The two native inhabitants of the land looked furtively through the mulberry bushes at the edge of the sand at the strangely clad people who stood before them.
They had no idea that what they were viewing would signal changes for them and their race. They knew not what would happen to their people in the next 250 years. Had they known, they might not have been so magnanimous to the newcomers who were so busily unloading their goods from boats landed on the beach.
This is the story of some of that kindness. This is the story of accidental cooperation.
This is the true, untold story of that first Thanksgiving.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas….” sang Constable Miles Wilbish. He was the leader of a group of people who had fled the oppressive climate of religious persecution in England to settle in what was being billed everywhere as “The New World”.
Wilbish was braced by the hint of winter in the clear air, but he was also becoming increasingly worried as he walked the trails near their settlement with his right-hand man Will Means.
“I am gravely concerned, Will. We are running out of stores. Our crops are not coming in as they should. Our hunters too often return empty-handed, or with only a few rabbits to show for their efforts. Things are not good, no, not good at all.”
“Dang, boss, you ain’t kiddin’. Our babies are starving, and the old folks are dying,” said Means. He dropped his head. “Maybe this trip wasn’t such a great idea after all.
Wilbish had been thinking the same thing lately, but he was reluctant to voice his concerns. As not only the legal but also spiritual leader of the new community, he needed to keep up appearances. If he indicated in any way that he’d despaired, then their cause truly was lost.
“Will, I have been thinking. An idea has been forming in my mind. We must have help. The redmen have been watching us very carefully. I am uneasy with that. But have you noticed how healthy and strong they always seem? They must know how to handle this land, this climate. We are going to need them to survive.”
Means lifted his head. “So you’re on to something, boss. Sign me up. I’ll volunteer to go to them. I have nothing to lose, not being married and all. If they kill and eat me, well, no great loss, ya know?”
The constable smiled. He loved his assistant’s fervor and sense of duty. Even if it sometimes was over the top.
“I do not think they’ll eat you, my friend. But I accept your offer. I will need your enthusiasm if this plan is to work. Now, come closer and listen to how we must proceed.”
As they continued through the woods, always under the watchful gaze of men in bushes, Miles Wilbish outlined the plan to save his community. “First, we shall arrange a big dinner. Then…..”
Behind the trees, over the hill and down into the valley, the smoke from many cooking fires wafted gently into the steel blue sky. Wippomuk, chief of the Wampannoag, was sitting in council with his tribal leaders. He was listening to one of the younger braves, Walks On Fire.
“My friends, these folks are going to just die if they keep up the way they do. They don’t have any about what it takes to make it here. But by accident, they might just make it. And if they can make it here, they can make it anywhere. So we have some deciding to do.”
The gathering met that pronouncement with words of agreement. Then, Chief Wippomuk held up his right hand.
“I must tell you, Walks is right on the money. The pale faced people are hurting. But we are a decent sort of people. Maybe we should help them now, but make it clear to them that we want them to go somewhere else. I have a bad feeling that if they get desperate enough, they will come after our stores, and stop at nothing to get them. So I propose a festival, a big dinner.”
The gathered leaders were stunned. A dinner? For those who were trying to take their land? What did the chief have up his fringed sleeve? They were soon to find out.
Walks On Fire spoke for the Chief.
“I get it. We have this big party and make the newcomers think we love them ,even as they are tearing down our trees and scaring away the deer. They become happy and we get them to let their guard down.”
Chief Wippomuk smiled. “I’ll take it from here. Walks is correct. While we are having a good time, he and his braves will sneak off and put the torch to their dwellings. By the time they get home to nothing but smoldering cinders, they’ll be so discouraged they will load up their big canoes and head back across the sea where they came from. Nobody dies, especially our people. And our problems are solved.”
With a flourish of feathers and a loud harrumph, the chief sat down. “What say you, council?”
Nobody wanted to speak up first. This was the chief’s idea, and they usually did what he said. Like that time the Iroquois were stealing their chickens, and the chief decided to raise ducks instead. An unusual solution, but it worked. Who but the chief would have known that the Iroquois were allergic to duck?
After a long and uncomfortable silence, Walks On Fire, who was to lead the assault on the settlement, cleared his throat. “Uh, Chief… well… what if ….what if they all don’t want to come to the dinner. Or, what if somebody’s sick or they post a guard or they shoot us with those giant thunder sticks they carry around? I’m not a big fan of blood, especially if it’s mine?
