*This is a piece I wrote for Mercutio Magazine for a segment called America: Hollywood Style. In it, I took an historical American moment and looked at the “facts” through the “fiction” of a film. Enjoy.
In America, Thanksgiving is viewed as the official merging of the Old World and the New, that friendly dinner between a band of Puritan Pilgrims from England and the native people who saved them from destitution. Where this is not untrue, there is more to the story than is celebrated in our folklore.
For starters, the Puritans did not come from England. Yes, they were English and technically they departed from England (Plymouth to be exact), but prior to their voyage west, they had been living in Holland for the past ten years. England at the time was a theocracy and any dissent from the beliefs of her Church was considered heretical. The Puritans were disdainful of the requisite compromise needed from different faiths to create an all-encompassing religion and decided to try and change the system from within. The most devote of the Puritans, who came to be known as the Separatists, longed to make change by splintering off into their own group.
These Christians preached the verbatim word of the Bible and viewed anything outside of its pages as distortive of God’s message. They had no use for genuflection, bishops, or making the sign of the cross. They also believed that God, in his infinite wisdom, even though they loved and worshipped him, may not choose them for the everlasting light. This accounted for their intense work ethic because they thought that if they were doing good things, God must have put that desire within them, proving that they were chosen for salvation.
Around the same time as John Smith arrived in Jamestown, the Puritans arrived in Holland, selected for its reputation as a religiously tolerant nation. Unfortunately as immigrants, they were stuck working degrading jobs for many hours under difficult circumstances. Also, through their tenure in the country, the political climate of Holland had become volatile. Interestingly, it was their ethnocentrism that made them take action. They feared their children would lose their English identity, so despite their religious freedom, the Puritans began to seek sanctuary elsewhere.
The New World, however, was a dangerous proposal. Jamestown was floundering and there was the ever-present fear of the Indians and the other unknown terrors that may await them on the shores. Nevertheless, they felt a calling, a Christian duty, to spread the word of God. They headed back to England and on September 6th, 1620, the Mayflower set sail for America.
But who was on it? “The Pilgrims, of course!” The Pilgrims, however, is not synonymous with the Puritans. This fact gets lost in the shuffle, giving the impression that the ship was captained, crewed, and populated with people seeking religious freedom. Master Jones, Captain of the Mayflower, and his crew were not. They were simply doing their job and had no plans to stay at the settlement. Neither were the Strangers (named because they were unknown to the Puritans) seeking freedom. They were indentured servants, orphans, and men, like their Jamestown counterparts, seeking gold. I can only imagine the tension between the humble Puritans, who saw greed as abhorrent, and the eager prospectors on that long journey across the Atlantic. In all, only 41 of the 102 Pilgrims were Puritans.
It is interesting to note that although the Puritans felt a desire and a striving for the separation of man from the material world, they were by no means adopters of “the meek shall inherit” mantra of Christ. Similar to their view that God instilled goodness in His chosen, they also felt that the growing presence of the homeless and the downtrodden– the very people Jesus associated – in England were a symbol of God’s displeasure with the sin of the community, taking it as a sign to extradite themselves from that community so as not to displease God. In addition, as a part of securing their charter, they had agreed to share any profits with the Merchant Adventures, the group that secured their voyage, so clearly money was not invisible from their minds.
And what was this Mayflower Compact thing? As they traveled to a new land with no rules, the settlers decided to draw up a document, designed as an agreement amongst themselves how to govern. It is very short, but it introduces what would become one of the main tenets of the American system: governmental rule by the people with the privilege to write and decide upon laws as they deemed necessary. However, this did not serve as the template for the Declaration of Independence as some have claimed because it clearly states its loyalty to King James. There is a touch of irony in the inclusion of his sobriquet Defender of the Faith when the reason the Puritans left England at all was because he refused them license to defend their own faith. It should also be said that even though the Mayflower Compact clearly states Puritan intentions – “Having undertaken, for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith… a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern part of Virginia…” – it was signed by the Strangers. Despite their desire to return the Christian faith back to its roots, ergo supporting a Puritan based theocracy, the Puritans had learned of the dangers of a church ruled government in England and the benefits of being free in Holland. The Mayflower Compact was kept free of any verbage designed to give religion authority, essentially creating the separation between Church and State. This split later continued to the institution of marriage when newly appointed Puritan Governor William Bradford decreed that weddings should remain civil ceremonies because the Gospels did not specify that a minister should take part in a marriage.
