A Little Thanksgiving History

Today is a national holiday here in the US. It’s a day with many different traditions today, from big meals with family, turkey, pumpkin pie, to parades and Detroit Lions football.

Interestingly the Thanksgiving tradition goes back much further than the 1924 inception of the Macy’s parade in New York. In fact, it predates our young country by more than 150 years.

Early Thanksgiving

The first recorded Thanksgiving in North America was actually held up in Canada in 1587 in celebration of surviving an abortive attempt to find a Northwest passage to the orient. Chalk one up to our neighbors to the North.

In the US, the first formal community wide Thanksgiving celebration was held 32 years later in 1619 on the banks of the James River in Virginia to celebrate the completion of an arduous sea passage.

Interestingly, the early Thanksgiving celebration that is most often looked to as the example didn’t happen until nearly two years later.

The folks that came over on the Mayflower and settled in Plymouth Massachusetts had a rough first year. They landed off Cape Cod in November so they didn’t have much time to prepare for the severe New England winter that they were faced with. It’s likely they didn’t understand how bad it would get.

Nearly half the 102 people who made the voyage across the Atlantic were dead within 6 months after disembarking in 1620 including their first leader John Carver. Most died from starvation and disease, although there were many hazards which could kill a person. Carver apparently died from sunstroke.

By the time the survivors got to their first harvest, they were fired up that they looked to have enough to make it through the second winter. So the 53 Europeans who were left had a big old celebration. It went on for days.

They invited some of their Indian friends who had shown them how to grow some of the crops that did so well. And the Native Americans were so impressed with the feast that they sent some of their hunters into the woods to get some venison for the settlers.

Economic Challenges

Since SuccessCREEations is about business, let me share with you this lesson I learned today from those early settlements.

Reading though a bunch of stuff out there on the early settlements I found it interesting that those early settlers in Massachusetts and Virginia survived those early years in spite of the economic system they started with. Both Plymouth and Jamestown started with a communal system.

It seems to make sense on the face of it. No one owns anything because all is shared. Everything is done for the common good to ensure the maximum possibility of survival for all. The idea is that everyone puts in maximum effort and only takes out what they need for themselves.

Trouble is it didn’t work. In fact that system was literally killing people in both communities.

Early American SettlersIn Jamestown the overwhelming majority of the men wanted to spend their time looking for gold rather than doing the work needed to survive. It got so bad that John Smith had to formally issue a proclamation that anyone who did not work would not eat.

It sounds harsh. Interestingly enough the idea comes straight from the New Testament of the Bible. And the change made a difference too and the settlement which was in danger of collapse survived.

Even the devout people of Plymouth, who weren’t obsessed with gold had problems with the communal system they were first under. They were stealing from each other. Single men didn’t feel they should work to support other men’s wives and children. Men didn’t like their wives doing laundry and stuff for other men. It wasn’t going so well.

So, after much debate, John Carver’s replacement William Bradford and the leaders of Plymouth changed things around. They divided up the common farm land into parcels and gave them to each family based on family size.

The difference was dramatic. In Governor Bradford’s own words:

By this time harvest was come, and in stead of famine now God gave them plenty, and ye face of things was changed, to ye rejoicing of ye hearts of many, for which they blessed God. And ye effect of their particular planting was well seen, for all had, one way & other, pretty well to bring ye year about, and some of ye abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any general want or famine had not been amongst them since to this day.

So instead of not quite having enough under the communal system, the privatized system produced enough excess that folks were able to sell some to those who needed more and everyone had more than enough.

It wasn’t long before the folks in and around Plymouth were sending enough profits back to Europe to attract more settlers.

The American Tradition

Ultimately Thanksgiving is about expressing gratitude to a Divine Creator for giving us more than we need and allowing us the privilege of passing that blessing on to others.

George WashingtonLooking to our Creator for continued blessing is not a popular idea in our culture today. There is a strong movement to remove all references to anything remotely religious from our public discourse, especially where our government is concerned. The myth that the establishment clause of the first amendment prohibits any acknowledgment of the Divine that is taking hold today is totally at odds with what the founders of our nation believed and expressed in their public lives.

A great many of the men who suffered the most to bring our nation into being were deeply religious. The writings they left behind are full of references to the Almighty.

From the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence on our nation’s leaders have long acknowledged and thanked God for the continued blessing and protection of our country.

As an example of this, let me leave you on this holiday with the words of the proclamation our first President George Washington issued in 1789 instructing our new nation why and how to celebrate the holiday that has become our Thanksgiving. Imagine how these same words might be received from a President today.

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A.D. 1789.

Please listen to Washington. Take a moment in reflection today and be genuinely grateful.

Enjoy!

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Comments

  1. Hi Chris,

    Happy Thanksgiving from the banks of the James River and thank you for the great history lesson!

    Doug

  2. Heya Doug! Glad you enjoyed it. Hope you have a wonderful day up there too!

  3. Happy Thanksgiving! I’m not from America but I know it’s a very important holiday for you, so I wish you all the best :)

  4. Nice touch, Chris, and a much-needed look into the foundations of giving communal thanks in America.

    Keep writing…

  5. It’s interesting that the European (illegal?) immigrants could not survive with a communal (communist?) economic system, considering the aboriginal neighbors who saved their lives by showing them what crops to plant DID have a communal economic system.

    What do you think accounted for this difference?

  6. I wonder if they would have been so helpful if they could have seen what was coming!

  7. Nice touch, Chris, and a much-needed look into the foundations of giving communal thanks in America.

    Keep writing…

  8. Jim Blum says:

    George Washington
    Took Us to VICTORY over the british in 1776 & 1777 I am living prof
    I am am AMERICAN My ancsor Spencer Betts is an American Revelotion hero
    my Nane sake is a war between the state Hero I was Bore on the 4 th of july 1959 I am a FREE MASOM I am a member of the NRA, , IAM AN AMERICAN!!!!

  9. Well, looks like we have a one sided version of were the idea of Thanksgiving emerged. Wasn’t it the First people of North america who introduced feast???

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