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Monday, November 24, 2008

Thanksgiving history

We have much to be thankful for. When our world crumbles around us, we still have things to be thankful for. The Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in the winter. They were aided by the Wampanoag tribe members. But they weren't the most pleasant guests. The resident Indians were recovering from the the devastation of the plague. Squanto was the last surviving member of his tribe. The Pilgrims survived on corn buried by the recently killed tribes. The plague changed everything. I highly recommend this link. I am quoting liberally from it but there is more to be had there by James W. Loewen.
The Black Plague does provide a useful introduction, however. Black (or bubonic) Plague "was undoubtedly the worst disaster that has ever befallen mankind." In three years it killed 30 percent of the population of Europe. Catastrophic as it was, the disease itself comprised only part of the horror. Thinking the day of judgment was imminent, farmers failed to plant crops. Many people gave themselves over to alcohol. Civil and economic disruption may have caused as much death as the disease itself...in 1617, just before the Pilgrims landed, the process started in southern New England. A plague struck that made the Black Death pale by comparison.

Everyone knew all about the plague in colonial America. Even before the Mayflower sailed, King James of England gave thanks to "Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us," for sending "this wonderful plague among the savages."


With minimal natural resistance to the diseases of Europe and Africa, Indians were no longer an "obstacle" to the European expansion.

Today we think it was the bubonic plague, although pox and influenza are also candidates. British fishermen had been fishing off Massachusetts for decades before the Pilgrims landed. After filling their hulls with cod, they would set forth on land to get firewood and fresh water and perhaps capture a few Indians to sell into slavery in Europe. On one of these expeditions they probably transmitted the illness to the people they met. Whatever it was, within three years this plague wiped out between 90 percent and 96 percent of the inhabitants of southern New England. The Indian societies lay devastated. Only "the twentieth person is scarce left alive," wrote British eyewitness Robert Cushman, describing a death rate unknown in all previous human experience. Unable to cope with so many corpses, survivors fled to the next tribe, carrying the infestation with them, so that Indians died who had never seen a white person. Simpson tells what the Pilgrims saw:

The summer after the Pilgrims landed, they sent two envoys on a diplomatic mission to treat with Massasoit, a famous chief encamped some 40 miles away at what is now Warren, Rhode Island. The envoys discovered and described a scene of absolute havoc. Villages lay in ruins because there was no one to tend them. The ground was strewn with the skulls and the bones of thousands of Indians who had died and none was left to bury them.


During the next fifteen years, additional epidemics, most of which we know to have been smallpox, struck repeatedly. Europeans caught smallpox and the other maladies, to be sure, but most recovered, including, in a later century, the "heavily pockmarked George Washington." Indians usually died. Therefore, almost as profound as their effect on Indian demographics was the impact of the epidemics on the two cultures, European and Indian. The English Separatists, already seeing their lives as part of a divinely inspired morality play, inferred that they had God on their side. John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, called the plague "miraculous." To a friend in England in 1634, he wrote:

But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the small pox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not fifty, have put themselves under our protect....


Many Indians likewise inferred that their God had abandoned them. Cushman, our British eyewitness, reported that "those that are left, have their courage much abated, and their countenance is dejected, and they seem as a people affrighted." After all, neither they nor the Pilgrims had access to the germ theory of disease. Indian healers offered no cure, their religion no explanation. That of the whites did. Like the Europeans three centuries before them, many Indians surrendered to alcohol or began to listen to Christianity.


There is irony not to be missed here. Please review the first quote above.

These epidemics constituted perhaps the most important single geopolitical event of the first third of the 1600s, anywhere on the planet. They meant that the British would face no real Indian challenge for their first fifty years in America. Indeed, the plague helped cause the legendary warm reception Plymouth enjoyed in its first formative years from the Wampanoags. Massasoit needed to ally with the Pilgrims because the plague had so weakened his villages that he feared the Narragansetts to the west...


I've written about this before. The book Mayflower by Nathanael Philbrick, which I reviewed previously was very helpful on this front.

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...


Yes, they were graverobbers. They did this in many places. But hunger overcomes conventions.

An early Massachusetts colonist, Colonel Thomas Aspinwall, advises us not to settle for this whitewash of feel - good - history.

"It is painful to advert to these things. But our forefathers, though wise, pious, and sincere, were nevertheless, in respect to Christian charity, under a cloud; and, in history, truth should be held sacred, at whatever cost."

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 Israelites also celebrated harvest feasts. It's common worldwide and in world history. We are not unique. We are all thankful for how God has provided for us. Let's not elevate white history at the expense of non-white history though.

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