits were neither Separatists nor Puritans, they were rank and file English Anglicans who were motivated by financial gain and the opportunity to start new lives: Weston had little time for the religious conviction of the Pilgrims and sought out those who had the same motivation as he did.
Weston’s primacy concern was making money and the Pilgrim’s knew it. Robert Cushman, the lead agent for the Pilgrims and later for Plymouth colony had this to say about him, ‘He was eager to reap quick profits from the New World, and not very scrupulous about the means.’ William Bradford must have felt the same for when Weston was in the colony Bradford wrote, ‘So, Mr. Weston had come hither again, and afterward shaped his course for Virginia, and so for the present I shall leave him.’ In C.M. Andrew’s book, ‘Colonial Period’ these remarks were recorded about Weston, ‘Weston, after squeezing all he could out of the Pilgrims, became a planter and burgess in Virginia, where he made trading and fishing voyages to the Maine Coast. After being arrested more than once for breaking the Colony Laws, he went to Maryland, acquired property, and returned to England…’ Weston died in November 1647, heavily in debt[vii].
With everything ready to go the Pilgrims faced their first challenge. The Speedwell needed to be abandoned due to various troubles. With only one ship they had to leave some of their members, like Robert Cushman behind to join them later. Only the Mayflower sailed for Virginia and the New World on the 16th September 1620. Now overcrowded with as many pilgrims as it could carry (and helpers) the Mayflower was cramped and poorly provisioned for its 65 day trip.
No sooner had they left England than the Pilgrims and Weston’s hired help began fighting. The Pilgrims with their religion permeating every aspect of their lives got on the other’s nerves while the others got on the Pilgrims’ nerves with their deliberate sacrilege and mockery of religion[i]. The Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod, not Virginia–its intended destination–in November. With a rocky coast and failing winds the settlers realised that trying to venture south to Virginia would be problematic, so they decided to settle where they landed. A few exploring parties were sent out and the settlers finally disembarked on the 26th December 1620.
With growing animosity between the two groups, adding the spectre of the Virginia Company wanting a financial return on its investment with the ready cash of beaver pelts never too far away, the colony soon fell on hard times. Bradford wrote: of the 17 male heads of families, ten died during the first infection…of the 17 wives only three were left after 3 months. In this note he only mentions the Pilgrims, not the helpers. The two groups needed each other to survive but the didn’t get along.
To make their remaining food stores last longer they started fasting. Initially it was for just a single day but necessity soon made it otherwise. Fasting days soon came in batches followed by a meal. The Pilgrims gave God the credit for their food and they referred to it as a ‘Thanksgiving’. They wrote about it thus:’Let there be no mistake here. On that first Thanksgiving there was no turkey, no corn, no cranberries, no stuffing. And no dessert[ii].’
The local Wampanoags took pity on these settlers and, in their pagan charity, taught them how to grow corn, hunt local game, and preserve meat. With their newly acquired skills the settlers in the following year had a bountiful harvest for which there was reason to celebrate a Thanksgiving. Edward Winslow, the English leader who attended this feast wrote: “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 fruit of our labors. 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 they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
William Bradford, the governor Winslow mentions, also described the autumn of 1621, adding, “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 that proportion[iii].”
How the Pilgrims differed from other settlers was that they agreed to hold their property in common, or as William Bradford called it, ‘common course’. This common course was to pool their resources to be able buy buy their way out of obligations to the Virginia Company. With favourable reports now reaching England the Virginia Company went to the Council of New England to allow the Pilgrims the rights to live and establish a government of their own at Plymouth. Difficulties arose as the Council issued commercial charters too leniently to individual merchants. Bradford described many of them as lazy and incompetent. Some of the merchants began to swindle the local Indians. The Indians began to see all the settlers as dishonest. Not happy with just swindling the Indians some of the merchants also began practicing their chicanery on the Pilgrims.
While the English settlers were starving and then prospering the Dutch hadn’t been idle. They too were seeking opportunities in the New World and had set up a colony on Manhattan Island by 1624. In keeping with the spirit of the times they called it New Amsterdam (now New York). The English, in the guise of the Virginia Company and the recently formed Massachusetts Bay Company had been equally busy taking more settlers across to their colonies.
Trading with the Indians was lucrative and tensions arose between the Dutch and English. Both sides had been favouring particular tribes in the hope that they would assist them in their colonial–and trade–expansion. This practice of favouritism wasn’t new as the English and the French had been doing it with the Indians further north, in modern day Canada. The Dutch had been favouring the Pequot, while the English had been favouring the Wampanoag and Mohegans (an offshoot of the Pequot).
The Pequot were a people that lived along the Thames and Mystic rivers in southeastern Connecticut[iv]. Strategically placed, and being a powerful tribe, they tried to control the colonial pelt trade among their fellow Indians. As they, and other tribes, began to become more and more dependent on colonial goods both sides–the colonialists and the Indians–began to make greater and greater demands on each other.Tensions had also been mounting over property, livestock; the steady encroachment onto Indian land coupled with the damage to Indian crops, hunting rights, the selling of alcohol to Indians, and dishonest traders.
For the colonists and the companies, the Pequot barred the way into the interior of the New World. Through coercion, diplomacy, intermarriage and confederacy with other tribes they had extended their sphere of influence[v] practically throughout Connecticut and its offshore islands. This was particular irksome to the 1000 settlers, led by John Winthrop, of the Massachusetts Bay Company that arrived in 1630. These settlers were Puritan businessmen who were primarily after financial profit in the New World. Despite initial setbacks over 20,000 settler colonists arrived over the next 10 years[vi]. With them came new diseases, particularly smallpox that took a heavy toll on the Pequot. In or around 1620 there were approximately 8,000 Pequot men, women and children. After the smallpox epidemic of 1633-4 there were approximately 4000[vii]. The disease also effected other tribes; however, the supremacy of the Pequot by the mid 1630s, became questionable.
