For us to learn what actually happened at the so called “First Thanksgiving” is next to impossible, since our information comes centuries later through the letters of people who would have no interest in recording their own worst deeds in those harsh times where the colonies of the New World became the focus of the dark energies created by the marriage of greed, religion, oppressive conservative governments in the Old World, and native peoples who were doing just fine up 'til then without Europeans, thank you.
The first recorded Thanksgiving celebration was probably held in Saint Augustine Florida by Spaniards led by Pedro Menendez, who were thanking their god for not killing them on the voyage over. Since they weren’t destroyed at sea, it apparently meant that they now had God’s blessing to spread venereal disease, smallpox, murder, slavery, and religion amongst the aboriginal peoples who had it way too good up ‘til then, what with plentiful seafood, game, and war practiced mostly as a sport between tribal divisions. History records the date as September 8, 1565.
You were probably thinking that the first Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims, but no, it was supposedly December 4, 1619 at the Colony of Virginia settlement of Charles Cittie, by a group of English who were also thanking their God for not killing them on the voyage over, and his apparent blessing for what they were about to do to the locals, et cetera.
The Thanksgiving we were indoctrinated in as we were growing up was the one the Pilgrims apparently had in 1621. Several controversies arise from the accounts of that celebration, which frankly was several days long, as the Indians (as the Europeans referred to them) came and went bringing five deer as their contribution to the seafood, grain, and fowl that comprised the feast.
Probably the main controversy regards the presence, or not, of turkey at that first Thanksgiving. William Bradford, writing in his book Of Plymouth Plantation, says,
“…And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion…”
Edward Winslow, writing in the journal Mort’s Relation uses the term “fowl” as opposed to “waterfowl”, which would indicate a wider variety of game birds than duck and goose…
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor(Bradford) sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
It is currently fashionable to call the presence of turkey at the first Thanksgiving a myth, but it appears to be one of those mythological myths that fashion and lazy researchers tend to throw at us from time to time. We do know that a local Wampanoag man called Squanto taught them to catch eel, or the Pilgrims would never have survived to harvest corn.
Another obvious mythological myth I read was that they didn’t have bread, because they had no ovens as yet. This is evidence that certain historians are morons. Hello…They had corn. They had iron cookware, They had corn BREAD! And they had other grains as well. I suppose the historian who wrote that was thinking they popped all that corn instead.
While the Pilgrims and the Puritans ( a noxious breed of religious separatists who seem to have been profoundly disliked by everyone including the sailors who brought them over) were having their Thanksgivings and feasting with the Indians, the settlers in Virginia were being massacred back, for one or more of several nasty things they had done to various natives, resulting in the death of about a third of the White settlers in Virginia and the capture and enslavement of a bunch of their women by the Indians. There was nothing wrong with this in the Indian’s view, since the settlers obviously condoned enslavement by force. Squanto, the savior of the Pilgrims, had been taken as a slave by an earlier expedition and hauled to Europe. He was in the settlement as a translator as a result, and not, as some accounts have proposed, a savage wandered out of the wilderness to befriend the Pilgrims. Anyway, the Indian retribution was repaid by retribution, specifically, inviting the Indian men to a feast and offering them poisoned liquor. 250 or so were thusly murdered by the Virginians. I assume thanks was given by the settlers afterwards.
So…With the religious overtones surrounding the first recorded Thanksgivings come a lot of killings. The spirit of killing continued to go along with Thanksgiving for a hundred and fifty years, when The American Continental Congress issued the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving, in which Americans gave thanks to the Almighty for blessing their weapons to be used against the British:
FOR AS MUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success...
Abe Lincoln solidified the tradition in the middle of the American Civil War with a note of regret for the human sin of war
…they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union…
Thanksgiving is obviously a most conflicted and yet original of American holidays. It evolved out of brutal hardship as well as humankind’s stark brutality to itself. Arising from religious strife and racial war, we now have a Thanksgiving that can stand alone with simple gratitude for human existence as enough reason for feasting.
George Herbert Walker Bush established the tradition of pardoning one turkey while eating another one, though he blamed it on Harry Truman. His idiot son followed suit with great flourish as did recently the malignant governor of Alaska, who made great fanfare of pardoning a turkey even as another one was being beheaded a few feet behind her...well seen on camera by millions of Americans.
No better metaphor for Thanksgivings past can I devise.
But it is Thanksgiving present that now confronts us, and we face one of those periods that are the thing of the curse, “May you live in interesting times”. The real reminder of Thanksgiving is that humankind has faced many many times like this, each unique in its diabolical nature. We have survived them up until now, and will probably survive this one.
For that realization, and for the ultimate benefit of my children and yours, I give thanks.
Let us feast!