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Thanksgiving's story retold, without history's gloss
"For me," says Nathaniel Philbrick, "Thanksgiving has always been the best, most fun family holiday."
Tobias Vanderhoop participates in a celebration of Wampanoag culture. Photo by Alan Brigish
"Mayflower" shines a historian's light on the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. It also places the early adventures of the settlers in the context of a larger story that most of us weren't taught in school - the tenuous peace between settlers and Native Americans that lasted for two generations before disintegrating, in the 1670s, into what was arguably the bloodiest conflict in our nation's history, King Philip's War.
Beyond the myths
"Writing this book," he says, "I tried to look at both the native and English sides as people, rather than stereotypes. I was trying to recreate a sense of history as it's lived, rather than subsequent generations' judgment of how that unfolded."
Author describes an unadorned first Thanksgiving
Following are excerpts from Nantucket author Nathaniel Philbrick's book, "Mayflower," an account of the voyage of the Mayflower, the settlement of Plymouth Colony and the savage conflict known as King Philip's War that ended years of relative peace between colonists and natives.
"We do not know the exact date of the celebration we now call the First Thanksgiving, but it was probably in late September or early October, soon after their crop of corn, squash, beans, barley, and peas had been harvested. It was also a time during which Plymouth Harbor played host to a tremendous number of migrating birds, particularly ducks and geese, and Bradford ordered four men to go out "fowling." It took only a few hours for Plymouth's hunters to kill enough ducks and geese to feed the settlement for a week. Now that they had "gathered the fruit of our labors," Bradford declared it time to "rejoice together ... after a more special manner."
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from MAYFLOWER by Nathaniel Philbrick.
But he insists, "I didn't set out with this book to debunk the Pilgrims. I set out to discover, as best I could, what happened."
What Mr. Philbrick found is that while the popular version of the Thanksgiving story contains kernels of truth, most of the details we learned in school are inaccurate.
In "Mayflower," Mr. Philbrick writes: "Countless Victorian-era engravings notwithstanding, the Pilgrims did not spend the day sitting around a long table draped with a white linen cloth, clasping each other's hands in prayer as a few curious Indians looked on." In fact, the Native Americans at that first Thanksgiving vastly outnumbered the English; the main course, provided by the Indians, was not turkey but venison, and most of the celebrants squatted around outdoor fires, eating with their fingers.
Of all the hokum we were taught about the Pilgrims in school, the most misleading is the notion that they sailed here seeking a place where everyone could worship God in their own way. In fact, as Mr. Philbrick points out, the Pilgrims (who referred to themselves as "Saints") were filled with a terrible certainty, fleeing England to impose their own narrow orthodoxy. Settlers who strayed from the doctrines of Governor William Bradford were punished - even executed - for their heresy.
Writes Mr. Philbrick: "It seems never to have occurred to the Pilgrims that this was just the kind of intolerant attitude that had forced them to leave England. For them, it was not a question of liberty and freedom - these concepts, so near and dear to their descendants in the following century, were completely alien to their worldview - but rather a question of right and wrong."
But while our popular images of the Pilgrims and their Thanksgiving feast may be wrong, Mr. Philbrick makes it clear that in the autumn of 1621, the settlers at Plymouth had much to be thankful for. He writes:
"Eleven months earlier the Pilgrims had arrived at the tip of Cape Cod, fearful and uninformed. They had spent the next months alienating and angering every Native American they happened to come across. By all rights, none of the Pilgrims should have emerged from the first winter alive."
That the Pilgrims survived was largely because Chief Massasoit, leader of the Pokanokets (later to be known as the Wampanoags), offered them life-saving assistance, and a relationship of engagement and mutual support was formed between settlers and Indians that lasted for nearly 50 years.
A Wampanoag perspective
Tobias Vanderhoop, a culture bearer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), travels the country giving educational programs, one of which presents the Wampanoag perspective on the festival of Thanksgiving.
"Mainly, when I'm giving a lecture," he says, "I'm trying to get people to understand that the story most of us were taught in school isn't the factual event that happened back then. The Wampanoags weren't invited to dinner that day for a great, big, happy celebration. I want people to understand that when they scratch the surface of this story and dig a little bit deeper, they're going to be surprised at all that's been left out."
In his own tribe's tradition, Mr. Vanderhoop says, giving thanks is too important to fit into any single day of the year:
"Whether it's a harvest time, or the time of the solstice, the change of the seasons, traditionally we have had celebrations that involve being thankful and showing appreciation to our Creator for providing crops, or natural things that have grown, or offering thanksgiving at the solstice that the light is going to come back. We have times set aside for thanks all through the year."
