Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gratitude and Giving Thanks

The first of my paternal ancestors stepped foot on this land three-hundred and ninety-two years ago. If my current research proves correct, my maternal ancestors were already here, living in the areas that have become French-Canada. Without their lives and their struggles, I would not be here. I would not be me. So for all of them, I am extremely grateful.
The history of our country is not easy or pretty. The truth is Western man stole all the land they settled, purchasing it for paltry sums from a people who had a different understanding of ownership. I have done a lot of research on that period of time and that’s pretty much how I feel about it. But there was a moment of peace, and a moment of hope for tolerance in the beginning. And that is the day I am thankful for.
In September of 1620, the Mayflower left England with 102 passengers bound for Virginia in the New World, on a crossing that took sixty-six days. The majority of the voyagers were Separatists who had funded the voyage, having permission to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River. The Separatists were a splinter group of Puritans, who were Protestants that wanted to let the Bible be the final authority on their religion, and encouraged them to have an individual relationship with their God. Whereas the Puritans were taking on trying to convert the Church of England, the Separatists wanted a place “separate” to practice as they believed.
The Separatists of the Plymouth colony followed the teachings of their minister, John Robinson, who believed in and preached religious tolerance, and in this manner were unlike the Puritans who came after them and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While none of the colonies would allow Quakers or Baptists to settle with them, which is discriminatory but was common practice, the Plymouth Colony did not force its Anglican members to convert. Off course and low in stores, the ship landed off of Cape Cod in November. Five of my ancestors were on board the ship. Francis Cooke, a woolcomber, came over with his oldest son John, to establish a home for the rest of their family, who would wait in Leiden. James, a tailor, and Mrs. Chilton brought their 13 year-old daughter Mary with them. At 64 years of age, James was the oldest passenger aboard ship. They were all Separatists.
Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622 was published in England as a means of encouraging people of like-mind to join them in New World, and it details what their first months were like. After anchoring, the ship sent out parties to find wood, fresh water, and survey the land for other resources; they collected juniper wood to burn aboard ship. November 15, they came upon empty Indian homes, harvest fields, and buried caches of corn. They had dug up a mound, and once they realized it was a burial, they replaced everything and reburied it; they disturbed no more. The found corn, they did take for themselves, but the author states their intention of making amends to the corn’s owner when they encountered them.
They made many searches for the indigenous peoples but could not find them. In early December, the men tracing a path along the river were fired upon by arrows and they retaliated. The natives soon disappeared into the woods and they gave chase but found none. Again, they regularly searched out the natives with no luck. One day, after failing to find them, the men shot and ate an eagle for dinner (and noted that it tasted like mutton).
Only half of the ship’s passengers survived the brutal first winter. James Chilton died aboard ship December 18. His wife died in early January in the First Sickness to claim multiple lives. Both of their bodies were buried in a mass grave with others. The location of this gravesite is unknown. They left behind a daughter, my direct ancestress Mary, an orphan at the age of 13. Based on the placement of the share of land she was later given in her parents’ names, it is believed she was taken in by either the Alden or the Standish family. The Separatists were aware that they had no claim to settle there, as their contract was for Hudson Bay, but after losing half of their people and the rest being ill, the group was made a decision.
On March 16, 1621, Samoset, of the Mohegan, approached the colonists in their village. He said his people were a five day walk and one day canoe from where they were, and that he had learned English from the men who fished and hunted with his people. It was Samoset who told the Pilgrims that their settlement land was called Patuxet. Four years prior to their arrival, the Patuxet people had been wiped out by a plague, after white men had come to their land.
Samoset told them of their neighbors, the Wampanoag, whom he was living with, and the Nausets- the ones who had fired upon them in the woods. He explained that when Captain Thomas Hunt came in 1614, he deceived them and took twenty-seven men with him. He sold them into slavery for 20 pound each. Twenty of the men had been Patuxet and seven had been Nauset. When the Nauset saw that the white men had returned, they had attacked before their men were taken again. Samoset helped take the message to the Wampanoag that these white men did not condone what Captain Hunt had done.
A few days later, Samoset returned with Tisquantum, commonly remembered as Squanto, who also spoke fluent English. He was a native Patuxet who had been taken into slavery. He lived first with Spanish monks, second in England with a merchant named John Slaney, and third as a guide for Ferdinando Gorges, coming home on an expedition ship in 1619. Tisquantum acted as an interpreter between the English colony and the local Wampanoag tribe. He helped teach the Separatist farmers to cultivate corn, extract maple sap, catch fish and eels, and how to avoid the local poisonous plants. Their first harvest was a successful one.
Without Edward Winslow’s written account of the first feast, from December 12th, or William Bradford’s reflections on it twenty years later, we would not even know such an event had occurred. What we call Thanksgiving would not become an annual holiday for a couple centuries yet. [Edward Winslow is my 11x Great-Uncle. His brother John Winslow arrived in Plymouth in November 1621; he was not present for this harvest feast. Two years later, John would wed young Mary Chilton.]
Their crops of wheat and barley did well, though the native corn fared far better. Twenty years later, William Bradford wrote about how, that harvest, the colonists were all in good health. There was plenty of cod and bass in store for every family and they were busy storing fowl, wild turkey and venison. They had a good enough harvest that they had a “peck of meal a week to a person.” He says the reports of their plenty were not untrue.
Their harvest in, and Governor William Bradford “sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together.” The men killed as much fowl as would feed the entire colony for a week. Bradford invited the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit and his people to join them. There were 53 colonists and 90 Wampanoag at the first Feast, which lasted for three days. The Wampanoag brought five deer, adding to the feast. Edward Winslow closes his letter with “although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
For me, Thanksgiving Day is not about the Separatists who came to this country to make a settlement in their own image. And it’s not about the Wampanoag people whose population would soon be decimated by war with the colonists and disease. For those three days in Plymouth, however guarded, friendship was known between two peoples of different culture and belief, and there was hope and promise of peace between them.
That time in history was so turbulent. I have ancestors who fought against and killed natives at Esopus, who lost wives to native blades at Esopus, who fought the northern natives in the name of France, who lived among the Lenape and was a friend to them, who was raised by the Lenape and taken as a son by the sachem, and who started life in native tribes before white men ever walked the soil. I embrace them all and learn from their stories.
This is the message I remember: Compassion for others. Tolerance for differences. Gratitude for blessings. Every year, in memory of all that has come before, I make a list for what I am grateful for as it unravels through the day, and I will include all those who have come before me whose stories have been my shaper. Wherever you are, remember the things that bring your world joy and fill you with blessing, for those are the things that will light your path on darker days.

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