Thanks to Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoags who had signed a peace treaty with the Pilgrims earlier in the spring, the new Americans were able to plant, tend, and harvest their first crop with little trouble. It wasn’t much. A peck of corn meal a week for each family (a peck is eight dry quarts) during the winter along with some salt fish. They supplemented this with wild fowl they hunted and trapped. All in all, barely enough on which to survive. But considering their hardships suffered during the previous year, it seemed bountiful enough that they were able to entertain and feed 90 Wampanoags and the entire colony for a week of feasting.
These were hardy, determined people who put up with difficulties almost all of us today would never survive. We forget that these first Pilgrims made something out of absolutely nothing with just a few tools and the sweat of their brow — and a nice assist from the Wampanoags, who had their own selfish reasons for helping. A devastating plague — probably an extremely virulent form of smallpox that the Wampanoags caught from French traders — reduced their numbers dramatically, leaving them vulnerable to their enemies, the Narragansett tribe. No doubt Massasoit eyed the Pilgrim flintlocks with more than a little envy.
Later, there would be war and betrayal, conquest and subjugation. In those first years, both sides profited handsomely from their relationship. But when history’s course was finally run, and white settlers in North America had their way with the native peoples, the curtain was eventually drawn on the rich and varied cultures of an ancient civilization.
Yes, it was a sad, tragic, and ultimately stupid turn of events. But those who feel it necessary to remind us of these transgressions never seem to hold any admiration at all for the extraordinary people who crossed an ocean in yacht-sized and leaky wooden ships, endured deprivations most of us would never survive, performed backbreaking manual labor of which they were unaccustomed, and — with the help of Native Americans who felt they needed these powerful strangers as allies as much as they were needed — lived to celebrate a bountiful harvest, giving thanks to their God for his mercy and providential intercessions.
For 364 days out of the year, you can get in my face about how beastly we were to the Indians and how guilty I should feel about the cultural genocide perpetrated against them by earlier white Americans. Rail on if you must about the injustice of it all, the horrid massacres (eagerly reciprocated on many occasions by the other side), the forced conversions to Christianity, and the dastardly reservation policies that finished by stealth what earlier attempts to wipe native peoples off the map failed to do.
But one day out of the year — the day we set aside to give thanks for what we have and the great good fortune to live where we live — I want to remember and celebrate the achievements of the Pilgrims. Their story is an American story — one of courage, of faith, and of an abiding belief in each other that allowed them to overcome more than a generous providence should have allowed.