Mr. Vanderhoop says that when he finishes a lecture on Thanksgiving, audiences often ask how he celebrates the holiday, knowing what he knows.
"Actually," he says, "this is a question I get all the time in my travels: When a myth is broken, what do we do? Do we just stop celebrating? But why should we - I mean, if we're going to be given a holiday where we can have time and go spend it with our families, and we can literally do what the holiday was intended for, which is be thankful?"
There are many perspectives on Thanksgiving in the larger Native American community, Mr. Vanderhoop says. "There are some who won't observe the mainstream holiday, because of the absence of accuracy in the history behind it. In fact, so many things have happened to our people over time that some of us use that day to reflect on our history."
As for his own Thanksgiving plans, Mr. Vanderhoop says, "I'll watch football, maybe play some football outside, have dinner with my family. And when we get together, we will have a time where, before we eat, we all talk about being thankful for what we have. Sometimes it's no more than being thankful that we're all together that day. So we still celebrate, but I think you also have an obligation, once you know the truth, to share that as well."
Nathaniel Philbrick says it wasn't until he was finishing his work on "Mayflower" that he began to realize how his history of the 1600s speaks to our nation's current issues. "In the process of writing a book," he says, "I'm so immersed in the primary documents, I'm so swimming in it, that I don't know quite where I am. For me, the epilogue is the time when I sort of ask, okay, what happened here?
"I began writing this as the Iraq war was just beginning to unfold. It wasn't really a conscious part of my process then. But when I hit the epilogue and looked back, I began to go, Wow. I mean, when the English are so frustrated that they can't find Philip, the leader of the Pokanokets, what do they do? - They attack the Narragansetts!
"I remember thinking when Bush was preparing to attack Iraq, well, they must know something we don't, because this seems pretty shaky. Because why would you do this? - It doesn't make any sense. But then I work my way through King Philip's War, and I think, oh, so this is how it works."
Mr. Philbrick pauses and seems to catch himself.
"Hey, it's dangerous to look at the past through the present. But you know, there are dynamics of human behavior that are timeless. And when you're gripped by fear and anger, people do have this tendency - we call it racial profiling now. It's a matter of fear for your own survival."
As Mr. Philbrick explains near the end of his book, the American tradition of Thanksgiving was born in one of the nation's darkest moments. It was in October of 1863 that Abraham Lincoln issued his proclamation formalizing the holiday, setting aside the last Thursday of November as "a day of Thanksgiving and Praise."
The year had seen terrible carnage: The three bloodiest battles of the Civil War, at Gettysburg, at Chicamauga and at Chancellorsville, had claimed more than a hundred thousand lives. It was in this moment, speaking to what Mr. Philbrick calls "the public need for a restorative myth of national origins," that Lincoln created the Thanksgiving holiday - "a cathartic celebration of nationhood," he writes, "that would have baffled and probably appalled the godly Pilgrims."
To know the facts of that first celebration in the fall of 1621, and to understand the moment, two and a half centuries later, when Thanksgiving became an American holiday, is to appreciate what the author David Mendelsohn calls "the eternal tension between what happened and the story of what happened."
Says Mr. Philbrick: "So okay, yes, the first Thanksgiving wasn't the way we were taught in third grade. But you know, there's something very interesting about the fact that in this one-year period, the Pilgrims have done everything wrong - they really had no reason to survive that first winter. But Massasoit sees them - and it's not out of the generosity of his heart, but he sees this as a way to help his own people - and he forms this alliance. And there was this festival - something happened, and apparently a fun time was had by all, with plenty of venison provided by the Wampanoags. And given where everyone had come from - three years of terrible epidemics for the Native Americans, the year from hell for the Pilgrims - we have this moment. And I think it does speak to our better selves."
Finally, setting the mere facts of the story aside, two themes give Thanksgiving its enduring resonance: the idea of good-will among diverse cultures and the importance of gratitude. At Thanksgiving, we celebrate the ideal of harmony that our nation has not yet achieved but still holds high. And we acknowledge the truth that G.K. Chesterton put so well: "When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude."
Having studied their history, Mr. Philbrick says he has a new appreciation for all that the people of New England endured in the early 1600s, on all sides.
"When I think about all of this," he says, "I have a hard time articulating what I'm feeling. But thanksgiving isn't a bad term. There is a still point, with all of the tragedy and furor around it. And maybe the most we can hope for is to find that still point."
Nis Kildegaard lives in Edgartown. He is a writer and editor, and the former long-time news editor of the Vineyard Gazette. He is a frequent contributor to The Times.