Thanksgiving in America like many holidays has its roots in the East. Although Plymouth, MA tends to be thought of as the birthplace of Thanksgiving, I'm going to talk about another Thanksgiving, the first continuous settlement in the New World, Jamestown, VA. We think of the wonderful Powhatan Indians bringing gifts of food to the new settlers in a gesture of friendship. Exactly how much is fable and how much is truth seems to be muddied. One thing we do know was it wasn't very pretty.
What do we know? Not much. We think that the Indians who lived in these parts greeted us as intruders. They were skeptical and it didn't take them long to decide that we were not their friends. We put a settlement on their hunting lands. We brought infectious diseases from Europe and the we also succumbed to all sorts of illness from the Virginia environment and blamed it on the Indians. It's a bad case of finger pointing.
Knowing this area as I do, I can't imagine the settlers drinking water directly from the James River. For starters, it's brackish water. The salt content is almost as high as the Atlantic Ocean as the tides push ocean water into the Chesapeake Bay and into the rivers and inlets. It didn't take the settlers long to run out of food. And a bad growing season left them starving. They ate shoe leather and turned to cannibalism of their fellow dead. They wanted land to expand and hunt. The Indians didn't want them encroaching on their lands. Major fighting broke out.
We were better armed with guns and cannons! Can you imagine the surprise the Indians faced with these loud weapons when they only had spears and other primitive methods to protect themselves? It wasn't just the Englishmen's guns. The thing that sent the Indians to their knees was the simple act of burning their canoes. The settlers were ordered to burn any and all canoes as a way to overpower and control the Indians. Don't think of today's modern canoes or even those birch bark canoes, instead think of taking a tree trunk and hallowing it out. The canoes were massive often as much as 40-60 feet long and were virtually chipped out. It wasn't unusual for one to take maybe as much as two years to build.
The tribal leaders decided they had enough. If they continued to loose canoes, they would end up starving because it was their way to get around. They went hunting and after they had killed several deer, they took them to the English settlers of Jamestown. Please take the deer and stop burning our canoes. And we all lived happily ever after. (Not even close!)
Things remained rocky. And it probably didn't hurt that Pocahontas married John Rolfe. But, it's presumed that Chief Powhatan had probably long since given up on the daughter who had been kidnapped by the English, taught Christianity, how to act like a proper Englishwoman, and dress like one.
There was a feast in Virginia, except we don't know exactly when it took place. Probably fall or early winter because that would be the prime time to hunt deer but the year.... Actually there were several feasts along the east coast. Plymouth got to claim it and that still might not be correct. The Spaniards probably have the right to claim the first Thanksgiving and that's still ignoring the fact that the Indians had been celebrating a bountiful harvest long before any Europeans stepped foot in the New World.
Yes, the English settlement of Jamestown was grateful for the deer. Much like a child whoreceives a gift, they then expected it all the time. And their demands on the Indians only lead to more problems. The English were superior to the Indians, not in intelligence, but in weapons.
The lovely notion of everyone sitting around the fire and enjoying a meal together is more of a fantasy then an actual event. The old harvest festival was alive and well. Although it would be another 200 years before Thanksgiving became a holiday.
Our new president, George Washington, declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. But he only had one such celebration. It was meant as a celebration for our success in the Revolutionary War. Various states created their own Thanksgiving, mostly as a religious holiday. Lincoln declared the holiday for the last Thursday in November to honor the widows and orphans of the Civil War and as a day of prayer to heal the nation being torn apart. Then during the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date back a week to help spur the economy's health.
The real person who helped to make Thanksgiving a holiday was Sarah Josepha Hale, author and magazine editor. She worked diligently for over 36 years to make it a recognized holiday, but with a religious bent. She wrote articles, editorials, and letters to senators, governors, presidents, and just about anyone who might listen. She even suggested the menu, complete with recipes, and that menu became today's normal table. She succeeded when she convinced Pres. Lincoln who declared it in the midst of the Civil War.
Those first Thanksgivings weren't the traditional meal of today, unless your table consists of venison, and maybe a goose or duck. New England had cranberries, but they weren't in a sauce, try a bowl full of berries. (Can we say tart? Just thinking about it makes my mouth pucker.) Of course there were beans, and there was plenty of popped corn. (What we call kettle corn today minus the sugar and all the salt.) No pumpkin pie or even pie shells - no wheat flour. No potatoes, they were a South American thing and hadn't made their way here. And sweet potatoes also hadn't made their way this far north. The fare was plain, but to the early settlers, it was a true feast, a celebration that lasted several days.
To many American Indians, the holiday marks a day of mourning. It was the beginning of the end of their rule over this great land. It's a day for them to honor their forefathers who ruled.
For the rest of us, it's a day to be with family, count our blessings, watch a football game with loved ones, and eat until we can't handle another bite while the kitchen explodes with dirty pots, pans, and dishes. Lately, it's also become the early shoppers start of the Black Friday sales.
For me, it's a day to spend with my girls. They take turns hosting such events. I get called upon to make the gravy or whatever last minute culinary need arises. We all chip in with the clean up and it's done in a flash. We laugh and joke, I play with the granddogs, and in general, it's a quiet family sort of a day, but at least we are all together. No one is burning any canoes...although there was that year I got the flat tire. It didn't take to two years to replace.