Thursday, November 27, 2014

The First Thanksgiving

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The First Thanksgiving by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris
Before European settlement of the New World, New England was populated by a relatively large number of Indians (more than 100,000) of diverse tribes, most engaged in farming to some extent or another and, contrary to popular belief, well versed in concepts of private property rights--they could identify precisely the plots of land that belonged to each farmer. Giovanni da Verrazzano left on an expedition in 1523 to try and find a norther route to the Pacific Ocean. Sailing north along New England, he reported that the coastline was everywhere densely populated.

Although the Indians successfully kept the Europeans from colonizing New England, they did engage in trading. By 1610, Britain alone had some 200 vessels operating off Newfoundland and New England. And it was not just the Europeans--Indians had learned to sale European style vessels and accounted for a great deal of the coastal trade. However, the Indians would not permit permanent settlements, or even lengthy stays, using force, if necessary, to drive off the Europeans. (It would be a misconception to believe that the Europeans had superior weapons--most were unpracticed in using their firearms, and the range, accuracy and rate of fire of the European firearms was far inferior to the Native American bows).

In 1614, a raid by an English trader (the one described below) enraged the Indians, who vowed to not let any more Europeans land on their shore. In 1616, the Indians captured a group of French sailors that had shipwrecked. All but 5 were killed in a battle. A surviving sailor warned the Indians that God would destroy them. The Indians scoffed, but the sailor was right--the sailors carried a disease (probably viral hepatitis A). The Indians died in the thousands, turning the New England coast into a charnel house. The pestilence lasted 3 years, killing an estimated 90% of the native coastal people.

On March 22, 1621, a delegation of Indians approached the Plymouth settlement. At the head of the party was Massasoit, the secham (a political and military leader) of the Wampanoag confederation; Samoset, the sachem of an allied group; and Tisquantum ("Squanto"), a Wampanoag prisoner/slave brought along as a translator because he spoke fluent English. Massasoit sought a military alliance against another Indian confederation--the Narragansett. Such an alliance would have been unthinkable not so many years earlier, but the Wampanoag had been decimated by disease. The Wampanoag had been particularly hard hit by the disease, and it was all Massasoit could do to hold his people together, and they were threatened by the Narragansett who had survived untouched by the epidemic. In fact, the Pilgrims had settled in an empty village--the very village from which Tisquantum had hailed.

Tisquantum spoke fluent English because he had lived for several years in England. Years earlier, about 1614, Tisquantum had been abducted by European traders that took him to Spain. There, because slavery of the Indians was frowned upon by the Catholic Church which considered them to be fully human, he was set free. He journeyed north through Europe before arriving in England where he hoped to catch a ship back to New England. It took several years, and many misadventures, but Tisquantum finally reached his native lands only to find his entire people dead from disease. After this first meeting, he lived the rest of his life among the Pilgrims.

Tisquantum was vital to the Pilgrim's survival. The English colonists were woefully unprepared for life in the New World, and ignorant of farming. Tisquantum showed the colonists how to plant corn, beans, and squash together, and to use fish as fertilizer. (Ironically, Tisquantum probably picked up the latter technique during his travels in Europe--there is no evidence that Indians used the technique, although it was well known in parts of Europe). By fall, the Pilgrims' situation had improved to such an extent that they held a feast of Thanksgiving. Massasoit, accompanied by two score warriors, attended.

Massasoit stratagem succeeded in the short term--his people were not overrun by the Narragansett. But his alliance with the Pilgrims permitted the first permanent European settlement in New England--the first of many. The Indian population never recovered from the pestilence--the Narragansett were themselves devastated by smallpox in 1633--and eventually the Europeans expanded their settlements until they outnumbered the Indians.

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