The real story, 400 years ago

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt | Nov 28, 2019

And what would you be having for Thanksgiving dinner come Thursday if there were no Hannaford’s or Tozier’s — indeed, if the nearest store of any kind were across the ocean?

Think of yourself as one of the Mayflower passengers, weak and weary after a long, storm-tossed voyage, cramped like sardines in a tiny vessel made for carrying cargo like wine, not passengers.

You finally set foot on land, albeit cold, as their journey had been delayed and they didn’t set foot on land until the 9th of November, after two months at sea. They joyously gathered mussels for their first fresh food in many weeks. And they likewise promptly threw them up, either because the mussels were too rich for a first fresh food or they were contaminated with the Red Tide. (Since it was November, I’m thinking it was too rich.)

Now, you must get back on the ship as there is no shelter on land, no Holiday Inn or motel or airbnb. Shelter first has to be built. The men go ashore, and set about constructing saw pits and felling trees for the four walls, 20 by 20, for the first shelter, a “common house.” The roof is thatched and spirits are high. And five days later, fire has destroyed the roof.

As the men race to replace the roof and get up other individual homes (“First Village”), sickness overtakes the group and fully half of the men, women and children are dead by spring. And all the while, the only contact with the “Wilde Savages” has been from the woods, with shouting and gesturing, while the Indians keep an eye on these new intruders, observing and sizing them up.

In early April, the Mayflower weighs anchor and sails over the horizon — it had remained on shore during the rest of the winter. You are now alone to survive in this vast wilderness by your own wits and industry. Capt. Christopher Jones had made the offer of free transportation back to England for anyone who wanted to go. Not one took the offer.

Then, one of the first warm days in spring, a tall, “fine specimen” of a man, a Sachem from Pemaquid Point, Maine, strides down the through the middle of the little cottages and, as women and children run to hide, he raises his arm and says, “Welcome, Englishmen,” and asks for a beer.

Imagine the shock and puzzlement! He was Samoset, chief of the Indians up in what is now Maine. (It was part of Massachusetts then.) Samoset had had many years of dealing with the fishermen from England who plied the shores off Monhegan and he had picked up some English.

Samoset was visiting with the local tribes, headed by Massasoit. They all had more than good reason to be wary of these new people from across the ocean, but, after observing them through the winter, concluded that these were different from the fur trappers and fishermen who came to get rich off their lands. These people had brought their wives and families and seemed not to have hostile or other ill intent. They decided that perhaps they could be friends with these strangers and even might be able to be of mutual benefit to one another against their enemy, the tribe to the south of Plymouth.

The area, by the way, was not named Plymouth because the Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth, England, but was already so named on the map used by Capt. Jones, who had made several voyages to these now New England shores.

Samoset is welcomed into one of the cottages and given biscuits and “spirit water” — probably gin. The Europeans of those days had their own little “stills” for producing beer, wine and "spirits," as the water in their homelands was too contaminated to drink safely. They were delighted to find that the nearby streams ran with cool, fresh, clear and safe water.

Samoset says he would bring another Indian to visit, one who can speak better English, so that they can communicate better. His name is Tisquantum, whom we know as “Squanto.”

Squanto does indeed speak good English, having learned it in England. He was kidnapped through treachery some years before and spent five years in England before being given passage back home. His tribal home was the very land upon which the Pilgrims were building their village. But when he got back, he had found his entire tribe had been wiped out by sickness. The Pilgrims offer to pay him for the land but he says no, they are welcome to stay. Indeed, he moves back to build his wickiup next to the village. He had come to like some of the English ways and he stays as an invaluable friend, teaching them how and what to plant, how to catch eels in the stream, etc., in this new land, and serving as interpreter between the two peoples.

Governor Bradford, in his journal, first published in the late 1800s, tells how he and the others were greatly impressed with the Indians as fine, honest and trusted friends. They drew up a mutually beneficial treaty, the only treaty never broken by the signers. One point was that when the Indians came to visit, they would leave their weapons, bows and arrows, at the edge of the village. Likewise, when any of the Pilgrims went to their villages, they would leave their weapons outside.

Most importantly, if the warring tribe to the south moved on Massasoit’s tribes, the Pilgrims would come to their aid and if the Pilgrims were attacked, Massasoit would come to their aid. This treaty held for 40-50 years until the original Pilgrim and Indian leaders had died and thousands of other settlers had swarmed the shores, particularly the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, who settled in Boston. They considered the Indians as heathens to be converted. It all went downhill from there.

That first spring, with Squanto’s help, the Pilgrims planted their gardens. Food was scarce. Then in mid-May, a “great drought” hit. The sun beat down with no rain as weeks passed through June and July and the crops “began to languish sore...parched like withered hay,” Bradford wrote. They turned to their only remaining source of help and set aside a day of prayer.

Before the day was out, to the astonishment of the Indians, the cloudless skies become overcast “to rain with such sweet and gentle showers...without neither wind or thunder or any violence...just right to soak the earth, so that the crops revived. The rest of the summer, rains fell as needed, resulting in a bountiful harvest,” Bradford continued in his Journal, “for which mercy will be set apart a day of thanksgiving.”

From the gardens, there was corn and green beans and squash, thanks to the instructions of Squanto on how and what to plant in the acidic soil. He taught them the method of the “three sisters.” That was to make a mound, bury three alewives in it for fertilizer, corn on the top, a circle of beans around the corn (the corn provided "bean stocks” and the beans give corn nitrogen) and around the edge of the mound, squash, which gives shade, helping to keep moisture in.

And so they had their "day of thanksgiving," at the end of harvest — three days of feasting and playing games and singing songs with over a hundred of their Indian friends. Some braves went out and brought back five deer to help with the food.

And Bradford writes of other foods, such as “...a store of fowl, and besides waterfowl, there was a great store of ye wilde turkey, of which we took many.”

So there we have it. The “day of thanksgiving,” of gathering with family and friends and the foods that have become our tradition. Written by an eye witness in his journal, still in print, now titled: Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, is a Maine native and a graduate of Belfast schools, now living in Morrill. Her columns appear in this paper every other week.

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