Ask the average American what the Thanksgiving holiday is all about, and you may (or may not) be surprised by the answers. Some will say it’s about family, food and football. Others may say it’s about shopping and the start of the Christmas season. None of these answers are wrong—that’s just what the holiday is to them and who are we to judge?
Ask them how it all started though and… well… correct answers are as rare as the sane and sober Uncle Charlie.
Here are a few facts about what it is and why it all started.
1. Thanksgiving is only celebrated in the United States. Canada doesn’t have one. Mexico, either. Nor do any European, Asian or African countries. Or Australia. Not even the South Americans even though they live in ’America,’ too. Some Americans don’t know this.
2. The first Thanksgiving was NOT held in a place called Plymouth, or even in Massachusetts. It was held in a place that is now Charles City, in Virginia. Squanto, William Bradford and all that didn’t happen until about two full years later.
3. The people in Plymouth, MA were Puritans. To them, any pleasurable activity was just wrong. Their first celebration was one of prayer, though journals from the time show that they feasted for at least three days. The people in Virginia were America’s first venture capitalists. Those colonists’ intent was to profitably grow a better variety of tobacco and sell it for a fortune in England.
4. All 13 of the original colonies were the property of the King and to one extent or the other, all had to produce something of commercial value to His Royal Highness. They were not a free people and disloyalty to the king was treason, punishable by death.
5. Early colonists were a rebellious bunch. The Pilgrims once forced their way back aboard the Mayflower. Plymouth’s Thanksgiving feast wasn’t happening until after that dispute was settled. The first of many armed insurrections in the colonies was the Bacon Rebellion. It happened in 1676 in Virginia, 100 years before our Independence Day. Part of the casus belli was colonial leadership’s decision to cut some of the colonists out of a lucrative fur trading deal with the Natives. After about a year of fighting, the rebellion was crushed and many of the surviving rebels were executed. After the fighting was over, the victors gave thanks.*
6. The Natives were not all happy about the invasion of white people. Yes, Squanto did help the Puritans with agricultural knowledge and taught them how to fish. But in Virginia, most of the tribes closest to the European settlements recognized them as threats to their existence and attacks were frequent and brutal. Vermont and New Hampshire had serious problems with Iroquois.
7. Only the strongest survived. North America had a climate that the English gentry were ill-suited to cope with. Many starved, many were killed by Natives and many were killed by disease or exposure. Summers with 90 degree temps and tropical cyclones contrasted with winters of nor’easters, heavy snow and freezing temperatures. It took strength and stamina to persevere.
8. The first Thanksgiving feasts were not lavish affairs with casseroles and quiches. They ate venison, swans, turkeys, seafood, beans, corn and local fruits. No cakes or pies, either--they didn’t have sugar and eggs were precious.
9. Prayer and thanks to God was very important, even to the capitalists in Virginia.
10. The pleasure-hating, straight-laced Puritans in Plymouth were actually headed to Virginia, but the Mayflower put in at that rock because they were running out of beer. This was a very big deal. The ship had been at sea for two weeks, and beer takes up a lot of space. The water aboard ship was foul and probably tasted nasty, but the beer was at least drinkable. So when their stock of ale got too low for the crew’s return trip to England, something had to be done. The colonists were put off at Plymouth and made to drink the local water. That led to an uprising and the re-boarding of the ship that was harbored for the winter.
There you go. Ten things you may not have known about our annual and unique American holiday. Don’t forget that business was a big part of the founding of this great nation. Don’t forget that the hardship of establishing a foothood here took many lives. And don’t forget to thank God that we can still freely celebrate this holyday with family, friends, food, football, shopping and… beer.
* Bacon’s Rebellion is a very important point in the history of early America. Nathaniel Bacon’s rag tag “army” consisted of a few hundred frontiersmen and a few hundred more white and African indentured servants and a dozen or so Native Americans. Their enemy was the Governor of Virginia, William Berkeley, an English aristocrat.
Bacon’s men had a few simple complaints that they wanted addressed: high taxes, favoritism in appointing offices, monopolizing trade and favoritism to a few tribes of Natives that were attacking their farms and businesses. Bacon himself also wanted a military commission so that he could provide a militia to protect his people’s interest and provide a check against any future perceived tyranny.
Bacon’s Rebellion achieved a lot before it was finally quelled. This included showing the elite that an army of common men could challenge the ruling class. They routed Jamestown, burning it and Berkeley’s estate to the ground and forcing Berkeley himself to flee across the James River. Bacon died of dysentery in October 1676 and the rebellion splintered shortly thereafter.
Thomas Jefferson and many other Founding Fathers viewed Bacon as a patriot. They saw his rebellion (and similar insurrections in Maryland) as premonition of the American Revolution. Bacon’s men were angry at what they viewed as the economic tyranny of colonial rule, just as colonists did 100 years later.
Kindly disregard leftist revisionism that seeks to cast Bacon’s Rebellion as a fulcrum for institutionalized racism and slavery. Bacon was white but many of his men were not. Bacon was free but many of his men were not. White and black (and a few Native) Americans joined together and fought together. It wasn’t their indentured status that scared the elite. It was the fact that a well-armed, well-organized and well-commanded force of commoners could wreak havoc on the established order.
The same fabric was woven again just 100 years later and this time the elite was crushed.