The Plague before Thanksgiving

I remember, in the fourth grade, snipping colored feathers from construction paper to make my Indian bonnet. That was for the annual First Thanksgiving pageant. Dressed up as Indians and Pilgrims, we paraded around a table loaded with pies and a paper-maché turkey. We recited how the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. And how after a year of hardship, helped by an English-speaking Indian named Squanto, they celebrated a harvest and invited the Indians to dinner. Then we held hands and sang, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

In the year 1000, Leif Ericson landed in what was probably Newfoundland. The Norse made several attempts to settle, but attacks by the native “Skraelings” eventually forced them to give up.

Apart from the Norse, the Pilgrims weren’t the first European settlers on the North American continent. A Spanish colony with African slaves settled in South Carolina in 1526; the slaves revolted, killed their masters and fled to join the Indians. By 1600, there were scattered Spanish colonies in Florida and across the southwest. The first British colony, set up at Jamestown Virginia in 1607, disintegrated due to poor leadership and conflict with Indians.

People don’t usually give up their land willingly. Masses of Chinese peasants today risk their lives to protest confiscation of their land for development. Throughout history, any war you can name, even if ostensibly about religion, boils down to a fight over resources and territory. So why did the Pilgrims face no opposition?

Something terrible happened between Jamestown and Plymouth Rock.

The New England Indians had lived in settled farming communities with populations probably in the millions. They planted corn, beans and squash on garden mounds–an agriculture no less sophisticated than that of contemporary Europeans. Meanwhile, for decades before 1620, British ships had fished for cod off New England, going ashore for water, wood, and sometimes Indian slaves. (That’s how Squanto learned English.) Perhaps due to this contact, a plague–of a type still in dispute–spread through the native populations. In 1347, the Black Death had killed one quarter to a third the European population; in 1617-1618, the Indian Plague wiped out over 90 percent of the New England population.

Back in England, King James I gave thanks to “Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us” for sending “this wonderful plague among the salvages [sic].” The Pilgrims, planning their journey, took note. They may even have selected their destination knowing they would find abandoned fields, ready for cultivation. Even so, they had to depend on the few remaining Indians to train them in agriculture, hunting and fishing.

As more settlers joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony, smallpox decimated the last Indian populations. In 1634 Governor John Winthrop wrote to a friend in England, “But for the natives in these parts, God has 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 plague story is detailed James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, debunking the feel-good myths purveyed by high school American history textbooks. According to Loewen, “These epidemics probably constituted the most important geopolitical event of the early seventeenth century. Their net result was that the British, for their first fifty years in New England, would face no real Indian challenge.”

In the preceding century, plagues of Old World disease had enabled a handful of Spanish conquistadors to capture the Aztec and Inca empires. So devastating were these epidemics that the Caribbean sugar planters ran out of native slaves, forcing them to import Africans. In the southern British colonies, cotton planters followed suit. But the stony terrain of the northern colonies, including what became Canada, was better suited to small wheat farms than to plantations. It may be that the democratic beginnings we celebrate at Thanksgiving became possible precisely because white settlers had no need to control a subordinate native population.

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