Thursday, November 24, 2011

A happy Thanksgiving

A purely personal note:

Bleak history notwithstanding (see below), I still believe Thanksgiving is very much worth observing, and should not necessarily be restricted to a single day in November. In my view, in fact, to give thanks is the only form of prayer that really has much validity or meaning. That's not to say, of course, that I never pray for strength or wisdom or luck, but when one asks for things from the powers that be...well, that can be a long wait for a ship that may not come. It seems to me, though, that anyone—regardless of their faith or spiritual traditions—may have cause to be grateful from time to time.

I wouldn't have believed it some months ago, but I find now that I have much to be thankful for. Most of the entries on my mental list are people, and many of them are readers of Flyover Country. I won't embarrass anyone by singling them out, and won't risk hurting anyone's feelings by leaving them out, so let me just say a general but very sincere thank-you to everyone who has offered their love and support, in person or at a distance.

Life is good, and looking better as time goes on, and I am truly thankful to be here.

Fifty-five years: a Thanksgiving story

Every American knows the story, or thinks so at any rate. In 1620, religious dissenters from England sail to the New World in a small ship, Mayflower, find a natural harbor, and establish the new Plymouth Colony, where they hope to build a new life and worship freely according to their precepts. Half of the unprepared colonists die the first winter. Local Indians take pity on the colony, teach them to plant and fish, the colony takes hold, a great feast of thanksgiving is held, etc., etc. And the story is true, as far as it goes. Of course, it doesn't usually go very far.

Plymouth Colony was not hacked out of the wilderness, but built on the site of an abandoned Indian village known as Patuxet. Epidemics from Europe had spread through the Native populations in what was to become known as New England, greatly reducing Native numbers and depopulating Patuxet entirely. The English Pilgrims did not encounter a single Native until March of 1621.

That first Native was Samoset, not a local but a visiting Abenaki from the coast of what is now Maine. He had met Europeans before, fishermen, and greeted the startled Pilgrims with the words, "Welcome, Englishmen." He soon returned with an acquaintance, named Squanto, who possessed greater fluency in English and was a local. Born and raised in Patuxet, he had been kidnapped some seven years earlier by an English slaver and sold into bondage in Spain. Ransomed by Spanish monks, Squanto eventually made his way to England, befriended a wealthy merchant who taught him the language, and later took passage to Newfoundland. Returning south to his home village, he found Patuxet deserted and took up residence among the Wampanoags at their principal town, a place called Montaup.

It was Squanto who eventually stayed at Patuxet/Plymouth, gave the Pilgrims both seed corn and instruction on how to grow it, and shared his skills in hunting and fishing. It was also Squanto who introduced the English leader, John Carver, to the sachem of the Wampanoags: Usamequin, better known as Massasoit.

Massasoit was a man faced with a dilemma. Beset by disease and therefore weakened militarily, the Wampanoags and their neighbors had been losing ground to another local nation, the Narragansetts. But Squanto, who had lived amongst the whites in Europe, suggested that an alliance with Carver's Pilgrims might help the Wampanoags restore the balance of power. So Massasoit and Carver struck a treaty, each pledging to support the other if attacked by a third party.

With the successful harvest of 1621 came a three-day celebration, attended by all the surviving Pilgrims and about ninety of the Wampanoags. There was feasting (probably more venison than turkey, plus corn and other produce), prayer, footraces, wrestling matches, and quite possibly lacrosse games. The first Thanksgiving of legend...

Alas, the harmonious relations were not to last. Protected by the treaty with the Wampanoags, and with its food supply secured, the Plymouth Colony expanded over the years. Many Wampanoags were not entirely thrilled with the further concessions of land made by Massasoit. Worse, the colonists increased in arrogance as they increased in number. They were less interested in freedom of religion as an ideal than in freedom to exercise their religion, and impose it on their Native neighbors.

Massasoit died in 1662, and was succeeded as sachem by his son Wamsutta, known to the English colonists as Alexander. Wamsutta was far more skeptical and far less patient with the colonists than Massasoit had been, and after a year or so as sachem he was abruptly summoned to Plymouth by the Pilgrims. He fell ill, and died on his way back home to Montaup; many Wampanoags believed (and many of their descendants still do) that he had been poisoned.

Wamsutta was in turn succeeded by his younger brother Metacom; his English appellation was King Philip. Like Alexander, Philip was arrested and hauled off to Plymouth—several times—but apparently was clever enough to avoid being poisoned. While he cooperated with the colonists just enough to maintain his autonomy, he secretly began to organize resistance to the English, approaching even traditional Wampanoag enemies to build a coalition against the whites.

When, in 1675, the English hanged three Wampanoags, open hostilities broke out. The first engagements were spontaneous, taking even Philip by surprise, and soon the war spread beyond Massachusetts throughout New England. Settlers panicked, and even "accultured" Indians who had converted to Christianity were under suspicion; many were imprisoned in what amounted to concentration camps. Even the Narragansetts were drawn into the war, on the side of their former enemies the Wampanoags, after English settlers attacked a neutral Narragensett town and massacred its inhabitants.

Despite their early successes, the tide soon turned against the by-now outnumbered and more lightly armed Natives. In April of 1676, Canonchet, sachem of the Narragansetts, was captured and executed by an English firing squad. Soldiers captured Philip's wife and son in August of 1676; they were condemned by the Pilgrim clergy in Plymouth and sold into slavery in Bermuda. Shortly thereafter, Philip himself was killed an a brief fight at Montaup, his home village and long the center of Wampanoag power. That power no longer existed: by the end of "King Philip's War", fifty-five years after Massasoit and John Carver celebrated "the first Thanksgiving", almost all of the Native people in New England had been killed, sold into slavery, or exiled to Canada.