In the minds of many Americans, when asked the question, “When was the United States first settled?”, invariably the response will be, “in 1620 when the Pilgrims landed.” This so called “origin myth” has frequently been termed “the story of the first Thanksgiving” in many children’s books about the subject.
However, beginning the story of America’s settlement with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in 1620 leaves out not only the Native population, but also the Spanish, African and French as well. As a matter of fact, the very first non-Indian or non-Native settlers in this country know called the United States, were African slaves left in Georgia in 1526 by Spaniards who abandoned a settlement attempt.
According to Jeannine Cook, in Columbus and the Land of Ayllón: The Exploration and Settlement of the Southeast published in 1992, in the summer of 1526, approximately five hundred Spanish colonists and one hundred African slaves, and perhaps some free African colonists, under the command of Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, founded a settlement in America called San Miguel de Gualdape.
The colonists had sailed from the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in July 1526 aboard six ships. In August, they had landed at Winyah Bay on the mouth of the Pedee River, in what is now South Carolina, near present-day Georgetown. However, they failed to find an Indian village, which they felt from past experience would be necessary for food until crops could be planted and harvested, so they sailed further southward. On what would later become the Georgia coast, Ayllón and his colonists found a village of Guale Indians and chose to settle nearby.
Although physical remains of their settlement have not been found, historians and geographers have utilized surviving navigation logs and other records to reconstruct the 1526 voyage. Based on the latest research, the San Miguel de Gualdape settlement probably was situated on the mainland of what today is McIntosh County in Georgia, opposite Sapelo Sound. Disease and disputes with the local Guale Indian village caused many deaths in the settlement, and finally in November 1526, the African slaves rebelled, killed some of their Spaniard masters, and escaped to live with the local Guale tribe. By now only 150 Spaniards survived, so they evacuated back to Haiti. The former slaves elected to remain behind. Consequently, the first non-Native settlers in this country we now know as the United States, were Africans.
In 1564, approximately 250 French Protestants or “Huguenots” as they were called, established a settlement on the St. John’s River near present-day Jacksonville, Florida calling it La Caroline, commanded by René Goulaine de Laudonniere. Then in August 1565, some 600 Spanish soldiers and settlers under Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés came ashore at the site of a Timucuan Indian village, fortified the fledgling village and named it Saint Augustine.
According to findings by Kathleen Teltsch, published in the New York Times in 1990 titled, Scholars and Descendants Uncover Hidden Legacy of Jews in Southwest, when the long arm of the Spanish Inquisition established itself in Mexico City, some Spanish Jews, called Sephardim in Hebrew, (the descendants of Jews whose ancestors lived on the Iberian Peninsula), fled with Don Juan de Oñate in 1598 and established permanent settlements in what is today New Mexico and Colorado.
In addition, beginning the origin story in 1620 at Plymouth, Massachusetts, omits recognition of the first British settlement in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, and also omits the Dutch, who were living in a settlement in what is now Albany, New York by 1614.
Just before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts Bay, a process started in Southern New England which would lay a foundation for the Plymouth Colony which was to come later. By 1617, British and French fishermen had been fishing off the Massachusetts coast for decades. After filling the hulls of the ships with Cod, they would go ashore to gather firewood and fresh water, and perhaps capture a few Native Indians to sell into slavery in Europe. It is now considered likely that these fishermen transmitted some illness to the Native population.
The Plague which started escalating in the Southeastern coast of New England in 1617 made the “Black Plague” of 1348-1350, which killed an estimated 30% of the population of Europe, pale by comparison. Some Historians theorize the New England Plague was Bubonic, others suggest it was Viral Hepatitis or Influenza. In any event, within three years the New England Plague had wiped out close to 96% of the Native population of coastal New England. Native tribal societies were devastated. During the next fifteen years additional epidemics, most of which we now know to have been Smallpox, struck Native Indian populations repeatedly. John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Plymouth beginning in 1629, called the Plague, “miraculous.”
According to R. C. Winthrop in Life and Letters of John Winthrop, 2 volumes, 1864–67, Gov. John Winthrop wrote a close friend in England in 1634 saying,
“But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the Smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection…”
The result of the Plague of 1617, which is said to have reduced the coastal Native tribes from 30,000 to approximately 300, helped to prompt the myth of the legendary “warm reception” the Pilgrims enjoyed in 1620 from the Wampanoag Federation of tribes. In actuality, Massasoit (b. 1580, d. 1661) of the Pokanoket tribe, and leader or Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation, was eager to ally with the Pilgrims that arrived in 1620 because the plague had so weakened his villages, that he feared the stronger Narragansett Federation of tribes in Rhode Island and the Tarratine Federation of tribes in Maine that would likely take advantage of the situation. Especially since war had broken out between the Tarratines and the Penobscots in 1615. When Nanapashamet, the Grand Sachem of the eleven villages of the Massachusett Federation of tribes offered help to the Penobscots, the Tarratines of Maine hunted him down and killed him in 1619.
