The first Thanksgiving — hold the cliches

November 13, 2013
(Courtesy of Penguin)
(Courtesy of Penguin)

For an honest look at what the Pilgrims were really up to in 1621, check out Nathaniel Philbrick’s “The First Thanksgiving” (Penguin, $2.99). This trim ebook — about 60 pages — is part of the Penguin Tracks series that began last year as a way of repurposing excerpts from previously published books. “The First Thanksgiving” is drawn from Philbrick’s “Mayflower” (2006), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History.

“We all want to know how it was in the beginning,” Philbrick writes, “but beginnings are rarely as clear-cut as we would like them to be.” That’s certainly true of the Pilgrims’ fabled feast. They didn’t even use the term “Thanksgiving.”

“Countless Victorian-era engravings notwithstanding,” he writes, “the Pilgrims did not spend the day sitting around a long table draped with a white linen cloth, clasping each other’s hands in prayer as a few curious Indians looked on. Instead of an English affair, the First Thanksgiving soon became an overwhelmingly Native celebration when Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets (more than twice the entire English population of Plymouth) arrived at the settlement with five freshly killed deer.”

Don’t worry: They enjoyed a “good store of wild turkeys,” too.

Philbrick places this celebrated celebration in the far more complicated context of actual history. His relatively short ebook provides a harrowing narrative of just how tragic and dangerous those first 11 months were.

The Pilgrims arrived in winter after a long transatlantic voyage. Hungry and sick, they immediately began dying off — sometimes two or three a day. By spring, half of them had perished. “By all rights,” Philbrick writes, “none of the Pilgrims should have emerged from the first winter alive.”

What the Pilgrims didn’t know then was that they had landed in a region recently devastated by disease: The Indian tribes had suffered even more horrible losses. “Death was everywhere.” The Native Americans were terrified and weakened.

What saved the Pilgrims was “becoming an active part of the diplomatic process” with the Indians. Philbrick provides a brisk introduction to the competing tribes and some of the remarkable individuals who played key roles in the settlement’s survival.

When Gov. William Bradford called his sturdy band to “rejoice together . . . after a more special manner,” they had a lot to be grateful for.

Far from a work of cynical myth-busting, this history makes the first Thanksgiving sound all the more miraculous. And it will probably make you realize that you want the full feast in “Mayflower.”

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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