Thanksgiving will soon be upon us again. This one is the 400th anniversary of the first feast between the Pokanoket people and the newly arrived English settlers. The version of this encounter we’ve taught school children for generations is a bit truncated and lopsided, but there really was a three-day feast in Plymouth, MA back in the fall of 1621.
To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the event, the Sowams Heritage Organization is hosting a free event Sunday, November 7 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Mount Hope Farm in Rhode Island. Without the help of the Natives in the area, it is highly doubtful we’d ever have known about this harvest day of thanks among the English.
The English were so excited to have a successful harvest, they set aside a day to give thanks for surviving and having food going into their second winter. Various illnesses had put forty-five of the Mayflower passengers in graves the previous winter. As their second winter approached they had shelter and food. It was time to give thanks. As part of their thanksgiving celebration, the men paraded about, shooting off their muskets. The four surviving adult women set about preparing the grant feast .
Natives to the Rescue
When the Natives heard the Englishmen firing muskets, they rushed to the new Plimoth Plantation to see if the English were in trouble. Only a few months earlier, in March of 1621, the great Pokanoket leader, Massasoit Ousa Mequin had called on the new settlers. When he saw them building shelters and planting a garden he was concerned. He’d had experience with earlier Europeans who came to the area to hunt and trade. Some of those encounters gave him reason for great concern about these people who apparently planned to stay.
An earlier English ship master had kidnapped over two dozen native young men, intending to sell them into slavery in Spain. One of them, Tisquantum, dodged the slave auction and wound up in London, where he lived in a trade merchant’s home and learned English. Tisquantum returned to find his home village abandoned, due to a pandemic that swept through the area shortly before the English arrived. On their third exploration trip the English settlers selected that very spot to establish Plimoth Plantation.
Hospitality over Hostility
The pandemic that eradicated Tisquantum’s village claimed the lives of over two-thirds of the Native population in the area. None-the-less, the Pokanokets, along with other Native groups in the area, outnumbered the English. Massasoit Ousa Mequin and his men could have easily overcome the English in their weakened condition. However, the great Massasoit had enemies among other Native groups. He decided a better plan was to befriend the English and solicit their support.
He approached the English to work out the terms of a treaty. That treaty stipulated that if either group was in trouble, the other would come to their aid. Thus, when some of his men heard the muskets, they incorrectly concluded the English were under attack and rushed in to help.
The Famous Feast
When they learned the English were not in danger, but rather joyous about their first successful harvest, the Natives left. They rounded up additional food to contribute to the celebration, and returned with a crowd of nearly ninety of their friends and families, outnumbering the English by nearly two to one.
It must have been quite an event. Communication would have surely been challenging, since only a few Natives spoke passable English and even fewer of the English knew any of the Algonquin language. I suspect there was a lot of pantomime and pointing involved as they tried to communicate with one another. Apparently they figured it out because the feast lasted for three days, with the Natives camping nearby at night and the English retreating to their new modest cottages.
Our Time to Give Thanks
We know all about pandemics as we soon mark our second Thanksgiving dealing with a lethal virus. A kidnapping, pandemic, and treaty set the stage for our modern Thanksgiving tradition. THANK YOU to all of you who have been on the front line for nearly two full years fighting this modern pandemic. May we replicate the Natives’ attitude of hospitality toward today’s desperate immigrants. May we muster the Pilgrims’ faith, trust, and determination to overcome obstacles and pause to give thanks.
Happy 400th Thanksgiving anniversary one and all.
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