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Thanksgiving 1620

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

Turkey is the main course at Thanksgiving dinner. And there’s good historical reason for that.  William Bradford, the leader of that band of separatist Puritans who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, recorded in his history of the plantation that “besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.”

Our focus on feast and family at Thanksgiving generally obscures the staggering hardships that those settlers endured— those few who survived. Bradford gives us our description of it in his history, named simply, Of Plimouth Plantation. Here is an excerpt describing their plight.

Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sumer being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world.

Bradford’s wife, Dorothy, died while the Mayflower was at anchor in Provincetown Harbor and by the end of the first winter half the colonists had perished.

The  painting reproduced below, The First Thanksgiving, is  contrary to most of what we know about that occasion. The painter, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, was born in Philadelphia in 1863 and died in 1930. His fame rested on a series of 78 historical painting, entitled  The Pageant of a Nation.  However, his fame did not last and those works have been rightly criticized as being Romantic idealizations of events — precise in their details but often inaccurate in total.  The First Thanksgiving shows Wampanoag Indians with feathered headdress which, in fact, they didn’t wear. The details of the headdress are correct, but it belongs to a far different tribe;  the chair on the right is an accurate portrayal of a chair owned by William Bradford, the 17th century clothing is accurate, but probably not worn by the Puritans.  Whether a young woman would be serving the heathen native men of the area is doubtful. Certainly the trees would be bare in Plymouth, the weather would be, at best, quite chilly and the Europeans would not look so well fed, nor so healthy.  By the way, if you’re familiar with the name Jean-Léon Gérôme you may wonder what the connection is between that better known French painter this American. Jean Ferris’s father was a painter who admired Gérôme and gave that name to his son.

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

 

The Puritans Arrive at Plimouth

MayflowerThe best text we can find in regard to the Thanksgiving season is this perhaps familiar one written by Governor William Bradford in his history, Of Plimouth Plantation. The Puritans, or Pilgrims as they’re often called,  had a very hard time after reaching these shores.  Bradford’s wife Dorothy died while the Mayflower was at anchor in Provincetown Harbor, and by the end of the first winter half the colonists had perished. It was a season of death. William Bradford’s account, though written simply and intended merely as a record, reaches a spare beauty, the same beauty that we find in the Puritans’ plain, sparsely furnished meeting houses and churches.  Here is an excerpt describing their plight as they set foot in this land. The spelling follows the original.

But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader too, when he well considera the same. Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sumer being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world.

The painting of the Mayflower that we’ve posted above is an imaginative work by the 19th century painter William Halsall.  The painting is evocative, but wholly inaccurate.  The Mayflower was a frighteningly small ship about half the size of the grand vessel portrayed here.  To get a sense of how small it was, you might visit Plimouth Plantation  in Massachusetts and go aboard the replica of the  Mayflower that rides at anchor there. The image below is the opening page of William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation as written by is own hand. Plimouth Plantation by William BradfordOnce you gain familiarity with the old script, its spelling and its scribal patterns (“ye” is written with the e placed above the y, and the letters I and J are written alike)  you’ll be able to read Plimouth Plantation And first of the occasion and inducements thereunto; the which that I may truly unfould, I must begine at the very roote and rise of the same. The which I shall endevor to manefest in a plaine stile, with singuler regard unto the simple trueth in all things, at least as near as my slender judgmente can attaine the same.

More Notes


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