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Thanksgiving - A Roast  

(Presented at Toastmasters)

I hope you had an enjoyable Thanksgiving. Every year we tell the heartwarming story of Thanksgiving. We tell the tales of the hard-working Pilgrims who in the words of Garrison Keillor came to America in order to have less religious freedom than they could have at home. And we praise the friendly tribe who were such good neighbors.

This talk is a roast. And I am about to serve Roast Thanksgiving.

The Mayflower was no cruise ship. It was designed to carry 12 people. The Pilgrims were a group of 101 men, women and children, plus 5 crew members. A baby was born en route, so 102 pilgrims arrived at the New World. They planned to arrive at Virginia where they could buy essentials like cooking pots and blankets and seed grain. They brought 4000 pounds of unsalted butter, and plenty of guns and ammunition, because they’d heard those would be popular in America. But they didn’t bring enough grain for eating and planting, or blankets to keep warm.

The pilgrims believed that the King of England had the right to give them land that was occupied by other people. They didn’t seem to have the principle of law that if you buy stolen property, you can’t keep it. The world hasn’t changed – which you know if you’ve ever had anything stolen.

The pilgrims actually codified legal punishments as they have come to be practiced today. The penalty for a crime, such as public smoking, could be a fine, 3 hours in the stocks, or 3 days in jail, depending on the person’s social standing.

When they sighted land, one of the children, Francis Billington, ancestor of President Garfield, stuffed feather quills with gunpowder and set off home-made firecrackers. According to William Bradford, the town’s mayor and historian, the resulting fire got within 4 feet of a bed, but no one was hurt. The pilgrims had an incredible run of good luck.

Shortly after they landed, Squanto, the last living Patuxet tribesman, met with the pilgrims and spoke to them in English. The pilgrims took this as proof that God had truly given them this land – people even spoke English here. And why did Squanto know English so well? He had been captured by slave traders and taken to England where he lived for several years until a preacher bought his freedom and sent him home. When he returned, he learned that his people had all died of plague while he was gone. The Pilgrims settled land had belonged to his people, and hired. Squanto to communicate with the local tribes.

And why would any of the local tribes want to talk to the English, rather than shoot arrows at them? What could these English possibly give them? The nearest tribe was the Wampanoag, and they had a secret they wanted to keep from the other tribes. During the previous year, the plague had killed 2/3 of their population. There were only 2000 of them left. The surrounding tribes might try to take their territory if they found out. They were willing to make a deal with the Pilgrims. Corn and land – in trade for guns. Guns were one thing the pilgrims had plenty of. They literally were people who practiced guns and butter diplomacy.

Squanto played a trick on the Pilgrims by telling them they had to bury fish with the corn to fertilize it. After wild animals dug up the first 2 plantings, the Pilgrims caught on.

When the harvest came in and it looked like there was going to be plenty of food to get through the winter, the Pilgrims wanted to celebrate. Mayor Bradford suggested a day of prayer instead, but nobody listened to him. They wanted to PARTY! They invited the Wampanoag to a 3-day feast. The Wampanoag didn’t want to strain the Pilgrims’ hospitality, so they only sent 90 tribesmen and they contributed 5 deer to the feast. The Pilgrims served up that year-old rancid butter.

About a week later another boatload of immigrants arrived at Plymouth. They’d been heading for Virginia, and they didn’t bring grain or blankets. That bountiful harvest turned into meager rations to get everyone through the winter.

Thirteen years after this Thanksgiving, due to immigration, the settler population was now 35,000. The Wampanoag decided it was time to call a halt to the British land grab. They issued a decree confining them to the Plimoth Plantation, kind of a reservation. They drew boundaries and declared war if the settlers crossed them. As a precaution, they hid 400 women and children in a distant settlement. The British settlers killed all but those 400, still believing that God had given this land to them.

In conclusion, there’s nothing heartwarming about the original story of Thanksgiving. But, thanks to our politicians putting their spin on history, we now have a worthwhile celebration. It is good to have gratitude for a good harvest. It is goof to celebrate good friends. And it is good to enjoy the freedom that the settlers came here to avoid. I hope you had a good Thanksgiving.