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Why the Pilgrims are the ones we remember

Once again, though in many cases in smaller numbers than past years, families across country will come together today to share a bounty of food and bow their heads in a moment of thankfulness.

To a mostly symbolic extent, we will emulate the Pilgrim experience of 1621. We’ll invite friends. We’ll eat the same kind of bird those settlers shared with their Pokonoket neighbors. We’ll eat squash and beans and pumpkin pie. We’ll decorate our homes with silly icons of settlers, blunderbusses, turkeys, Native Americans, and a ship called Mayflower.

The Thanksgiving feast is better appreciated if we understand that the Pilgrims were not the first to bow their heads in thanks before a meal. Settlers at Jamestown had done so more than a decade before the Pilgrims. Spanish settlers had done so a hundred years before that.

So why do we venerate the Pilgrims of Plymouth?

We have good reason. The Plymouth and Jamestown experiences were radically different. Only one became the paragon of America.

The settlers who founded Jamestown in 1607 were mostly men who planned to get rich off furs, tobacco, and gold, then return to England. They did not come to stay, and they did not bring their families.

Many of them were “gentlemen” who had no intention of actually working. They tried to talk the local people, the Powhatan, into doing the work. When the Powhatan declined the job offer, the English tried to force them.

Force didn’t work. It devolved into torture, murder, and war. The Powhatan surrounded Jamestown and tried to starve the inhabitants. They almost succeeded, and some of the English resorted to cannibalism.

The Pilgrims had a different approach. They came as families, and they came to stay. They were working-class people who were not afraid to get their hands dirty.

Not that they had an easy time of it. They arrived in mid-November. They had to spend the winter aboard the ship. A respiratory disease hit them hard. Forty-five of the 102 passengers died.

That spring, when Pokonoket warriors threatened the village, the settlers made one of the most crucial decisions in the history of America. Rather than fire off a few preemptory shots to show how tough they were, a few brave men went outside the stockade and made a show of laying their weapons down.

It was a beautiful gesture of Christian goodwill. And it worked.

The Pokonoket sachem, Massasoit, dared come to talk. The two peoples not only reached certain agreements but recognized each other’s humanity.

The Pokonoket and Pilgrims — the natives and immigrants — became friends. The immigrants dug in, built houses, and planted crops. By autumn, they had something to celebrate and be thankful for.

So, they declared a Day of Thanksgiving and prepared a harvest feast. Along came the Pokonoket, and of course they were invited to share the bounty. More than a hundred guests stayed for a three-day feast. Despite differences in language and customs, they all got along.

That is why we emulate the Plymouth experience, not Jamestown. We celebrate the bounty, the goodwill, the friendship, and life itself. Those are the seeds of the American culture. We grew from that.

At our house, before we bow for grace on Thanksgiving, I read this paragraph from a book I wrote:

“The Mayflower contained a cross-section of values that would become quintessentially America: the insistence on following the heart rather than the law; the inability to tolerate injustice; the audacity to demand authority over authorities; the courage to pursue a better life no matter how much worse it might be; the wisdom of working together as a society for mutual benefit and personal profit. They believed in the power of the congregation. They would do their own thinking and make their own decisions. They would pray their own prayers. They would dig in their heels. The strong would bury the weak, perhaps suffer a moment of doubt, then remember the mercy of their God, and then get back to work.”

Glenn Alan Cheney, a contributing essayist to The Day and its weeklies, is the author of "Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims’ First Year in America." He can be reached at glenn@NLLibrarium.com.

 

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