The chief sighed. How did we come so far as a people? he thought. “Anybody else?” he said. “Listen to this closely. We’ll make them an offer they cannot refuse.” Chief Wippomuk gathered his council closely and outlined the plan he had to save his
“An offer they can’t refuse? That sounds a lot like violence to me. Like I said, I’m no fan of bleeding.”
Walks On Fire was walking back to his hut with Swift As Deer, his good friend, after the council meeting.
“Don’t worry. The chief’s got a trick or three up his tunic,” said Swift As Deer.
“My guess is that the pale ones are going to be so discouraged after we smoke ‘em out, they’ll beat feet the next day. It’s the party I’m worried about. I mean, what will we be able to serve them? I know from watching the settlers that they’re not too hot on berries and veggies. They gotta have meat, and plenty of it.”
Just then, two squawking birds came scurrying across their path. They stood about three feet tall, with thick upper bodies and full feathers. The two companions jumped back in alarm. Then, as if their brains were connected, they turned triumphantly to face each other, eyes wide open.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Brother Brave?” shouted Walter.
“Well, Brother Brave,” yelled Swift As Deer. “If you’re thinking Turkey Dinner with all the trimmings, then the answer is ABSOLUTELY!”
The two native inhabitants whooped and sprinted back to the lodge to share their idea with the chief.
“I get a leg!” screamed Walter, laughing as he struggled to keep up with his younger companion.
Miles Wilbish took a deep breath, and sat down on a nearby stump. Will Means made himself comfortable in the soft grasses nearby.
“I think it will work, Will. It’s a well-known fact that the redmen cannot handle spirits. As soon as they pass out, it will be verily simple to load up on their foods and stores.”
Means was a bit uneasy. “Just one thing, sir, if you don’t mind.”
“No, no,Will. By all means. Feel free to speak.”
“Well, Constable, here’s the thing. Let’s say we can pull this off. When they wake up, they’ll not only have some real headaches, but they’ll be hopping mad and bent on revenge. What’s to keep this from becoming a really bad idea?’
Wilbish stroked his graying beard.
“I have given that some thought. And sadly, the answer is one which is as distasteful as it is necessary.”
“You mean, we…. ” said Means, quietly, as he pointed an imaginary gun.
Wilbish sighed deeply.
“Yes, Will. I see no alternative. It is that, or our mission is ended.”
Chief Wippomuk loved his brave’s idea for the main course.
“It’s perfect, boys. Our squaws know how to roast those birds, and with the sweet potatoes and squash, and corn….. well, the settlers will be so stuffed they won’t know how to act.”
“And don’t forget the pumpkin pie, Chief,” said Walter.
“Yes, pie. Ahhhh. It’s a shame that the party cannot end on better terms. But oh, well—what’s a chief to do?”
And with that, the original inhabitants of the land went out to make plans for the big day.
Both sides were surprised when they met that the other had exactly the same ideas for the gathering. The settlers agreed to bring what they could spare from their dwindling stores.
The native inhabitants made assurances that they would not only treat the settlers to a great feast, but would also help them with ways to become more self- reliant.
Each side left the meeting with the feeling that they had succeeded in tricking the other.
“Chief, this might just be easier than I thought,” whispered Walks On Fire, as he watched the settlers cross the river to their cabins.
Miles Wilbish expressed similar sentiments to his assistant.
“Will, I think our native neighbors are in for a great surprise.
When they heard of the plans, the women of both sides were excited to be taking part in the gathering. They of course knew nothing of the nefarious plans of their men.
And so the stage was set.
The day came for the great feast. The native inhabitants had spent the last few days hunting and cooking. The aroma of large quantities of meats and fowl and vegetables and pies filled the crystal fall sky. Several plank tables were set up by the settlers along the banks of the river. The trees were burning with russet and gold, their leaves fluttering peacefully into the water. On both sides of that river, children were being dressed in their finest garb of smooth fringed leathers and starched white collars.
Miles Wilbish sat alone on a fence near one of his community’s failing fields. One look into the poorly yielding ground firmed his resolve.
We must do this. We must be successful. Our future depends upon the outcome of this day,” he thought.
Wilbish stood up erectly, smoothed his dark frock coat, and strode off to join his people as they made their way to the feast.
Chief Wippomuk also was spending a few moments by himself. As was his custom in the early mornings, he had climbed the hills rising slowly from the banks of the river to the highest point. From here, overlooking the settlement in one direction and his own village in the other, he realized that, as distasteful as today’s ruse was to his sense of honor, the deed must be carried out.
We must do this. We must be successful. Our future depends upon the outcome of this day, he thought.
