By S.D. Plissken | November 28, 2019
Pilgrim Edward Winslow – writing under an alias – was the presumed author of the only contemporary account of Plymouth colony’s first harvest festival, or Thanksgiving, which took place in early October 1621. (We are now but two years short of the four-hundredth anniversary of that first Thanksgiving).
Winslow’s brief account appeared as a part of the 1622 publication Mourt’s Relation. Edward Winslow and George Morton are thought to have been its joint authors, with George Morton arranging for its publication. (Morton did not immigrate from Holland to Plymouth colony until 1623, where he died in 1624).
Mourt’s Relation was intended as a promotional or advertising tract to impress the colony’s English investors, and to persuade other would-be settlers to join them, and painted perhaps a picture that was rosier than reality. They were, in fact, in a rather desparate condition.
Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling; that so we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our Arms; many of the Indians coming amongst us. And amongst the rest, their greatest King, Massasoyt, with some ninety men; whom, for three days, we entertained and feasted. And they went out, and killed five deer: which they brought to the Plantation; and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain, and others.
The Pilgrim feast’s menu included fowl, which might have included turkey, the garden fruits of their labors, likely including “Indian” corn (as opposed to ordinary corn (the general English term for grain), and their Indian guests supplied venison.
One may note that the colonists exercised (i.e., drilled with) their European arms, which would have been pikes, swords, muskets, and cannon, as a part of the recreations. They likely sought to impress their Indian guests with their defensive capabilities. The Pilgrim group had recruited “Captain” Myles Standish as their military advisor in Holland. He had served there in some capacity during the Eighty Years’ War (the Dutch Republic’s war of independence from the Kingdom of Spain). The Plymouth colonists formally elected him as their militia commander in February 1621.
Half of the original 102 Pilgrims had died during their first winter of 1620-21. (They were buried secretly to conceal the extent of their losses from the Indians). The Plymouth colonists struggled dreadfully to make ends meet from the time of their 1620 arrival, due partly to the demands and neglect of their investors, and partly to a religiously-inspired collectivism that they imposed upon themselves.
The Plymouth colony never prospered really until the colonists shook off their collectivist notions, which they began to do several years later in 1623. Governor William Bradford explained the transition to greater economic freedom in several passages of his journal (1630-51), entitled Of Plimouth Plantation:
The experience that was had in this commone course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite [idea] of Plato’s and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of propertie, and bringing in communitie into a commone wealth, would make them happy and florishing; as if they were wiser then God. For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For the yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour and servise did repine that they should spend their time and streingth to worke for other men’s wives and children, with out any recompence. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in devission of victails and cloaths, then he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injuestice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victails, cloaths, etc., with the meaner and yonger sorte, thought it some indignite and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, etc., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brooke it. Upon the poynte all being to have alike, and all to doe alike, they thought them selves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut of [off] those relations that God hath set amongest men, yet it did at least much diminish and take of [off] the mutuall respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have bene worse if they had been men of another condition. Let pons [persons] objecte this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course it selfe. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdome saw another course fiter [fitter] for them.
Whille no supply [English resupply] was heard of, neither knew they when they might expecte any. So they begane to thinke how they might raise as much corne [corn] as they could, and obtaine a beter crope then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in miserie. At length, after much debate of things, the Govr (with the advise of the cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set corve [corvée, i.e., conscript] every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to them selves; in all other things to goe on in the generall way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no devission for inheritance), and ranged all boys and youth under some familie. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means the Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into the feild, and tooke their litle-ons [little-ones] with them to set corne, which before would aledg [allege] weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie [tyranny] and oppression.
To be corvéed, or conscripted, to provide for one’s “owne perticulars” – apart from any wishes and demands of the collective – set Plymouth households free to pursue their own interests. The Plymouth colony began to recover and prosper after 1623 to the extent that it was not only able to sustain itself, but to buy back its charter from its English investors and to set its own destiny.
All of which begs the question: How “thankful” should we be towards those in the present day that promote collectivism, actively and unashamedly, and who seek to impose it on us to the extent that they can?
To the extent that misguided collectivists are stymied, and that we are free to seek and enjoy our “owne perticulars,” we should rejoice and be thankful indeed.
Ms. Muriel Bristol contributed to this article.
For a Milton Thanksgiving of 1910, or at least one that passed through Milton, see Milton and the Progressive Pie – 1910
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