The Thanksgiving story that you have been told about the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, met the friendly local Indians and had a big feast with them is a story that has been told and retold to the point that it has risen to the status of an American legend. If you want to keep this version of the story as you like it, read no further. The facts of this event do not line up with the story we have all been told. Here is a brief summary of what really happened.
To start with, the Pilgrims never called themselves by that name. They were Separatists – English Protestants who wished to separate themselves from the corruption in the Church of England. And they really liked beer. Before departing on the journey, their ship was loaded with a gallon of beer per day for each of about 130 passengers and crew. It was about a 10-week voyage, so that comes up to about 9000 gallons of beer. The reason for this is there was no known way to keep water fresh and drinkable for such a long period of time, so they had to rely on beer to stay healthy while at sea. Was this America’s first booze cruise? You decide.
Next, the ship dropped anchor off Cape Cod, Massachusetts at what is now known as Provincetown on November 11, 1620. The Separatists ended up settling in Plymouth after trying a few other places, but where they set up roots was in an area that was also home to the native Wampanoag people. The Wampanoags were a collection of different tribes and each tribe was an independent cell of its own. The tribes united together under Chief Massasoit and his job was basically to keep the peace. Across the bay was the Narragansett tribe who were rivals of the Wampanoags.
There had been some sort of widespread sickness or epidemic in the Wampanoag tribes, and as such their warriors were severely weakened because of it. The rival tribe saw this as an opportunity to attack, because they had been unaffected by the epidemic and were at full strength. Massasoit made the decision to ally with the Separatists, even though earlier such relationships with the Europeans had gone very, very badly. After gaining permission to come ashore, the Separatists did not behave like you think that they should have. Most of them were either seasick, starving, or just plain ill and they immediately started digging up Wampanoag graves in search of food that might have been buried there. They actually found some corn, dried fruit, vegetables, and pumpkins and took it back to the ship. I thank God that I have never been that hungry.
Due to their lack of food, extreme cold temperatures, severe illnesses, and starvation many of the Separatists stayed on the ship until February. About half of them had died at this point and Massasoit decided to formally approach them to establish some kind of diplomatic relations. He took a big political risk in doing this, because most of his tribesmen wanted to kill or get rid of these Europeans, like they did with the previous groups.
When the next November came around, the Separatists decided they wanted to have a Thanksgiving. Traditionally this was an all-day affair involving fasting and giving thanks for all that they had. After that, they broke the fast with a feast. When the meal was done, things got a little bit rowdy and they started shooting up in the air. The Wampanoags thought they were under attack, but when they arrived at the Separatist encampment, they were quite confused. It was an awkward moment, but things were smoothed over with lots of alcohol and everyone had a grand time. And that was the real first Thanksgiving feast. So, this year let’s make sure to give thanks for what we have like they did back then, but please leave out the graverobbing, ok?
Alan Shoalmire is a resident in Grimes County and the owner of Grill Sergeant Hotdogs and submits a column to the Navasota Examiner every other week.