American Elephants


A Day of Thanksgiving, Then and Now. by The Elephant's Child
November 26, 2008, 7:42 pm
Filed under: Education, History | Tags: , , ,

On March 22, 1621, an official Native American delegation walked through what is now southern New England to negotiate with a group of foreigners who had taken over a recently deserted Indian settlement.  At the head of the party was an uneasy triumvirate: Massasoit, the sachem (political-military leader) of the Wampanoag confederation, a loose coalition of several dozen villages that controlled most of southeastern Massachusetts; Samoset, sachem of an allied group to the north; and Tisquantum, a distrusted captive, whom Massasoit had reluctantly brought along as an interpreter.

Massasoit was an adroit politician, but the dilemma he faced would have tested Machiavelli.  About five years before, most of his subjects had fallen before a terrible calamity.  Whole villages had been depopulated—indeed, the foreigners ahead now occupied one of the empty sites.  It was all he could do to hold together the remnants of his people.  Adding to his problems, the disaster had not touched the Wampanoag’s longtime enemies, the Narragansett alliance to the west.  Soon, Massasoit feared, they would take advantage of the Wampanoag’s weakness and overrun them.

Desperate threats require desperate countermeasures.  In a gamble, Massasoit intended to abandon, even reverse, a long-standing policy.  Europeans had been visiting New England for at least a century.  Shorter than the natives, oddly dressed, and often unbearably dirty, the pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of the masks of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces.  They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed to Indians like basic tasks.  But they also made useful and beautiful goods—copper kettles, glittering colored glass, and steel knives and hatchets—unlike anything else in New England.  Moreover, they would exchange these valuable items for cheap furs of the sort used by Indians as blankets.  It was like happening upon a dingy kiosk that would swap fancy electronic goods for customers’ used socks—almost anyone would be willing to overlook the shopkeeper’s peculiarities.

This is how author Charles C. Mann describes the first contact between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, in his fascinating book 1491, which alters our view of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492.  He goes on to say: “British fishing vessels may have reached Newfoundland as early as the 1480s and areas to the south soon after.  In 1501, just nine years after Columbus’s first voyage, the Portugese adventurer Gaspar Corte-Real abducted fifty-odd Indians from Maine.  Examining the captives, Corte-Real found to his astonishment that two were wearing items from Venice: a broken sword and two silver rings.”

As for the Indians, evidence suggests that they tended to view Europeans with disdain as soon as they got to know them.  The Huron in Ontario, a chagrined missionary reported, thought the French possessed “little intelligence in comparison to themselves.”  Europeans, Indians told other Indians, were physically weak, sexually untrustworthy, atrociously ugly, and just plain smelly. (the British and French, many of whom had not taken a bath in their entire lives, were amazed by the Indian interest in personal cleanliness.)…The Micmac in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia scoffed at the notion of European superiority.  If Christian civilization was so wonderful, why were its inhabitants all trying to settle somewhere else?

The Wall Street Journal has two editorials that it has been publishing on this day ever since 1961 : “The Desolate Wilderness”, and And the Fair Land.” This year they have another piece by Ira Stoll on the first national Thanksgiving holiday, “A Day of Thanksgiving”, on Thursday, Dec. 18, 1777.  You will want to read all three.

We wish you and yours a most Happy Thanksgiving.  We all have much to be thankful for.




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