November 27, 2014


What Were The Pilgrims And Their Thanksgiving Like? (Edward M. Eveld, 21 November, 2007, The Kansas City Star)

Nathaniel Philbrick had these two fuzzy, competing and faulty impressions of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving.

There was the sweet, childhood image, a bountiful table in a bucolic setting with feasting Englishmen in the foreground and American Indians looking on.

And there was the grown-up, cynical perspective: the Pilgrims as 17th-century English conquerors, and the Plymouth feast little more than a myth.

Philbrick, author of 'Mayflower', spent three years researching the Pilgrims' voyage and what came after, including the complex and evolving relationships between settlers and American Indians. He found not the caricatures of his fuzzy impressions but real humans capable of kindness and murder, of lasting conciliation and sudden treachery, of charity and the ugliest of greed.

Philbrick, 51, will be in Kansas City on Thursday to discuss his book, which was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in history. He lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. [...]

Q. But then came King Philip's War, when things fell apart. What went wrong?

What I saw in doing this book was how much the personal commitment of the leaders matters. Diplomacy is hard work, especially when there are such cultural differences. The tragedy of the story is that with the second generation, they lose that appreciation so quickly.

King Philip's War is the war that American history has forgotten. We start with the Pilgrims and in most histories leapfrog to the American Revolution. New England had changed radically in 55 years. As more and more English survived, land became a big part of this. Land had gone into English hands in a huge way. From the native perspective, they said, "What good was this alliance? We've lost our birthright." And with the leaders not liking each other much, it leads to war.

This was an extraordinarily brutal conflict when you look at the percentage of the populations killed, more than twice as bloody as the Civil War.

You can say the English won, but one-third of the towns in New England were burned and abandoned, and they would pay for the war for decades. Until then, they had remarkable independence from the mother country, but afterward they had to throw themselves on the mercy of England. You could say this created the tensions that would erupt 100 years later in the American Revolution.

For Indians who were not killed or forced to leave the region, many were captured and crowded on ships, sent to the West Indies and sold as slaves.

And for me, this is how the story of the Pilgrims becomes ultimately relevant to us as Americans. We think of the Indian wars as 19th century, the winning of the West. But it all happened in the Plymouth colony.

That "could say" is awfully precious. Consider that had the Indians won they'd still be muddling along at subsistence level with a life expectancy in the early 30s and no culture.

[originally posted 11/22/07]

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Posted by at November 27, 2014 12:05 AM