Review: The First Thanksgiving by Nathaniel Philbrick
Nathaniel Philbrick is a renowned popular historian, perhaps best known for In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Essex (1999), the true story of the shipwreck that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (2010).
In this selection from his 2007 book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, reprinted as a mini e-book in the “Penguin Tracks” series, Philbrick tells the true story behind the first Thanksgiving. As with most beloved legends, the circumstances are much more complicated and much less rosy than they appear in our collective memory.
Indeed, Philbrick begins with a rather disturbing vignette from 1676, when the Seaflower left Cape Cod for the Caribbean, carrying a cargo of 180 Native American slaves. This was just over 50 years after the Thanksgiving feast sealed a bond of friendship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans: what went wrong? In fact, in 1675 King Philip’s War (Philip was the son of Massasoit, a Wampanoag leader who met the Pilgrims in 1621), between the colonists and the native population, killed many more people, percentage-wise, than either the Civil War or the Revolutionary War.
After this troubling anecdote and potted history of a forgotten war, Philbrick turns to his main topic: the Pilgrims’ settlement in the early 1620s. There had been one (failed) attempt at colonization on Plymouth Rock before; the new batch of settlers were greeted by the grisly sight of bleached skulls peeking out of the ground. It then took them two weeks to build the first structure, a thatched “common house” or “earthfast.”
Some of the early colonists whose names have passed into history are Miles Standish, a Dutch-educated town planner and military captain, and William Bradford, who became the settlement’s second governor after the first one died. Two to three people were dying every month, and there was a constant fear of Indian attack. Bradford was one of many widowers; in that day the average gap before remarrying was just three months – there was no time to waste on grief here, so close to the edge of survival.
One cold day the people were greeted by a native man, naked except for a buckskin loincloth around his waist, with words that have now passed into legend: “Welcome, Englishmen!” This was Samoset – or perhaps they misheard his English name, “Somerset” – and the Pilgrims’ interaction with the Native Americans, including the English-Massachusett interpreter, Squanto, meant that they began to trust them. Squanto also taught them methods of Indian agriculture, including scattering dead herrings over fields as fertilizer.
The Pilgrims agreed a peace treaty with Massasoit, promising not to harm any of his people and to come to his aid in case of attack; when Massasoit was later captured by the Narragansetts, this meant that the colonists were technically at war. A show of force against some of the other native sachems (chiefs) persuaded nine more tribes to join in Massasoit’s treaty of loyalty to King James.
Philbrick writes in an informative yet conversational style, and paints an appealing picture of the Pilgrims as reasonable people with humble aims: “It would be left to others to transform this place into the ‘city on a hill’ called Boston. The Pilgrims’ ambitions were more modest. They were quite content with a village by a brook.”
The first Thanksgiving itself probably took place in late September or early October of 1621, when the autumnal color would have been at its peak. The celebration would have had most in common with traditional English harvest festivals. More than 100 Native Americans arrived along with Massasoit, thus outnumbering the Pilgrim population 2:1. The feast would have included fowl, deer, and fish; there was no pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, or even forks in those days!
So this vision of Thanksgiving is both similar and different to what we think of today: we have the cozy interracial friendship, the fall beauty, and the bountiful spread of hearty foods; however, this is not the storybook image of natives and settlers joining hands in prayer around a groaning, cloth-spread table. Most people probably grabbed a piece of a carcass and sat on rocks or on the ground, eating with their hands. It is an altogether more wild and uncivilized scene than we like to imagine. And, of course, as Philbrick hints with his opening scene, this alliance of friendship would break down within the half-century.
The excerpt even ends on something of a cliffhanger: Squanto, “the interpreter from Patuxet[,] had already launched a plan to become the most powerful Indian leader in New England.” (And you didn’t think history could be gripping!) Philbrick has the knack for making inevitable narratives feel fresh and uncertain; especially when reading In the Heart of the Sea, you will feel like you’re reading a modern thriller rather than a history book.
And with that, I wish a happy Thanksgiving to all! To those readers not in the United States, enjoy a wonderful meal in the company of friends anyway, and use it as an opportunity to reflect with gratitude on the past year.
A couple of novels I would recommend on the theme of native-colonial friendship are Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (about the first Native American to attend Harvard) and The Potter’s Hand by A.N. Wilson.