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Be Thankful You Weren't at the First Thanksgiving by Carolyn Donovan

It was all love and happiness, that first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and the Indians all playing nice, with a table groaning under the weight of all those pumpkin pies and turkey. Right. Below is a more accurate depiction. Sort of.

Eate, drinke, and be merrie,
for we be not deade!


A very long time ago there was this Italian man who had a good idea about the shape of the world: he thought it was a pear. He figured that he would have clear sailing right around it, to get to India that had lots of spices and a new place called China that had a lot of silks. So, he went around Europe seeking audiences with all the kings. He even went to see the King of England, Henry VII, but Henry was a bit of a miser and preferred to keep all his money in big chests in his house, not giving it to some crackpot Italian who thought the world was more or less round.

NOTE: England did not become “Jollie Olde” until his son, Henry VIII, took over; he was very young and very handsome and spent all the money his father had socked away. 

The Italian man was forced to hang out in Spain for a long time until the Queen there said “Okay! Here’s some money, go away and stop bothering us! But bring us back some gold.”  And so he went, and found, sum’in’, that he for the rest of his life believed was those places he wanted to get to. We know, because we live here in the place that he sailed to, that the did not get where he was going. But that’s okay, we like it here, wherever it is.

The real deal, Pilgrim-wise

Because miserly Henry said no to the Italian man, it took another 150 years for England to get to the New World. England was by then no longer “Jollie Olde," having developed a penchant for calling each other names and stomping on each other’s bibles.

All this bible thumping and whumping created a lot of earnest desire to get rid of the other side, and so, a bunch of English folk who had moved to Holland (a very tolerant place)(for the most part) got up the courage to ask the King if they could move to the Newe Colonie across the water, and practice their religion in peace. Oh yes, and send back goods of commercial value – big trees and dried fish – that could be sold to pay off the loan they needed to get them there in the first place. They pestered the King for a long time until the King said “Okay! Here’s some money, go away and stop bothering us! But make sure you pay it back.” And so, the Puritans took themselves off to New England to create their Eden on Earth. They took over an abandoned Wampanoag site (the only tribe of Indians John Wayne never fought), and renamed it New Plimouth, having sailed from old Plimouth.

It's tough, moving to a new neighborhood

The Pilgrims encountered some problems once they stepped off the boat, maybe onto Plymouth Rock, maybe not:

  • They did not know what to expect, and so did not bring enough of the right things (farm implements, animals, clothing) and brought too much of the wrong things (bibles).

  • They got there in November, just as the bitter Winter was about to begin.

  • Nobody was a fisherman, and so nobody knew how to catch the fish that they needed to dry and send back home.

  • The didn’t like the native food (no chicken and chips, egg and chips, or fish and chips) and they didn’t trust the natives as far as they could throwe them. Hence, the Puritans did not accept the Wampanoag’s help for a long time.

As a result of these problems, the Puritans were close to dead when finally one of them said, “Hey, those natives don’t seem to be dying—well, except maybe from typhus—and maybe also the pox—why don’t we let them help us a little bit?”

The Indians, who looked somewhat affectionately down their long native noses at these dull-witted, ugly, stupid white people, showed them how to place a small dead fish in each seed hole for fertilizer.

The Puritans, however, drew the line at using bow and arrows, and continued to use their terribly inaccurate blunderbuss to shoot deer. Of course they missed, and the booming of the ‘buss would notify every animal within ear shot that they better high-tail it out of there (in case they became collateral damage). This included the wild turkey.

"It's all goode"

That first year was hard and harsh; estimates of up to 50% of all Puritans who left England did not survive either the sailing or the first year. But, those that made it were very happy; they considered it a sign from their God that they were doing the right thing. Also, they weren’t dead. And so they, along with their native neighbours, sat down to a feast of thanks, which was (more or less) the first Thanksgiving.

NOTE: There was no turkey at the first Thanksgiving.


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Photography by Wan Chi Lau