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  • 6 Oct 2021 4:00 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Who was at the First Thanksgiving?

    Who was at the first Thanksgiving?  Of the Pilgrims, the number included 22 men, four married women — including Edward Winslow’s new wife — and more than 25 children and teenagers. These were the ones who had made it through the epidemic of disease that swept through the colony the previous winter. Some 78 percent of the women who had arrived on the Mayflower had died, a far higher percentage than for men or children.  I am regularly astonished at the imbalance, and how four women (with help, presumably, from some of the younger folk) could feed about 150 people over three days.  The men, we are told, engaged in military exercises, which is probably the seventeenth century equivalent of watching football.  The other surprise is the number of at least 90 Indian warriors -- this does not look like a friendly visit, and there is nothing in the stories to indicate that their arrival was anticipated.  What was such a large army -- probably most of the Pokanoket men -- doing in Plymouth?  My speculations on that tomorrow.

     
  • 5 Oct 2021 3:50 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    What was the First Thanksgiving?

    Nearly all of what historians have learned about the first Thanksgiving comes from a single eyewitness report: a letter written on 12 December 1621 by Edward Winslow, and brought back to England on the Fortune: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

    William Bradford passes over the celebration almost completely; he wrote over twenty years after the fact, and does not mention any specific celebration, but does give thanks for the bounty they enjoyed.

    And that is about all we know from anyone who was there.  It appears that this was a harvest festival, with thanksgiving to God in part for their survival and in part for the bounty of the harvest.  There does not seem to be any intention to make this an annual commemoration, or any sign that this was, in fact, repeated later (for example, neither records this as the “first” time, suggesting that it happened again).

  • 4 Oct 2021 3:43 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    When was the First Thanksgiving?

    There are numerous celebrations this year of the four hundredth anniversary of the “first Thanksgiving,” and many of them are thinly veiled substitutes for cancelled celebrations of the arrival of the Pilgrims in November 1620.  But, leading up to the celebration of Thanksgiving next weekend (at least in Canada), I think it appropriate to look at what we can glean of that first event.  This holiday has sparked so much controversy in recent years, that one has to think twice before even calling it a celebration.  Political activists have made the approval or the rejection of the holiday a litmus test for acceptability.  And I am well and truly tired of hearing what everyone “was taught in school” -- which, in almost every case, seems to be what the speaker wishes he or she had been taught in school, to fit in with either their current personal grievance or reverence.  But what can we get from the sources themselves?

    The first question, and the one most easily answered, is when the first Thanksgiving was.  We know that it took place before the arrival of the Fortune (remember them?  They have been on that ship for three months now, and they still have another month to go before they arrive in Plymouth) in the middle of November 1621.  The harvest itself, which produced the bounty spoken of in yesterday’s post, would have started in mid to late September.  In addition to this, the arrival of the Fortune almost doubled the population of the colony of New Plymouth, and everyone was promptly put on half rations, so the celebration, for such it was, must have taken place while they still had something to celebrate.  The Canadian celebration of Thanksgiving as the second Monday in October, while it really has no explicit connection to Plymouth or the Pilgrims, may be fairly close to the timing of the 1621 event.  The November date in the United States has more to do with Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation during the War Between the States, and the timing of the Christmas shopping season, than it does with any memory of the “First Thanksgiving.”

  • 3 Oct 2021 3:33 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    “All Summer no Want”

    The Pilgrim chroniclers recorded, “All the Summer no Want: while some were Trading, others were Fishing Cod, Bass, &c  We now gather in our Harvest: and as Cold Weather advances, come in Store of Water Fowl, wherewith this Place abounds; tho' afterwards they by Degrees decrease; as also abundance of Wild Turkies with Venison, &c.  Fit out Houses against Winter, are in Health and have all Things in Plenty.”

