Today we Americans give thanks to God for his bounty and blessing, even if we are confused about exactly what He has bestowed upon us.
The Pilgrims and Wampanoag held that first Thanksgiving feast of 1621 to celebrate a bountiful harvest, which they viewed as merely good fortune. William Bradford, the Plymouth governor, wrote that Squanto, the English-speaking Indian who served as the colony’s interpreter and counselor, was a “special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”
The Pilgrims’ English seed would not grow. Squanto taught them how to plant maize and where and how to catch the local fish. By the fall of 1621, they had more food than they needed for survival.
Yet within two years of the first Thanksgiving, the colonists were again on the verge of starvation. “So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery,” Bradford wrote in his journal. “At length, after much debate of things, the governor (with ye advise of ye chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in ye general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance), and ranged all boys & youth under some family.”
The colonists’ contract with their investors required them to raise their food in common. All was to be shared. Despite the aid of Squanto and Chief Massasoit, this system kept the colony nearly devoid of food. In desperation, the Pilgrims violated the contract in favor of a new system in which each family was to feed itself.
“This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then otherwise would have been by any means ye governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content,” Bradford wrote. “The women now went willingly into ye field, and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”
By all means, let us be thankful for God’s providence in seeing all of our families in their own way to these hospitable shores. But let us also be thankful that our forefathers discovered and built a nation upon the virtue of self-reliance.