It would be hard to overstate how much I love Thanksgiving.
An autumn family feast day with underpinnings of historical remembrance seems purpose-built to trip my trigger — and it always does. It is even more important to me now that it means trekking across the Cascades to retrieve daughter Ceili from university. The drive is a beautiful one, made all the better by the chance to spend two hours hearing of her adventures. The holiday is, after all, about giving thanks, and it serves as a reminder to engage in what I consider my sole real spiritual practice: gratitude.
It’s a week-long event in my household. On Saturday, it will feature a visit to the Figure 8 Ranch to kill and pluck the bird.
And, because I am (as Ceili once loudly pointed out in the Texas State House) “such a nerd!” I also tend at this time of year to reflect even more than usual upon the legacies and resonances bequeathed upon us by our history.
I must confess that I find the Puritans who landed at Plymouth in 1620 hard to relate to. In fact, they have always creeped me out. Their inner world was the stuff of strange nightmares, a steaming caldron of spiritual anxiety swirling around doubts about salvation. In the extreme, their anxieties manifested themselves in the form of demons and witches and the lurking presence of Satan.
Not really my sort of folks.
Nevertheless, one must tip the hat to their courage, fortitude and resilience. Imagine being crammed into the tiny Mayflower, buffeted by wind and wave across the stormy Atlantic Ocean when the main beam of your ship cracks. The pucker factor must have been intense. They landed in the wrong place, in an alien landscape, with little in the way of skills and knowledge to survive there. During the first bleak winter, 45 of the 102 Pilgrims died.
Yet they persevered, and founded a colony whose roots would drive deep into the rocky New England soil, and into the American psyche.
One of my Thanksgiving traditions is to watch the docudrama Desperate Crossing, to remind myself how arduous, epic and heroic was the colonization of these shores.
Another tradition is to watch the PBS docudrama We Shall Remain — After the Mayflower. In this piece, we see the saga of the first Thanksgiving unfold from the point of view of the Wampanoag, who greeted the arrival of the Pilgrims as an opportunity to forge an alliance in the face of destruction.
The film well captures an aspect of the story that generally escapes mainstream history: The people of the Wampanoag Confederacy were living in a post-apocalyptic world. A scant few years before the Pilgrims landed, this numerous and prosperous people was ravaged by a series of disease outbreaks lasting about two years. Half or more of the Wampanoag died. In some villages, mortality approached 100%. The village of Patuxet was abandoned. Here was the site of New Plymouth.
The diseases, which were probably a strain of plague, were likely acquired through glancing or indirect contact with European sailors, traders and fishermen, who were poking along that coast (and in the case of the French, exploring the north country) for many decades before the Pilgrims ventured there. The Indian populations had little to no resistance to these diseases and the result was like something out of Stephen King’s “The Stand.”
Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, promotes the thesis that a variety of variables, often seemingly minor in themselves, combine to shape the success or destruction of societies throughout history. Weather and crops, domestication of certain animals, the development of certain technologies (steel and writing) and the ability or inability to cope with or resist disease are the true hinges of fate. The Web site for the PBS series based on Diamond’s work notes that:
Much of the credit for European military success in the New World can be handed to the superiority of their weapons, their literary heritage, even the fact they had unique load-bearing mammals, like horses. These factors combined, gave the conquistadors a massive advantage over the sophisticated civilisations of the Aztec and Inca empires.
But weapons alone can’t account for the breathtaking speed with which the indigenous population of the New World were completely wiped out.
(In fact, except at the very beginning, weapons superiority was not a factor at all. David Silverman, the author of the excellent Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America, points out quite correctly that in short order, the native peoples of North America swiftly became very well armed indeed, through the fur trade, and they were generally armed equivalently to Euro-Americans right up to the point of their subjugation).
Back to Diamond’s theisis:
Within just a few generations, the continents of the Americas were virtually emptied of their native inhabitants — some academics estimate that approximately 20 million people may have died in the years following the European invasion – up to 95% of the population of the Americas.
No medieval force, no matter how bloodthirsty, could have achieved such enormous levels of genocide. Instead, Europeans were aided by a deadly secret weapon they weren’t even aware they were carrying: Smallpox.
Smallpox probably wasn’t the culprit in the case of the Wampanoag, but the point remains valid: The land was cleared for the Pilgrims and other European settlers in large part by germs. The Pilgrims, as was their wont, attributed this to God. The Wampanoag, no less metaphysical in their orientation, may have done the same.
It is important to recognize that there is no agency here. Although there were later plots to infect Indian populations with smallpox deliberately, the massive destruction wrought by germs was biological happenstance. As the Black Plague reshaped Europe, killing a third of its population, so germs reshaped North America. I take issue with the use of the term genocide to describe the devastation wrought by disease upon the native populations. Genocide is a fraught term, implying a deliberate state-sponsored program of destruction against a targeted group. That isn’t what happened here. But deliberate or not, lack of resistance to European diseases doomed the native peoples, greatly reducing their populations and weakening their base of resistance before the intruders even arrived in force.
We Shall Remain — After the Mayflower documents the gradual — and probably inevitable — breakdown of the Puritan/Wampanoag alliance, which ended in King Philip’s War in the 1670s — the bloodiest conflict in American history. Per capita casualties were not equaled even in the American Civil War.
That conflict saw the first application of ranging tactics, developed by Benjamin Church, who led a mixed force of colonial rangers and Indian partisans. Church was the model for what cultural historian Richard Slotkin calls “The Man Who Knows Indians,” the ancestor in both fact and literary exposition (Church wrote a book about the war) of Robert Rogers, Samuel Brady, Jack Hays… Disappointingly, the documentary does not cover Church.
This was no storybook First Thanksgiving story to warm the heart, but it is a worthy tradition. It ain’t all about football and turkey. The tale is a poignant one for a festive holiday, but one that bears remembering.