There is the cultural assumption that we set out for and landed on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth, whose original Indian name was Patuxet, was actually the second place the Mayflower docked after Provincetown Harbor proved to be uninhabitable. Actually, the Mayflower’s charter was for Virginia near the Hudson River, but violent winds and tumultuous currents made this voyage impossible, causing Master Jones to make the decision to sail north to Cape Cod. It seems strange that they renamed their new home Plymouth after a town in the very country they were leaving to avoid. One would think they would not want this correlative, but perhaps they saw it as a new start at making “England” better.
What about Squanto and the corn and the fish? There is no reason to disbelief that he existed nor that he was as helpful as history claims, but there are many things not discussed about this scenario.
Squanto lived an interesting life. Years prior, he had been kidnapped by the British and sold into slavery in Spain. He was saved by a group of monks (under the auspice of “saving” his soul), found his way to England, and was sent back to Cape Cod with Capt. Thomas Dermer as a guide to aid in exploration. It was during these travels that he learned English.
All of the corn the settlers planted did not come from Squanto himself. Some of the corn was stolen by the Pilgrims from a neighboring tribe while they were migrating. This was not the only thing they stole along their journeys either. The deserted houses and graves of the natives boasted a trove of items the growingly disenfranchised Pilgrims could use for themselves. However, to the Pilgrims’ credit (under Squanto’s strong suggestion to further diplomacy), the tribe was later repaid.
And the fish as fertilizer? Some historians argue over its origin. History teaches us that it is an old Indian tradition. Others believe that Squanto learned this technique as an ex-patriot from the Europeans. Chances are the historical theory is accurate because if this were a European tactic, the odds are high that the Pilgrims may have known it. This version of “fact” sounds like an attempt to discredit the accomplishments of the Native Americans.
There is a lot of talk over the actions of the Pilgrims toward the Native Americans that first Thanksgiving. The most “patriotic” among us believe that it was a peaceful, beautiful moment in our history where we brought the savages into modernity without bloodshed. The most “liberal” of us describe it as a massacre, an unspeakable blunder on the soul of America, tantamount to the Holocaust. These statements are both half right and half wrong.
The “patriotic” theory is wrong because they were not “savages” unless the modern definition remains the same as the antiquated one: non-Christian. The Puritans did look upon the natives – and anyone who didn’t belong to their cult – as savages. One of the major reasons they went to America was to prosthelytize. The only reason they didn’t upon arrival was because they knew they needed the natives to survive and had to keep peace. Puritan William Bradford wrote in his famous account Of Plymouth Plantation (1606-1646) that the natives were “savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and most treacherous.” Does this sound like a man who willingly wanted to break bread with the Indians? And “modernity” is simply a nice way of saying “Western.”
The bloodshed came later during the Pequot War (1636) and King Philip’s War (1675) – both over land – with the arrival of more English settlers. The “liberals” are incorrect to say that the first Thanksgiving was a bloodbath, but it wasn’t out of a lack of desire.
The meal that eventually became known as The First Thanksgiving came at the end of their first year in Cape Cod. It was harvest time and the Pilgrims had had their first bumper crop thanks to the guidance of the natives. Chief Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy, brought 90 of his tribesman and several deer to share in the feast as an act of friendship to commemorate their newly appointed commitment to one another.
Earlier in the year, the Pilgrims and the Indians had signed the Pilgrim-Wampanoag Peace treaty, as an alliance between the two groups, explicitly stating that no harm should come to either group, that England saw them as an ally, and they would protect each other in times of crisis. The Pilgrims held up their end of the bargain after Massasoit was kidnapped and they attempted a rescue. Massasoit was struck by their loyalty and he, along with nine other chiefs, signed an additional treaty reaffirming the alliance. Sadly, the settlers to come would not hold up their end of the bargain.
