Wednesday, November 21, 2012

First Thanksgiving a study in grim attrition

'A typical English harvest feast' 

The 'first Thanksgiving' was hardly the first, according to historians on both sides of the Atlantic. The rivaled first observances were actually typical of an autumnal English custom - for boat people.

The thanks offered to Providence were held in observance of the withering attrition of previous winters. Disease, pestilence and outright exposure claimed the lives of nearly 50 percent.

A best guess of what Mayflower's 180-ton burthen was like
Of the original 102 emigrants who arrived at Plymouth on the Mayflower, 45 died during the first winter of 1620-1621. Only 4 adult women survived out of an original 18. At least one of them perished due to the perils of childbirth, according to the diarist Edward Winslow.

He remembered the 3-day feast in this way. “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together.”

The annual arrival of migratory geese and ducks was so plentiful that within a few hours, they had harvested enough in the marshes and ponds of the area to feed the entire population for the long weekend party, Mr. Winslow remembered fondly.

It was nothing new. The English had for many centuries observed the successful harvests of September and October, and in the American colonies, the charter of the Berkeley Hundred – a commercial plantation of about 8,000 acres - required an observance of its foundation day in May of 1607. Located about 20 miles upstream of Jamestown on the north bank of the river, that colony recorded its first Thanksgiving feast in 1610.

Massachusetts Bay
But that was only after native Americans had massacred the biggest part of their numbers, and the colonists withdrew to more secure grounds near Jamestown, downstream.

The grim reality at Plymouth was that a despised minority of separatists who protested the religious customs and taxations practiced by the Crown and the nobility were hounded, and ultimately exiled into a wilderness where they faced a nearly certain death by starvation and exposure - had it not been for a single factor.

As carriers of every viral load that had for many centuries swept the European continent, they unintentionally wiped out the previously unexposed native population with such common diseases as measles and smallpox. There were only about 90 of the Wampanoag tribe, the “eastern people,” or the “people of the dawn,” left to help enjoy the harvest of a crop of squash, peas, and yams they and their neighbors had planted earlier in the year.
Similarly, the new tribesmen, the surviving English settlers, moved right in to take shelter in the newly vacated housing built by the natives before they perished from diseases for which they had no immunity.

There had simply been no time to build their own.

Their benefactor, a native American slave named Squanto who had learned their language while in captivity on the auld sod, taught them how to fish and to fertilize each seed planted with the bones, guts and skin of a sea bass or a cod.

A public domain engraving from "The Pilgrim's Progress"
The traditional images and feel-good themes of Turkey Day? Chalk all that up to a highly commercial press distributed by a non-profit postal service over highly subsidized railroads that advertised over three centuries the agricultural products of a brave new world.

And them came radio.

Thanksgiving is known among historians, biologists, agronomists, epidemiologists, and economists as that most typically American holiday, fostered and promoted by growers, shippers, grocers, advertising agents, publishers, and broadcasters.

The turkey?

A domesticated shadow of its wild species, bred and grown to serve as a loss leader in a market of trimmings that includes everything from the kerosene it takes to catch the sky chariot and get over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house, to the computers and big screen televisions importers air freight into big box distributorships so consumers can keep up with the game results of that most corporate form of ritual combat ever played by professionals and their farm teams, the land grant universities – football.

With apologies to Howard Zinn, et. al. - The Legendary

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