The Massachusett Federation of tribes, around what is now Boston Harbor, had been powerful enough to drive off Samuel de Champlain and his men when they tried to settle in Massachusetts in 1606, and in 1607 the Abenaki tribes successfully expelled the first Plymouth Company settlement from the coast of Maine. However, by the time the Native populations of Southeastern New England had replenished themselves to some degree, after so many being killed by Plagues in 1617, it was too late to expel the European intruders.
Bear in mind that the Separatist Puritans on the Mayflower, later known as Pilgrims, numbered only 35 out of the 102 settlers on board. The other 67 persons on board were ordinary folk seeking their fortunes in the new Colony at Jamestown, Virginia. Why the Mayflower never arrived in Virginia, but ended up in Massachusetts Bay, is still up to debate. The “origin myth” states that the Mayflower was blown off course. However, a great majority of Historians now believe that the Dutch bribed the Mayflower’s captain and part owner, Christopher Jones, to sail north so the Pilgrims would not settle near their settlement of New Amsterdam, now known as New York City.
It is further believed that Massachusetts Bay was then chosen as a good site because of the known absence of Native Indians, as a result of the Plague three years earlier, in addition to the good fishing known to be off Cape Cod. In fact, John Smith had studied the Massachusetts Bay area previously in 1614 and he published the result of his explorations on his land and coastal survey in a guidebook called A Description of New England printed in London in 1616. The guidebook included a map drawn by Smith himself, of the land he named New England. A guidebook one of the 35 Pilgrims carried with them on the Mayflower. (note: A rare copy of this book was recently purchased at Sotheby’s Auction in New York in 1999 for $211,500.)
Despite having ended up many miles from other European settlements, the Pilgrims hardly “started from scratch in a wilderness” as the “origin myth” would have us believe. Throughout Southern New England, Native Indian tribes had repeatedly burned the underbrush, creating a park-like environment. After first landing at the tip of Cape Cod in what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts, the Pilgrims assembled a boat for exploring and began looking around for a site for their new home. They chose Plymouth perhaps because of it’s beautifully cleared fields, recently planted with corn, it’s sheltered harbor, and a brook of fresh water nearby. It was a great site for a town, because before the Plague of 1617, this had been Squanto’s village of the Patuxet tribe.
The new Plymouth colonists did not encounter a wilderness. In fact, in Three Visitors To Early Plymouth: Letters about the Pilgrim Settlement in New England During its First Seven Years by John Pory, Emmanuel Altham, and Isaack deRasieres, edited by Sydney V. James, Plymouth colonist Emmanuel Altham noted in a letter in 1622 that,
“In this bay wherein we live, in former time, hath lived about two thousand Indians.”
In addition, the colonists received help and support from sources not fully known by the majority of Americans today. In his sailor’s journal, written by a colonist on his second full day in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and published in the work done in 1901 by Azel Ames titled, The Mayflower and Her Log, July 15, 1620-May 6, 1621, Edward Winslow writes of he and a companion, saying,
“…we marched to the place where we had the corn formerly, which place we called Cornhill, and digged and found the rest, of which we were very glad. We also digged in a place a little further off, and found a bottle of oil. We went to another place which we had seen before, and digged, and found more corn, viz. Two or three baskets full of Indian wheat, and a bag of beans, with a good many of fair wheat ears. Whilst some of us were digging up this, some others found another heap of corn, which they digged up also, so as we had in all about ten bushels, which will serve us sufficiently for seed”…. “The next morning we followed certain beaten paths and tracks of the Indians into the woods, supposing they would have led us into some town, or houses”…. “When we had marched five or six miles into the woods and could find no signs of any people, we returned again another way, and as we came into the plain ground we found a place like a grave, but it was much bigger and longer than any we had yet seen. It was also covered with boards, so as we mused what it should be, and resolved to dig it up, where we found, first a mat, and under that a fair bow”….. “Also between the mats we found bowls, trays, dishes, and such like trinkets. At length we came to a fair new mat, and under that two bundles, the one bigger, the other less. We opened the greater and found in it a great quantity of fine and perfect red powder, and in it the bones and skull of a man”…. “We brought sundry of the prettiest things away with us, and covered the corpse up again. After this, we digged in sundry like places, but found no more corn, nor any thing else but graves.”
In Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s book, Settling with the Indians: The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640, published in London by J. M. Dent in 1980, she states that the Pilgrims continued to rob graves for years. However, more help came to the Pilgrims from an even more unlikely source named Squanto, also known as Tisquantum.
In the “origin myth,” Squanto was a solitary member of the Pautuxet tribe, part of the Wampanoag Federation of tribes, who had supposedly learned English from fisherman, and as a “God sent savior”, taught the Pilgrims how to hunt and fish in the new wilderness, which helped them survive their first winter in New England.
According to Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a leader of the Plymouth Company in England, around 1605 a British Captain stole Squanto from Massachusetts when he was still a boy, along with four members of the Penobscot tribe, and took them to England. There Squanto spent nine years, three of them in the employ of Sir Ferdinando Gorges. After which, in 1614, he arranged for Squanto to be returned to Massachusetts.