  • 2 Oct 2021 3:15 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Several comments arising from last week’s trip:

    1. The Pilgrims expressed no surprise that there was a female leader (“squaw sachem or Massachusetts queen”) of the tribes, as they were perfectly used to having a female ruler.  Various political activists have asserted, without any reference or source, that the Pilgrims could not have “wrapped their minds around” the possibility of a woman in authority, when in fact their experience in England, Scotland, and the Netherlands had included several woman rulers as queens and regents in the previous century.  The fact that the Pilgrims despised Elizabeth I had much more to do with her theology and churchmanship (being, they thought, a crypto-papist) than with her being a woman.

    2. The Pilgrims’ actions not only brought peace to the region for the first time in living memory -- and the memory of the natives was notoriously long -- but enabled the warring tribes to live together in harmony, which had not been the case for hundreds of years.  Native American society was just as warlike as any other in human history. The activists’ vision of Native Americans as peace-pipe-smoking environmentalists which gained purchase in the 1970s has long since given way to a more Hobbesian portrait of pre-Columbian reality. In North America, most Natives were primitive farmers. This means that (with some exceptions) they had no permanent settlements: they farmed in an area for a few decades until the soil got tired, before moving on to greener pastures where the hunting was better and the lands more fertile. This meant that tribes were in constant conflict with other tribes. It also meant that chiefs were continually vying for power, creating confederations under themselves, and that the question of who owned the land was in a more or less constant state of flux. In most of North America, the idea that any one piece of land belonged to any one tribe, for more than 50 or 100 years, is therefore highly questionable. In short, if you looked at a map of Native America or Canada 200 years before Europeans arrived, it would have been entirely different.  In the meantime, some groups of natives slaughtered, bullied or, yes, enslaved other natives, whenever they were strong enough.  That ended, rather suddenly, when the Pilgrims arrived, because the balance of power shifted suddenly and permanently.

    3. It appears that the starving Pilgrims’ actions at Corn Hill last December, taking the corn they found because they had run out of food, were not at all unusual, or limited to the Pilgrims.  What was unusual was that the Pilgrims eventually paid for the corn.

  • 1 Oct 2021 3:19 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    If only they had known …

    Since the travellers were now running out of food, the wind was fair, and there was a full moon, “we set out at evening and, through the goodness of God, came safely home before noon” today, after sailing all night.  “Within this bay the savages say there are two rivers; the one whereof we saw, having a fair entrance, but we had no time to discover it. Better harbors for shipping cannot be than here are. At the entrance of the bay are many rocks; and in all likelihood very good fishing ground.”  They reported back to Plymouth that there was a considerable “Quantity of Bever, and a good Report of the Place, wishing we had been seated There.”  But, given the events of the previous year, it was immediately agreed that it was too late now to pick up and move.  The site would be occupied nine years later by John Winthrop and the Puritans of the Great Migration, where they would build their “city on a hill.”

  • 30 Sep 2021 3:09 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Encounter with the Massachusets

    After another sleepless night, all but two of the travellers went ashore, and marched in arms for about three miles up into the country. They came to a place where corn had been newly gathered, a house pulled down, while all the people were gone. Winslow recorded that “a mile from hence, Nanepashemet, their king, in his life-time had lived. His house was not like others, but a scaffold was largely built, with poles and planks some six feet from ground, and the house upon that, being situated on the top of a hill.  Not far from hence, in a bottom, we came to a fort built by their deceased king, the manner thus; there were poles some thirty or forty feet long, stuck in the ground as thick as they could be set one by another, and with these they enclosed a ring some forty or fifty feet over. A trench breast high was digged on each side; one way there was to go into it with a bridge; in the midst of this palisade stood the frame of a house wherein, being dead, he lay buried.”

    About a mile further, the travellers came to another platform surrounded by a trench, but this time it was seated on the top of a hill:  “here Nanepashemet was killed, none dwelling in it since the time of his death.  At this place we stayed, and sent two savages to look the inhabitants, and to inform them of our ends in coming, that they might not be fearful of us: within a mile of this place they found the women of the place together, with their corn on heaps, whither we supposed them to be fled for fear of us, and the more, because in divers places they had newly pulled down their houses, and for haste in one place had left some of their corn covered with a mat, and nobody with it.”