With the Dutch in the 1620s the Pequot were able to control the pelt trade, despite many of the other tribes’ resentment. After the arrival of the Massachusetts Bay Company settlers and their pursuit of profits the situation changed dramatically. The competition for trade affected the delicate balance between the Dutch, the Pequot, and the other tribes.
The Pequot’s position, with the growing strength of the English settlers and the animosity felt towards them by other tribes, was delicate. To give themselves additional weight they looked to the Dutch for support.
For the Separatist settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Company, with memory of their living in Holland, this movement towards the Dutch would have been seen as dangerous: these Indians weren’t interested in their form of Christianity and were siding with the colonising competition. The Separatists and Anglicans also needed to consider the financial loss of pelts going to the Dutch, when they had the Virginia Company and the Massachusetts Bay Company wanting returns.
The Separatist colonists further believed they had a God given right to settle in the New World as they saw fit and to convert the heathen Indians to their form of Christianity. They saw themselves as morally, ethically, and religiously superior to the native inhabitants–even those they managed to convert. The main stumbling block to the perceived unlimited expansion of the colony and its ability to make money were the Pequot. Two events finally sealed the fate of the Pequot. The first was the killing of a trader called John Stone and his crew in the Connecticut river in 1634. The Pequot offered explanations for the deaths, for which they felt justified. This didn’t satisfy the English; however, an uneasy truce was maintained.
What opened hostilities happened on July 20th 1636 when the Pequot killed a dishonest trader names John Oldham. The colonists treated this as a threat to them all and demanded that the Pequot be punished. What worried the English settlers was that the Dutch were favouring the Pequot and that they could possibly escape English justice, and thereby, be a constant threat to the colony’s safety. Of course, with the Pequot disposed of the major barrier to the inland would be removed and the further expansion of the colonies could go ahead.
Under the command of John Endicott, Massachusetts raised a force of 90 men who went to a tribal encampment on Block Island[i]. The force killed 14 Indians then burned the village and its crops.
Not finished dispensing justice, Endicott took his men to another Pequot village in Saybrook to demand tribute. The Indians, aware of what had happened on Block Island escaped before he arrived. Endicott, frustrated by their escape, ordered the village and its crops to be burned. Perhaps knowing that the Pequot would be seeking revenge, Endicott ordered the troops to build and defend ‘Fort Saybrook’ while he returned to the colony.
The Pequot, needing allies, sent war pelts to neighbouring tribes. Unfortunately, these tribute tribes, having suffered under Pequot aggression to control the beaver trade, declined the offer to form a coalition against the English. As far as they were concerned with their beaver pelt rivals removed they could take a greater market share. Some, like the Mohegans quickly saw the opportunity and sided with the English. Alone, the Pequot took to sieging Fort Saybrook, killing anyone who tried to leave.
On May 26th 1637, a military force of settlers, with their Mohegan and other allies, under Captains John Mason and John Underhill attacked the Pequot village near New Haven, Connecticut This settlement of nearly 700 Indians was wiped out–men, women, and children were either shot, stabbed, or otherwise killed. William Bradford in his History of the Plymouth Plantation, described what he saw:
“Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatche, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and gave them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.”
The remains of the village were put to the flame as were the crops. Pequots in other villages tried to run away. Some managed to find friendly villages that accepted and assimilated them; however, most were hunted down and killed[i]. Those caught and not killed were either given to the English Indian allies as slaves or sold in the West Indies, to the sugar plantations.
The practices of the Puritans–the Separatist settlers– were strict Calvanist doctrine. They sanctioned only the Sabbath, fast days, and a Thanksgiving as holy days. Thanksgiving for them was about humility and piousness, thanking God for his providence. Particularly auspicious events such as the breaking of a drought, the end of an epidemic, or the end of a war would meet their criteria[ii] for having a Thanksgiving.
The first official ‘Day of Thanksgiving’ was proclaimed in 1637 by Massachusetts’ Governor, John Winthrop, a Puritan, to honour the victory over the Pequot indians.
Today, many Americans refer to Thanksgiving as ‘Turkey Day’. Remembering the reason for this day of celebration in 1620 when the Pilgrims feasted in brotherhood with the Wampanoag is fading away. The Pequot aren’t remembered, nor are the numerous other tribes that needed to vanish to make room for the settlers’ manifest destiny. Perhaps, the next generation of Americans will wonder why they have a public holiday to honour turkeys.
[i]. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, The Illustrated Edition, Dee Brown, Sterling Publishing 2012
[ii]. The True Story of Thanksgiving Richard Greene Huffington Post Nov 2010.
[vii]. ibid. pequotwar.org/
[vi]. Lee A Life In Virtue The Generals, John Perry, Pub: Thomas Nelson, U.S.A. p10
[vii]. Robert E. Cushman and Franklin P. Cole. Robert Cushman of Kent (1577-1625): Chief Agent of Plymouth Pilgrims (1617-1625) (pub General Society of Mayflower Descendants 2005 – 2nd Ed) Edited by Judith Swan, p. 110
[i]. Cartoon History Of The Modern World Part 1, Larry Gonick, Harper Collins