1621: A New Look At Thanksgiving, by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac with Pilmoth Plantation, photographs by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson
Revisionist historians have always had a problem with the Thanksgiving story. Given the wide gulf between the numerical weakness of the original colonists of Plymouth and their demographic strength even fifty years later, and given the need that leftist historians have of trying to blame whitey for all the problems that exist in the world, the idea that early settlers and native peoples were able to sit down and share a feast together cannot be taken at face value but instead must be connected with ideas about the shrewdness of Wampanoag diplomacy in the face of demographic losses from the plague that left the site of Plymouth uninhabited and that threatened the confederation’s independence with (temporarily) stronger neighboring tribes. Likewise, it must be connected as well with the destruction of the amity between the Pilgrims and later Puritans and that tribe in the horrors of King Philip’s war in the 1670’s. And to be sure, neither of these has been ignored, but it is only recently that it has been a common thing to see these elements combined into the story of Thanksgiving. Some people apparently cannot leave a diplomatic meal alone but have to attack it as a myth.
In general this is a short book with gorgeous photography at the reconstructions of Plymouth plantation (spelled Plimoth by the not-for-profit who does the reenactment), but with dodgy political worldviews at the heart of the supposed historical investigation. The book begins with a foreword by the authors and then an introduction that talks about the bountiful harvest of the area. There are then discussions of the Wompanoag language as well as their status as the people of the first light because of where they lived in Massachusetts. A discussion of the colonization of the New World is followed by a discussion of the diplomacy of the tribes in seeking to ally with the Pilgrims to shore up their own insecure status, as well as a discussion on how myth was made. There was then a discussion of the harvest as well as the festival that shared in the plenty of the land. A discussion of giving thanks then leads to a discussion of how the holiday changed over time in its meaning and how it was celebrated, ending with a conclusion about the end of the peace between the native peoples and the Pilgrims after fifty years of peace, as well as an appendix about bringing the past to life, a chronology, bibliography and index, and credits.
This book is written in a different spirit than the original Thanksgiving was. It is generally true that we do not see things as they are but as we are, and the authors of this book and I see Thanksgiving in very different ways. I am perfectly content to celebrate the harmony, however temporary, between different peoples who obviously had their own agendas and had mutual needs of the other that could be served through shrewd but fair bargaining. The Pilgrims were looking for a new home and happened to find it in a land that had been ravaged by disease and left with a lot of open land that could be settled by the newcomers. On the other hand, the obvious military prowess of the Pilgrims was clearly of use in defending the plague-ravaged Wompanoag confederation from others, and in this mutual understanding of each other’s position diplomacy was set that would last for decades, long enough for the Pilgrims and the Puritans to become much more numerous than the few people who enjoyed that original Thanksgiving feast. And it is entirely unexpected that later generations, including our own, would add elements to what they thought of the festival based on the conditions at the time. But let us not think that we understand Thanksgiving better than those who celebrated it, as this book at times has the temptation to do.