You would think that an event as famous as the First Thanksgiving would be showered with film adaptations. Where is the big budget epic from Steven Spielberg or James Cameron? Or the edgy retelling from the Coen Brothers or Clint Eastwood? The only major Hollywood version of this story, Plymouth Adventure, comes from 1952 and tells a fictional love story between some of the passengers. There’s also the TV film Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure (1979), but most of this action takes place on the boat. I wanted something more historical, more educational, something that was at least attempting to tell the story of the Puritans and the Native Americans and the saga of Thanksgiving.
This is America, Charlie Brown (1988-1989) is an eight part miniseries that covers some of the major accomplishments in our nation’s history like the Constitution and the building of the railroad. “The Mayflower Voyagers” continues the familiar version of the tale, highlighting the heroism of the English and the helpfulness of Squanto, Massasoit, and Samoset, even including his famous intro, “Welcome Englishmen.” Peanuts creator Charles Shultz includes well-known details like the number of passengers, the use of the giant screw to fix the broken beam, the plague that wiped out the Patuxet tribe, the Mayflower Compact, and the Pilgrims’ fear of the Indians. He gets extra credit for mentioning the diverse make-up of the Mayflower voyagers, the treaty between the Indians and the Pilgrims, and Squanto’s kidnapping by the English, but glosses over the probable tension of the groups and the truth of Squanto’s release. Schultz’s Squanto “served a wonderful man who helped [him] learn English and that man finally gave [him his] freedom.” I have already mentioned the English’s true motives for bringing him back to Cape Cod, which was also the reason they taught him English. Notice the glazed smiles and wondrous eyes of Charlie Brown and the Gang as they listen to the heroic act of an Englishman who saved Squanto from slavery.
Schultz, of course, uses his iconic characters throughout as the lens through which the story is told. It is Woodstock and Snoopy who first sight land and Charlie Brown is our narrator. The children’s role in the success of the community is also made very important. The film places the kids as nursemaids, taking care of the sick and washing clothes, with Lucy (who else?) taking charge. Charlie Brown tells us that none of the children in Plymouth died. This is untrue. Several families, including children, had been wiped out by the difficult conditions. What is true is that a number of children outlived their parents. This coupled with the orphans originally onboard the Mayflower suggests the ratio of child to adult may have skewed in the children’s favor, which works perfectly for a universe like Peanuts, composed of children wise beyond their years.
Schultz also paints the post-Squanto planting as a time of deathless prosperity. Comparatively speaking, it was; however, it was during this time that their own governor, John Carver, died. This exacerbated the growing conflicts between the settlers, brought about by many months of extenuating circumstances.
Through the leadership of William Bradford and the newly affirmed treaty between the natives and the settlers, the familiar idea of a brotherhood of man during the Thanksgiving celebration is probably portrayed here fairly accurately. The film is also correct in not portraying pumpkin pies; the Pilgrims had been out of flour for quite sometime prior, making pastries impossible. The forks they use are anachronistic; forks did not arrive in Plymouth until the end of the 17th Century.
Perhaps the most subtly telling and historically foreshadowing item in “The Mayflower Voyagers” comes in its last line of dialogue. Squanto turns to Charlie Brown – as Lucy, Snoopy, and Schroeder dance to and play the familiar “Linus and Lucy” theme – and says, “There are still a few of your customs I don’t understand.” Talk about an understatement.
This First Thanksgiving was not a precedent setting event. The second Thanksgiving took place two years later as a thank you to God for the end of a drought and then not again until June of 1676 as a celebration over an Indian conquest. (Chances are there weren’t any natives joining in those festivities) It was celebrated again in 1777 as a singular event to honor the victory over the British at Saratoga. George Washington tried to make it a national holiday in 1789, but many of the colonists didn’t think the event was important enough to declare a special day. Then in 1863, after years of begging from editorialist Sarah Joseph Hale (writer of the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. In 1939, deep in the thick of the Great Depression, FDR pushed Thanksgiving up a week to try and give retailers extra time to generate revenue. The custom, as it still is now, was that Christmas shopping would commence after Thanksgiving. Various groups such as football coaches who set their schedules around Thanksgiving Day games, calendar makers who had already gone to print, and small retailers who would potentially be losing an additional week of receipts to the bigger corporations complained to anyone who would listen. Some governors even refused to implement the shift, keeping families from around the country apart depending on which Thursday their state was celebrating. FDR rescinded the switch in 1941 and Congress officially made Thanksgiving the last Thursday in November.