Tuesday, November 22, 2016

November 24, 1621 – Wampanoags Drive Pilgrims into the Sea

Hearing gunfire, some 90 Native American warriors from the Wampanoag tribe followed their chief Massasoit to investigate the happenings at the settlement established one year before by white-skinned separatist Pilgrims from England.

On a star-crossed journey funded by the Company of Merchant Adventurers, the Pilgrims left port and overcrowded on the leaky Mayflower. After more than two months at sea, they arrived in North America as winter was setting in. The would-be colonists stayed aboard the ship for weeks, sending out small expeditions for food until at last locating a suitable site chosen for its defensibility and readiness as it had recently been abandoned by Native Americans with land cleared for cultivation. It was not enough to stave off malnutrition and disease, which ravaged the passengers.

By next spring, the Pilgrim population had been cut in half, yet they were determined to establish a new home. Providence seemed to smile upon them when, on March 16, a Native American named Samoset walked into the middle of the colony and declared in English, “Welcome, Englishmen!” He had picked up a fair bit of their language from trappers and told them that the village they now lived in had before been wiped out from smallpox. It was within the realm led by Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Two years before, Massasoit had slaughtered English explorers who trespassed and rescued Tisquantum, who had been kidnapped and taken to Europe as a slave for five years.

The Pilgrims called the former slave “Squanto,” and he seemed to adopt the troubled settlers, training them in effective agricultural methods for the frigid Northeast. With the successful corn crop that fall, the Pilgrims decided to hold a traditional harvest festival. Four men were sent fowling, collecting a week’s worth of game for a feast. The other 49 surviving Pilgrims readied a Thanksgiving.

As the surviving account of Edward Winslow reads, “At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, and many of the Indians [came] amongst us…” Setting off gunfire for pleasure along with hoots and singing brought Massasoit and his Native American warriors to investigate. When a stray shot struck one of the warriors, Massasoit interpreted it as a declaration of war. Only a handful of Pilgrims managed to survive the battle, fleeing into the woods and hiding along the coast until the Fortune arrived from England.

The Fortune brought 37 more settlers although few supplies as they expected to find a thriving community. Instead, they were met by bedraggled Pilgrims who saw no choice but to return to England, despite the Merchant Adventurers already accusing them of defaulting on the colony’s loan. The humiliated Pilgrims told ever-increasingly terrifying tales of the dangers of settling in “land God has truly forsaken.”

Although future English settlers avoided the area, there was still a strong drive for colonization to the south around the successful Jamestown and in sparser fur-trapping communities to the northwest. Other nations founded more successful colonies toward the cursed land, including New Sweden and New Netherlands. The Dutch conquered New Sweden in 1655, expanding their holdings south as well as at last pushing northward to dominate lands the Pilgrims had fled. The northern settlements were able to lend support during a blockade of New Amsterdam by English warships, driving the English away when their supplies ran low. Upon the Glorious Revolution of 1688, tensions in North America declined between growing Virginia and New Amsterdam until over-harvesting of furs prompted competition and several small wars along the borders. Finally in the Napoleonic Wars, Britain conquered New Amsterdam and absorbed it into complete holdings over North America north of Mexico. The dominion would last until broken up revolutions in the nineteenth century.


In reality, the first Thanksgiving was a peaceful affair. Likely earlier in the year than November due to its northerly climate, the harvest festival was a continuation of traditions from the old country. Winslow wrote that “for three days we entertained and feasted,” sharing food including five deer brought by the Native Americans. The success of the Pilgrims would bring many more settlers to the prosperous area, which would become known as New England.

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