English

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Pilgrims first harvest feast


The Pilgrims had landed in a cold and forbidding land with no friends and rocky soil. More than a third of their population died of starvation and exposure during the first winter. Adding to the misery was the effects of their contract with their merchant sponsors which required them to share all property and the fruits of labor in common. William Bradford illustrated the problems associated with this arrangement in his diary:

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato's and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense.

William Bradford, as Governor of the Plymouth Colony, responded accordingly by privatizing property. Bradford wrote of this in his diary:

This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content.

Also indispensable to the Pilgrims success was the English speaking Wampanoag native Squanto, who had conducted business with English ships from the coast previously, and who taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, fish, fertilize their crops, and hunt deer. In his diary, Bradford referred to Squanto as a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectations.

With help from Squanto, and with the introduction of private property, the Pilgrims prospered during the summer of 1621 and celebrated their success with the traditional harvest feast that is known to history as the First Thanksgiving. Their prosperity and the bounty of their crop allowed them to pay back their merchant sponsors. The feast lasted for three days and the food may have included venison, duck, goose, seafood, eels, pumpkins, corn, leeks, watercress and a variety of other greens. Squanto and other members of the Wampanoag tribe brought turkeys and deer to the festivities. A prayer of gratitude to God was offered before anyone ate.

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