Later in 1614, after skirmishing against and then making peace with the Patuxets, John Smith returned to England, leaving a second ship to fish for cod under the command of one Thomas Hunt. Luring Squanto and about twenty other Wampanoags on board, Hunt kidnapped them and then seized about seven others on Cape Cod before sailing for Málaga, Spain. There Hunt began selling his captives as slaves until some priests intervened and redeemed the rest, including Squanto, in hopes of converting them to Christianity. Squanto’s movements are unclear for the next three years until 1617, by which time he had somehow managed to get to London. Living in the home of John Slany, the treasurer of the Newfoundland Company, Squanto became immersed in the English language and culture, and he began to see in the colonial ambitions of Slany and his associates the means by which he could return home.
Squanto’s plans moved closer to realization when, on an expedition to Newfoundland, he became reacquainted with Thomas Dermer, an officer under John Smith in 1614. Like Smith, Dermer had left Patuxet before the fateful kidnapping. Dermer took Squanto back to his former employer, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, then the most determined colonizer of New England. Although he had already failed in several attempts to use kidnapped Indians to advance his endeavors, Gorges was persuaded by Squanto’s evident knowledge of the region, his apparent standing among his people, and his professed loyalty. So with Thomas Dermer at the helm, Squanto finally sailed for Massachusetts in the spring of 1619.
Now Squanto set foot again in Massachusetts and walked to his home village of Patuxet, only to make the horrifying discovery that he was the sole member of his village left alive. All others having perished in the Plague epidemic two years earlier.
By the winter of 1620, struggling to survive, half the unprepared Plymouth colonists succumbed to starvation and disease during the harsh winter. Finally in March of 1621, members of the Pokanoket and Nemasket tribe convinced Samoset, a visiting Abenaki with ties to English traders, to sound out the beleaguered colonists. Finding them receptive, Samoset returned a few days later with Squanto, whose knowledge of the English and their language exceeded his own.
As translator, ambassador and technical advisor, Squanto was essential to the survival of the Plymouth Colony in it’s first two years. In the book edited by Samuel Morrison in 1981 titled Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647 the first Governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford called Squanto,
“…a special instrument sent of God for our good beyond expectation. He directed us how to set our corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also our pilot to bring us to unknown places for our profit.”
Their “profit” was the primary reason most Mayflower colonists made the trip. Contrary to the myth, religious freedom was only a secondary motive. Squanto was not the only advisor for the Pilgrims either. As critical as he was to Plymouth’s fortunes, Squanto’s usefulness was limited because he had no power base among the remaining Wampanoags or other local natives. In the summer of 1621 the colony invited a second Indian, a Pokanoket named Hobbamock, to live among them, and he stayed for several years serving as a guide and ambassador. In fact, Hobbamock helped the Plymouth colonists to set up fur trading posts at the mouth of the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers in Maine, along the Aptucxet River in Massachusetts, and along the Windsor River in Connecticut.
All this brings us to Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims did not introduce the Fall Harvest Thanksgiving Ceremony.
Northeastern tribes had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries. However, in the Fall of 1621, the Governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, decided to have a harvest thanksgiving celebration of his own and invited Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation to come as a guest. Massasoit arrived on the appointed day with ninety warriors, and gifts of more food, including apple cider, deer, lobster, clams, oysters, smoked eel, corn, squash, wild rice, smoked cod fish, and popped corn with maple syrup. The Wampanoags remained at Plymouth for three days and the celebration continued for several more days after they left.
When the next great wave of Puritans settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, there was such a shortage of food, that the new Governor, John Winthrop, sent one of the ships back to England to purchase as much food as possible. When it returned in February 1631, Governor Winthrop ordered a day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated by all the settlements in the colony. The first such celebration to be held in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in ten years since 1621.
Other than in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they were held as a local custom every year from 1631 on, thanksgiving celebrations were held sporadically in the European colonies in America during the 1600s and 1700s. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress recommended that each of the colonies observe a day of thanksgiving every year, and when George Washington later became President, he proclaimed November 26th to be a National Day of Thanksgiving. However, the custom fell into disuse in a short time, and the States that did observe an annual thanksgiving day celebration, did so on a day that best suited them, although they all observed it in the Month of November.
During the Civil War in 1863, when President Lincoln felt that the Union needed all the patriotism that such as observance might muster, he proclaimed Thanksgiving a National Holiday to be observed on the last Thursday in November. However, the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony were not included in the celebrations at that time. It would not be until the 1890s that the Pilgrims were included in the celebration traditions. In fact, Americans did not even use the term Pilgrim until the 1870s.
Lastly, it is interesting to note that some historians believe that Thanksgiving became such an important holiday in the New England States because the Pilgrims and the Puritans wanted a festival to replace the Christmas Holiday that they had refused to recognize or observe, and which was banned outright in the 1640s. Although this may have been the case in the early years, both holidays became important to all New Englanders after Christmas became a legal holiday in the United States in 1856.
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