The following mini-essay is written not in any malicious sense but in the spirit of John F Kennedy who said: "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie - deliberate, contrived and dishonest - but the myth - persistent, persuasive and unrealistic”
Next Thursday ( 25 November 2010), some 300 million Americans will celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. Because the day is so closely associated with good dining, even the poorest Americans will stretch their budgets in order to buy the foods traditionally associated with the holiday. To deprive Americans of their Thanksgiving meal is so unthinkable that special dinners will be flown to soldiers in places as far away from America as the Afghanistan, Saudia Arabian dessert and the research station in Antarctica. Even prisoners in solitary confinement in Federal Prisons will be given Thanksgiving dinners.
As most of these people sit down to their dinner tables, they will reflect on the story of the first Thanksgiving, said to have been held at the colony of Plymouth 1621, when the Puritans made their home in the New World. There is probably no myth dearer to the hearts of Americans than the story of that first Thanksgiving. The standard tale goes something like this: after establishing themselves at Plymouth, Massachusetts and Jamestown, Virginia, the Puritans immediately realized that they had arrived in a land that was beautiful and bountiful. They gave thanks to God, befriended the members of the Wampanoag tribes and quickly learned the ways of their new land. Life was so good that one year after their arrival they sat down to a marvelous feast where white and red men and women celebrated together.
Its a great story. There just does not happen to be a word of truth in it. Shortly after the Puritans had set up camp in the colonies, William Bradford, probably the most able leader of the group, wrote that the land they had come on was "a hideous and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men." Simply to survive in this new world was an act of bravery and the first winter in America was ghastly - filled with famine and disease. The chief killer was scurvy which resulted from a lack of Vitamin C. The Puritans had fared well enough on their voyage across the Atlantic because the ship was well supplied with cabbage, onions and unpasteurized beer (all of which contain low levels of Vitamin C). Once on land, however, those supplies ran short and the settlers had no idea of what to do. Because they considered the Indians barbarians, they failed to learn that drinking tea based on pine needles would have prevented this disease.
Historian J.C. Furnas writes that "subsisting on dried salted meat and biscuits, and precious little of either, the colonists died like flies, if not of disease of sheer starvation. "Had the Indians attacked, defense would have been impossible", Furnas notes, but "fortunately for both the Pilgrims and those now proudof descending from them, a plague had wiped out nearly all of the local Indians that very winter. The colonists gave thanks to God more for the `scourge that was set on the heathen savages than for other blessings."
It took almost six years until the Pilgrims finally came to realize that the vegetable riches of the new world were enormous. Cocoa, cassava (manioc), many types of beans, corn, papaya, sweet potatoes, avocado and the members of the pumpkin family were available in abundance. Deer, wild pigs, quails, pigeons were also readily available. As to the bird most often associated with Thanksgiving, it is probable that the turkey only became part of settlers' diet somewhere about 1690, nearly 70 years after the fabled Thanksgiving feast was supposed to have taken place.
Regardless of myths, folktales and out-and-out lies, America was then and remains now a rich and bountiful land. Although that richness and bounty may not always have been shared equally the spirit of Thanksgiving is one that may justifiably be celebrated.