From 'Starving Time' to Cornucopia: The American Thanksgiving

What are Thanksgiving's origins? Helpful Indians indeed played a part — yet an even greater part was played by an oft-unmentioned shift from communal to private property.

Their destination had been Virginia, but they were now, after a voyage of over two months, badly off course. They chose to land anyway because, according to William Bradford's account, "We could not now take much time for further search, our victuals being much spent, especially, our beer."

Their beer.

So these adventurers, many of them Separatists from the Church of England (they wouldn't be described as "Pilgrims" for almost two hundred years), landed in Massachusetts, just in time for winter, and named their colony New Plymouth after their port of sail.

New England at that time of year can be brutally cold, so it's doubtful that much could have been done via agriculture to replenish their "victuals." But the colonists, most of whom were in their twenties, pressed on in a spirit of Christian optimism.

Determined to live good, pious lives, and to repay their sponsors within the stipulated seven years, they established a system of communal property and communal effort, an early version of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." All land, all livestock, all production was commonly owned, managed, and stored: they saw themselves, again in Bradford's words, as pursuing a "common course and condition."

And they behaved as good communists everywhere: they began to die. The colony's governor was one of the first to go (the long-serving William Bradford was actually the colony's second governor).

It wasn't just that New England's harsh winters made agricultural efforts difficult: city dwellers all, they didn't have any idea what they were doing anyway. So they planted little or nothing, and according to legend caught one fish and no game in that entire time. They were the worst hunter-gatherers since the dawn of civilization and by the spring of 1621 half of them were dead.

But spring is the season of rebirth, and one fine spring day the colonists, among whom only three married couples survived, were surprised by a visitor: an Indian who, astonishingly, addressed them in their own native language: "Welcome, English. I am Samoset. Do you have beer?"

Beer. Again.

Samoset had learned English from the crews of fishing ships. Apparently he had also acquired a taste for English beer. He introduced the settlers to another Indian, Squanto, who spoke even better English. Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe, had been kidnapped by English sailors and had learned his English while living and working in England. Meanwhile his tribe was wiped out by smallpox, and when he returned to North America he was "adopted" by the Wampanoag tribe.

So were the Pilgrims. Squanto introduced them to the leader of the Wampanoags, Massasoit, and the tribe began teaching the newcomers how to plant crops native to the area, how to fish, catch eels, harvest oysters, and more. Life became a bit less bleak for the settlers, and October 1621 brought an occasion for joy when another ship arrived from England, carrying fresh provisions and more settlers. Bradford invited Massasoit to a feast. Massasoit arrived a day early, with ninety of his braves bringing along five deer.

This was not the first Thanksgiving, as myth would have it. It was a celebration, to be sure, but this was not the day Bradford declared a day of Thanksgiving, not the day we recognize, because that communist system of property and product was still working against the best self-interest of the Plymouth settlers. I'm sure the feast was joyous, but I doubt that their first harvest was substantial. As evidence, consider the history, which records that the main course was venison. Remember: Massasoit's braves brought with them five deer.

Subsequent events at Plymouth bear out my suspicions, too: there was no Thanksgiving feast celebrated the next year, 1622.

So it's no wonder the colonists gave thanks in October 1621: without the help and tutelage of the Wampanoags, and the arrival of that additional English ship, even more of them would have perished. But that wasn't enough to allow the colony to flourish: communism didn't work any better among the Pilgrims than it later did among the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, or the Cubans. In fact, new arrivals in the spring of 1623 found little fish, lobster, or even water among the colony's stores, and no bread at all. The system clearly wasn't working, and something had to be done about that.

After consulting the other leaders of the colony, Governor Bradford established a system of private plots of land, allowing each family or individual to work it as they themselves saw fit. The result? An explosion of productivity, with magnificent harvests of corn and other vegetables, and Bradford declared November 29, 1623 a Day of Thanksgiving.

It is reasonable to ask: giving thanks for what, and to whom? Bradford later wrote about rejecting that early American form of communism — "that conceit of Plato's," as he referred to it — in which brotherhood and community were thought to be fostered by making all responsible for all, "that the taking away of property and bringing community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing." The attitude of today seems to be that it is appropriate to give thanks to God; Bradford, on the other hand, seems to be thankful for the industry of his fellow colonists.

And Bradford's fellow settlers had their own term for the period characterized by "that conceit of Plato's": they called it "the starving time."

Throughout history there have been harvest festivals: the Hebrews had their feast of Tabernacles, the Bradford-Massasoit party in 1621 certainly was a harvest festival, and the Canadian Thanksgiving to this day is basically no more than a harvest festival itself.

But the American Thanksgiving is different: it arose, in 1623, in response to the success of human productivity and industry, and was therefore a celebration of the results of purposeful, productive effort.

And freedom of effort benefits all — not just Pilgrims — in America and elsewhere, including lands now delivered from decades of communism. For the unfortunate North Koreans, by contrast, it is still "the starving time."

What then might qualify as an appropriate celebration, an appropriate Thanksgiving? That answer must be your own. The traditional answer — thanking God as we now say the Pilgrims did — won't do. God let half the original settlers starve, didn't he? It was no God — it was the productive efforts of individuals which allowed the survivors to prosper. You have produced the results which count as your life — celebrate that productivity, yours and that of others, your own way.

And Samoset deserves to have a beer named after him. Samoset Stout, perhaps...and maybe I'll brew it myself. Now there's a way to give thanks.

For a detailed history of the origins of Thanksgiving, see Rothbard's 1975 history, Conceived in Liberty, Vol. 1, Chapter 18: "The Founding of Plymouth Colony."

Craig Ceely is a corporate trainer, writer, and humorist in the wilds of west Texas. He claims the three trades are related. His blog, The Anger of Compassion, is updated at least semiannually. Like Samoset, Craig is fond of beer, and will probably brew Samoset Stout one of these days.

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