Get one myth out of your head right now – that the Puritans up in Plymouth Rock ever had a happy gathering around the table. With anyone, least of all the Native Americans.
For the record, they called themselves “Separatists” and even something as innocuous as a Wednesday night dinner was a horribly scripted social set piece where how much God loved you was reckoned your social status. That, in turn, determined where you sat at the communal table. Here we have a social/religious convention that makes every single person in the community, save one, feel inferior and therefore less loved by his maker every time you sit down for some porridge. This is in stark contrast to modern thanksgivings where it’s anyone’s game who is made to feel inferior.
To combat this, even the those at the dullest end of the table thought themselves superior to the natives. Given the track record of white people in the New World, this assumption of superiority was a stunning feat of mental gymnastics.
Way back in 1607, down in Jamestown, Captain John Smith decided that the everyone would get a lot better if the townies just learned the King’s English. He presented his proposal to Wahunsunacock (aka Great Powhatan), the chief of the Powhatans, who thought a sensible reply was the symbolic gesture of beating Smith’s brains out on a flat rock. Fortunately for Smith, Great Powhatan’s ten-year-old daughter, Pocahontas, was given to disruptive and romantic whims. Actually, Pocahontas was a nickname meaning “little flirt.” Her formal name was Matoaka, which hardly matters now. She threw herself on Smith and saved his life. Or at least that’s the way Smith told it. (About 10 years earlier, he told a similar story where he was saved by a Magyar princess while serving in Hungary, so there we are.)
It is hard to judge the sincerity of the liberalism of rich men’s children but Pocahontas appears to be the real deal. She not only saved Smith from having his brains beaten out, but she saved Jamestown from starvation. She felt a real sympathy for the English, but “superior” is almost certainly not the word she’d have used to describe these strange people who were afraid of drinking water or bathing in it. Their attempt to get to the southern half of the eastern hemisphere landed them in the northern half of the western one. From there they started looking for a shiny but otherwise useless metal that none of the Indians had ever heard of. Then, while unable to feed themselves, they seemed hell bent and determined to show the natives how life was lived.
Pocahontas was a naïve girl with a good heart, which is how she wound up being held hostage in Henricus, a less swampy alternative to Jamestown. John Rolfe, Virginia’s first tobacco planter, found Pocahontas very attractive and, as a hostage she wasn’t doing anything else on Tuesdays, took to wooing her. In 1614, he married the girl and in 1616 and they sailed for England. By that time, Pocahontas was baptized and changed her name to Lady Rebecca Wolfe.
The Powhatans, for their trouble, got typhoid.
It wasn’t until 1620 when the Puritans set out for America, and they really should have known what they were getting into. For that matter, it’s hard to see what, exactly, the pilgrims were fleeing. American textbook protests to the contrary, King James I let the pilgrims do whatever they liked as long as they weren’t too Catholic about it. The problem was that King James also did whatever the hell he wanted...with the Duke of Buckingham.
So they headed to The Netherlands, which was exactly where they didn’t need to go. The Dutch happily welcomed them, but they welcomed pretty much anybody but the Spanish. Under that oppressive doctrine of live and let live, the Puritans fled to America. They’d heard that the townies were whacking the brains out of white people in Virginia, so the Mayflower was pointed toward New England, where no one had any fun.
The Puritans didn’t like having the Indians for dinner any more than they liked having a good time. Although they did drink a lot more than we gave them credit for. William Bradford, the colony’s first governor, writes of God gleefully smiting a Mayflower crew for being stingy with the beer. Regardless of how much they drank, they just weren’t smilers.
Which is not to say that there was no first Thanksgiving, it just sort of happened by accident. The Puritans had barely settled in to starve to death when a fairly naked man named Squanto showed up speaking English. Apparently, he’d lived in London long enough to pick up the language but not long enough to get a enduring taste for wool doublets. Like Pocahontas before him, Squanto took pity on the superior race of self-inflicted refugees who couldn’t feed themselves. He showed the newbies how not to starve and by harvest time even the Puritans reckoned they owed the guy a meal. While in London Squanto did not attend finishing school because the next day the young man showed up for supper with seven or eight of his closest friends. The next day the guests of the guest brought more guests who’d all heard how good the food was.
Now consider the position of the innocent Puritan hostess on that first Thanksgiving: Here is a creature so offended by the King of England’s back door hi-jinks with the Duke of Birmingham, or the existence of Jews in Amsterdam, that she moves over to the next hemisphere. Now she’s faced with windswept buttocks of 120 naked Indians with no table manners stemming from their lack of tables. Historical records are sketchy, of course, but some think that this incident was the dawn of the Thanksgiving kiddie table.
The Puritans were even less inclined to invite the natives back after 1622 when an Indian massacre eradicated the town of Henricus.
The first English settlers to really break bread, or hoist a pint, with the Indians weren’t at Plymouth Rock at all, but those proto-bohemians at Merry Mount. They ate with the Indians, did business with them, drank with them, played kissy-face and generally tried to remedy European hang-ups about nudity. According to the pilgrims at Plymouth, they were fairly successful. To maintain God’s favor those pacifist Puritans rounded up a small army under Captain Miles Standish, to force the white people to put their clothes back on.
The truth is, after the first Thanksgiving, which lasted three days, the Pilgrims wanted to forget about the whole affair, not commemorate it.
Originally appeared in Whiskey Barrel