Thursday, November 27, 2008

THANKSGIVING

This column was published yesterday in our local newspaper, as well as sent to me via e-mail. As our local paper has a small readership, I felt I ought to share it with a few more folks. (cross-posted at Composite Drawlings)


THANKSGIVING


By William Urban


Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the Plymouth Colony, Mayflower (2006), is much more than a celebration of the voyage of Separatist Protestants from Holland and England to New England. It is a story of seven decades of courage, foolishness, bigotry and acceptance, adaptation, war, betrayals and survival.

The Pilgrims actually composed only half of the Mayflower’s company, and they had hoped to make a settlement farther south. Shoals and contrary winds, combined with exhaustion and illness, required them to land wherever they could. And Cape Cod was right there.

This was not an unknown site. About a thousand European fishing vessels were coming to the Maine coast to catch cod, and many crews had come ashore for water, fresh food and trade. Two crews had each kidnapped one Indian who would be important in the colony’s early days. In 1616 a Dutch ship unintentionally brought the plague ashore. Within three years up to 90% of the coastal Indians had died — an event that modern scholars of epidemics warn could happen in the modern world. Thus it was that when the Pilgrims came ashore in 1620 they found abandoned villages and fields, but almost no people.

The first year was so hard that half of the 102 settlers died. The second year more people came. Most of them died, too. It was like Jamestown, where new immigrants died almost as fast as they arrived; and news of the 1622 massacre at Jamestown threw the Pilgrims into panic.

Thus began the story of the shared lives and experiences of the Pilgrims, the Puritans who came to Boston in 1629, and the various tribes of Native Americans. The Pilgrims learned to adapt somewhat to their new circumstances, but not nearly to the extent the Indians did. The acquisition of European wares, weapons and ideas caused a veritable revolution in native life. And, as one tribe after another rose to prominence, the others combined with the Pilgrims and Puritans to crush them.

This led to the great tragedy of 1675-76, King Philip’s War. This conflict should not have happened, and once it started, it should have been confined to the one great tribe. Unhappily, racial animosities on both sides had spread too deeply — warriors and colonists feared each other too much for the leaders to control them, and the leaders were weak. It was, in terms of percentages, the bloodiest war in American history. The colonists were thrown back toward the coast, abandoning towns and villages; the Indians suffered about the same percentage of losses they had suffered between 1616 and 1619. Those who died from violence were numerous enough, but more perished from starvation or from cold and exhaustion while hiding from raiders.

In the end, the war to make the frontier safe only made it more dangerous. No longer were there Indian allies on the borders to keep Canadian Indians from striking without warning. Also, the war would perhaps not have been won by the Pilgrims and Puritans if friendly Indians had not joined them in the contest.

This last point offered one of the few moments of hope for a multi-cultural American future. I know that one of my female ancestors was murdered during this war. She had sent her children to the fort but had stayed at the farm to tend the animals. A century and a half later one of her descendants became a teacher (probably carpentry skills) for the Oneida Indians — and that is where I found him in the Census of 1840. Therein is another lesson. Time heals.

There is room enough for pride in the Plymouth saga to acknowledge the shortcomings of the immigrants and their children. There is also a need to recognize that prejudice and foolishness were not failures of the White immigrants alone. The responsibility of avoiding such catastrophes rested on everyone.




William Urban is a professor of history at Monmouth College and author of numerous fine books, both history and fiction.

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