A primary source guide
By Dean Kalahar
November 22, 2011
Much is said about the history of Thanksgiving. As educators and social scientists, it is important to teach America’s cultural foundations; for if we forget who we are and where we came from, we will face a cultural rot that will destroy us from within.
There are only two contemporary accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving: First is Edward Winslow's account, which he wrote in a letter dated December 12, 1621. It speaks of the feast and sharing of food with the Indians.
“Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a goodincrease of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside,served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And 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.”
The second description was written about 1641 by William Bradford in his History Of Plymouth Plantation. It is in this account that the Thanksgiving turkey tradition is founded.
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass andother fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many,besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person,or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”
But the story of what the Pilgrims and modern Americans give thanks for every Thanksgiving has a deeper and more profound meaning than most Americans know. To understand Thanksgiving we must first return to Jamestown with the help of David Boaz.
In 1607, 105 men and boys, mostly indentured servants who held no private property and were to work for the “common store,” disembarked from three ships and established the first permanent settlement in America.
There were the usual hardships of pioneers far from home, such as unfamiliar diseases. There were mixed relations with the Indians already living in Virginia. Sometimes the Indians and settlers traded, other times armed conflicts broke out.
By 1609, there were 500 settlers, including women. And yet within six months fewer than 100 were still alive during what came to be known as "the starving time." Why? According to a governor of the colony, George Percy, most of the colonists died of famine, despite the “good and fruitful” soil, the abundant deer and turkey, and the “strawberries, raspberries and fruits unknown” growing wild.
And yet people were desperate. They ate dogs and cats, then rats and mice. They apparently ate their deceased neighbors. And some said that one man murdered and ate his pregnant wife. By the spring, they had given up. They abandoned the fort and boarded ships to return to England. But, miraculously, as they sailed out of Chesapeake Bay, they encountered three ships with new recruits, so they turned around and tried to make another go of it. The additional settlers and supplies kept them alive.
When a new governor, Thomas Dale, arrived a year after the starving time, he was shocked to find the settlers bowling in the streets instead of working. Dale's most important reform was to institute private property. He understood that men who don't benefit from their hard work tend not to work very hard. As such he allotted every man three acres of land and freed them to work for themselves.
And then, the Virginia historian Matthew Page Andrews wrote, “As soon as the settlers were thrown upon their own resources, and each freeman had acquired the right of owning property, the colonists quickly developed what became the distinguishing characteristic of Americans—an aptitude for all kinds of craftsmanship coupled with an innate genius for experimentation and invention.” The Jamestown colony became a success, people from all over Europe flocked to the New World, and capitalism was born in America.
Ray Harvey writes that not many years later, in November of 1620, another group of American settlers — 101 of them, to be exact, this group not financed by the British government — arrived on the good ship Mayflower, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
These Pilgrims, as they were called, moved a short distance away to a place named Plymouth. They were not at all unaware of the early Jamestown disaster, the starvation, the disease, the famine; they were, however, unaware of what had caused it. Accordingly, they proceeded to make the identical mistake that the settlers of Jamestown had made: namely, collective ownership of land. And the Pilgrims too paid dearly for it. Within a few short months, half were dead.
Over the course of the next three years, 100 more settlers arrived from England to Plymouth, all of whom were barely able to feed themselves. As Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford wrote:
“Many [settlers] sold away their clothes and bed coverings [to the Indians]; others (so base were they) became servants of the Indians … and fetch them water for a capful of corn; others fell to plain stealing, both day and night, from the Indians…. In the end, they came to that misery that some starved to and died with cold and hunger. One in gathering shellfish was so weak as he stuck fast in the mud and was found dead in the place.”
But this same William Bradford would soon solve “the ruin and dissolution of his colony,” and he would do it in the exact same way Sir Thomas Dale had saved Jamestown.William Bradford wrote:
“After much debate of things … [it was decided that the Pilgrims] should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves … And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, for present use. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”
Bradford came to fully grasp how lack of property rights negates and indeed destroys the work incentive:
“Common course” was abandoned in favor of setting “every man for his own particular,” meaning private property. Instantaneously, those who had been indolent became “very industrious,” so much so that woman and men who had “previously pleaded frailty worked long and hard – once they saw how they and their families could benefit from such hard work.”
William Bradford went on to correctly identify the source of the “disastrous problem” as “that conceit of Plato’s,” who, in direct contrast to Aristotle, advocated collectivism and collective ownership of land, which, as history has repeatedly proven creates economic inefficiency and suffering.
Bradford even wrote later that those who mistakenly believed that communal property could make people “happy and flourishing” imagined themselves “wiser than God.”
The greatest lesson we can learn from this history of thaanksgiving? Freedom exercised through the natural rights of life, liberty, and property - promoted through an entrepreneurial free market economic system based on private property or capitalism- saved us in the beginning years of our nation. It is to those principles, tied to historical fact for which we celebrate Thanksgiving today.
The Real History of Thanksgiving, Ray Harvey, November 24th, 2010
Private Property Saved Jamestown and, with it, America. By David Boaz,2007
Practical Economics, Dean Kalahar, 2008