    The women entertained the Englishmen at first with great fear, “but seeing our gentle carriage towards them, they took heart and entertained us in the best manner they could, boiling cod and such other things as they had for us. At length, with much sending for, came one of their men, shaking and trembling for fear. But when he saw we intended them no hurt, but came to truck [trade], he promised us his skins also. Of him we inquired for their queen, but it seemed she was far from thence—at least we could not see her.”

    “Here Tisquantum would have had us rifle the savage women, and taken their skins and all such things as might be serviceable for us; for (said he) they are a bad people, and have oft threatened you:   But our answer was; were they never so bad, we would not wrong them, or give them any just occasion against us:  for their words, we little weighed them, but if they once attempted anything against us, then we would deal far worse than he desired.”  This is the first record of suspicion that Winslow notes about the possibility that Squanto had a “hidden agenda,” and was manipulating the English settlers.

    Having spent the day in exploration, the travellers returned to the shallop, this time almost all the native women “accompanying us to truck, who sold their coats from their backs, and tied boughs about them, but with great shamefacedness (for indeed they are more modest than some of our English women are). We promised them to come again to them, and they us, to keep their skins.”

  • 29 Sep 2021 2:56 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Sachem on the run

    The travellers slept in the boat last night, and then went ashore. There they found a pile of lobsters “that had been gathered together by the savages, which we made ready under a cliff.  The captain set two sentinels behind the cliff to the landward to secure the shallop, and taking a guide with him and four of our company, went to seek the inhabitants; where they met a woman coming for her lobsters, they told her of them, and contented her for them.” She told them where the local Massachuset natives were; “Tisquantum went to them; the rest returned, having direction which way to bring the shallop to them.  The sachem, or governor of this place, is called Obbatinewat, and though he lives in the bottom of the Massachusetts Bay, yet he is under Massasoit.” He treated the visitors very kindly, but explained to them that he was scared, on the run, and “durst not then remain in any settled place, for fear of the Tarantines.”  The “Tarantines” were later identified as the Abnakis, who controlled all the land from Casco Bay (in what is now Maine) up to New Brunswick.  This was a hard place to grow crops, so in the fall they headed south to steal corn: it appears that the starving Pilgrims’ actions at Corn Hill last December were not at all unusual, or limited to the Pilgrims.  Obbatinewat was also afraid of “the Squaw Sachem, or Massachusets queen,” another enemy who was after him. “We told him of divers sachems that had acknowledged themselves to be King James his men, and if he also would submit himself, we would be his safeguard from his enemies, which he did, and went along with us to bring us to the Squaw Sachem. Again we crossed the bay, which is very large and hath at least fifty islands in it; but the certain number is not known to the inhabitants.”  Some islands had been cleared and recently inhabited, although the people had either died or moved away.   It was dark before they arrived at the other side of the bay where the squaw sachem was supposed to be; the Indians went ashore to see if anyone was there, but they found no one.  “That night also we rode at anchor aboard the shallop,” safe but uncomfortable.

  • 28 Sep 2021 3:23 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Are we there yet?

    Winslow (in Mourt’s Relation) writes that “We set out about midnight, the tide then serving for us; we supposing it to be nearer than it is, thought to be there the next morning betimes:  but it proved well near twenty leagues from New Plymouth.  We came into the bottom of the bay [which we now know as Boston Harbour], but being late we anchored and lay in the shallop, not having seen any of the people.”

  • 27 Sep 2021 3:21 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Envoys to the Massachusetts

    Although the Pilgrims had frequently been told by their Indian allies that the Massachusetts were often threatening them, “yet we should go amongst them, partly to see the country, partly to make peace with them, and partly to procure their trucks [trading products, esp. furs].  For these ends the governors chose ten men fit for the purpose, and sent Tisquantum and two other savages to bring us to speech with the people, and interpret for us” to go in the shallop (Mourt’s Relation).

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