In America, we always associate the first Thanksgiving with the Plymouth Pilgrims, those separatist Puritans who in October 1621 celebrated the harvest with their Native American neighbors, Massasoit and some 90 Wampanoags, with feasting and games and prayers. We continue to have cause for Thanksgiving celebrations in 2016, especially in America where we are blessed, in my opinion, beyond any other place in the world.
Certainly, the Pilgrims had cause for a Thanksgiving celebration in 1621. But in 1607 to the south, 14 years before that first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Captain John Smith and his Jamestown settlers found reason to celebrate as they were carving out a European presence in the New World in Virginia.
Many of us continue to remember that significant event in American History from the European perspective, forgetting that America had already been “founded” by the first Americans hundreds of years before the Europeans—those first refugees—arrived on the scene, many of them fleeing from persecution and horrific conditions back in the Old World.
In his “General History of Virginia,” Smith, that Elizabethan soldier-adventurer, documented the Jamestown founding with due emphasis on his own heroics, his own vital role in subduing the wilderness in the malarial swamps on the coast of Virginia and the people that he referred to as “savages.” At one point in the narrative, writing in the third person, Smith related how “he was beset with 200 savages, two of them he slew, defending himself with the aid of a savage guide, whom he bound to his arm with his garters and used him as a buckler, yet he was shot in his thigh a little, and had many arrows that stuck in his clothes but no great hurt, till at last they took him prisoner.” That Smith tended to exaggerate his own significance is an understatement.
Before he was taken prisoner, however, the very first encounter between the Europeans and the Native Americans did not follow the usual script. Smith said that upon first arriving in the New World, “our drink was water, our lodgings castles in the air.” But instead of building dwellings, the settlers believed it was necessary to build something else.
As Smith described it, “with this lodging and diet, our extreme toil in bearing and planting palisades so strained and bruised us and our continual labor in the extremity of the heat had so weakened us, as were cause sufficient to have made us as miserable (as in) any other place in the world.”
The Europeans found it necessary to build “palisades,” a fort, to protect them from the savages. As they were sweating to erect the palisades—you can see a re-creation of the palisades at the restored Jamestown village today—as they struggled to build a fort to withstand the inevitable onslaught of the savages, something very interesting happened.
Let’s let Smith tell the tale: “But now was all our provision spent, the sturgeon gone, all helps abandoned, each hour expecting the fury of the savages, when God, the patron of all good endeavors, in that desperate extremity so changed the hearts of the savages that they brought such plenty of their fruits and provision as no man wanted.”
Here the settlers were constructing a fort to protect them from the savages, when, in the midst of their efforts, those very savages came, advancing out of the woods, not with weapons, but with their arms laden with food, welcoming the refugees to their new home. Imagine that. Why don’t you rest for a while? Let’s get to know one other. We might find out we have quite a lot in common.
This is not the way we usually think of the first encounter between European settlers and Native American Indians, the first Americans, but even the arrogant John Smith must have been thankful for the mercy shown by the “savages” to those first European Jamestown settlers. That was indeed a welcome respite.
We, too, are thankful for this brief respite from our busy schedules, this Thanksgiving holiday, when we gather with family and friends and neighbors to enjoy and remember and to count our blessings. This might also be the right and just time to ask again, along with “the expert in the law” of the New Testament that crucial question: Who is my neighbor?
After Jesus told the lawyer the stirring story of the Good Samaritan, He—as He so often did—answered the question with another question. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
“The expert in the law replied, `The one who had mercy on him.’” Of course, it was the Samaritan, the one who supposedly was most unlike the victim: culturally, socially, and religiously.
But Jesus told the law expert in no uncertain terms, “Go and do likewise.” (WR)
Duane Bolin teaches in the Department of History at Murray State University and is a member of Murray’s First Baptist Church. He may be reached at email@example.com