With chin thrust forward and fists doubled, he descended to the river banks.
The sun rising over the tips of treetops had cut the chill of the morning to a pleasant temperature. The leaders of their respective communities were seated together at the longest table. They exchanged greetings upon arrival, Chief Wippomuk placing his right forearm across his chest, Miles Wilbish sweeping his wide-brimmed felt hat low into a courtly bow.
They sat ceremoniously and looked out upon the gathering.
Women from both groups were busily arranging the enormous mounds of food that had been prepared. The native inhabitants chatted cheerfully amongst themselves, and communicated with the settlers with signs and touches on the arm. There was much smiling and nodding of heads. The men from the tribe hauled in great slabs of roasted deer meat, piles of corn, and vegetables steaming from the pits. Settler men carried in the dozens of lightly bronzed and crackling turkeys. Games and contests were taking place in the fields.
Miles Wilbish was amazed at what was before his eyes. How did they do this? he wondered. His mouth watered at the aroma that overwhelmed the clearing. But his stomach began to tighten as children scampered and chased each other in the long grasses nearby.
Chief Wippomuk knew this needed to be a victorious day for his people. But the events he was witnessing were beginning to test his resolve. He glanced at his guest to the right. Constable Wilbish seemed to be shaking slightly. Was he ill? Or just hungry? What could be the matter? the chief mused. Were these strange people not the evil ones he’d imagined them to be?
As if hit by a lightning bolt, the chief realized that the plans he had made for later in the day must be altered. He called to his best brave.
“Walks On Fire. My good friend,” he whispered. “We must call off the raid. We will not be the ones who start the bad things. But double the guard on our stores in the village.” He paused. “If one of us can seek trouble, no doubt the other can as well.”
The brave was shocked at the chief’s words. “What’s that you say?” he murmured to the chief. Then he composed himself. This was the chief he was talking to.
“Okay, Chief. You got it.” He had to admit he wasn’t all that unhappy to hear of the change in plans. “I can’t say as that I wasn’t beginning to get cold feet myself.” He paused, and leaned over to speak into the chief’s ear. “And might I add, there are sure some fine looking settler gals over there.”
“Yes, Walks. Just do what I tell you. Now go.”
The chief shook his head slowly and smiled. “And so it begins,” he said softly, to no one in particular.
Miles Wilbish was indeed shaking. And not from hunger, or illness. Tears began to well up in his eyes, and roll uncontrollably down his cheeks into his beard.
What a display of generosity and goodwill. What have we done to deserve this from these people, except take their land, cut their trees down and encroach on their hunting grounds? And today they treat us as honored guests! How dare I order their deaths!
Wilbish summoned his lieutenant.
"Will. We must call off our plans. We are not a violent people. See how wonderful, how…. “ . His voice caught. He gathered himself, and said, “We must call off the raid.”
Will Means breathed a long sigh of relief. “Yes, sir, Sir. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t all that excited about the idea in the first place. You know, these folks really are friendly.” He looked around at the festivities before them. People sharing at the tables, passing sweet potatoes and meats. Children in song by the stand of giant oaks. Women hugging and men sharing a smoke by the rock bank.
Maybe we all can just get along, he thought.
“Uh, Boss. Do you mind if I, you know, if I say hello to that young lady over there, the one with the cluster of yellow feathers in her hair?”
Wilbish shook his head slowly, and smiled.
“Not at all, my good man. Not at all.” He shook his head slowly, and smiled.
“And so it begins,” he said, to no one in particular.
One of the settler women placed a great platter of meat between the leaders, and as they reached for a portion, their eyes met. Each had a sudden enlightenment as to what had just transpired in the others mind. Each seemed to sense that the direction of the day had just changed dramatically.
Chief Wippomuk grasped Wilbish’s right forearm with a powerful grip. He nodded to the settler, a small smile growing on his dusky face. Wilbish reached across and placed his left hand on that of the chief, and returned the smile.
The contact lasted only a few moments, but the gesture spoke volumes to the men’s hearts.
As day turned to evening, and both peoples moved quietly toward their respective homes, the sun gave up it’s last glorious rays into a spectacular red-orange sunset.
And so we have the true story of the first Thanksgiving. Much would transpire between the people who came from across the seas and those who were already in the land. Much sadness and destruction would come from the conflicts of the future.
But for this day, this moment, two very different people found common ground, a way to give thanks in spite of all the differences and challenges that faced them.
May we all take a lesson from the likes of Chief Wippomuk and Constable Miles Wilbish, and may your Thanksgiving be one of peace, good will and great turkey.