Thanksgiving Day and Globalization

© 2015 Prof. Farok J. Contractor, Rutgers University

Original Version on Archive

“Freedom from Want” – Norman Rockwell, 1942

As Americans sit down to their Thanksgiving Day repasts each year, they are taught to recall the story of the “Pilgrim Fathers,” who in 1620 founded one of the first English settlements in North America at what was then Plimoth Colony in the State of Massachusetts. 

But the story of the English settlers seeking religious freedom in the New World was not, initially, one of gratitude. On arriving, they found nothing but “. . . a hideous & desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men.”[1] It was almost as if the settlers had landed on an unexplored frontier, like the Americans landing on a pristine moon more than three centuries later.

Also see: Second Helping, November 24, 2016


Early Globalization and the New World

Plimouth Plantation, Plymouth Mass

Recreation of Plimoth Colony, Plymouth, Massachusetts

See More at Plimouth Plantation

In fact, the very survival of Plimoth Colony, which evolved into the town of Plymouth, as well as the turkey that sits on the center of American tables on the fourth Thursday of each November, are testaments to more than a prior century’s globalization and trans-Atlantic travel. After 1492, when Cristoforo Colombo (re)discovered the Americas (the Norse had already settled in Canada around the year 1,000 under Lief Erikson), the Spanish and Portuguese had crossed the Atlantic thousands of times before the English settlers arrived in 1620; but they had concentrated mainly on the warmer and more fertile colonies in Mexico and Latin America. The English were left with the frigid, seemingly inhospitable remains—the North American forests, which appeared to have little economic value.

The Turkey
goulds turkey

Meleagris gallopavo mexicana–Ancestor of the North American Thanksgiving Bird

Most Americans at their Thanksgiving Day table do not realize that the large bird they are consuming is not native to America . . . and certainly not to Turkey. Its origin is Mexico, descended from a fowl that the Spanish exported to Europe a century before the English colony in the New World was established. By 1530, this bird could be found abundantly in European and British farms. However, in Europe it was confused with the guinea hen (an African fowl) that had previously been imported into Europe via Ottoman Turkey. Apparently, the taste, and the economics, of the Mexican bird were superior, and thus it displaced the African bird from European farms and tables. It is most likely that what Americans know today as the turkey is the Mexican bird, consumed by Europeans and then later re-imported back to North America on English ships. The Plimoth Colony settlers did hunt fowl, but if their catch included turkeys, it was the North American wild turkey (Meleagris Americana), not the Southern Mexican variety (Meleagris Mexicana)[2] that evolved into today’s turkey. (Of course,  today’s factory turkey is so genetically modified from its Mexican original that it is bland and likely much more tasteless, a far cry from its Mexican progenitor.)

“Squanto” and the Survival of Plimoth Colony

220px-Squantohowwellthecornprospered
Tisquantum (“Squanto”), Amazing Young Man of the Patuxet Tribe

Nine months after their arrival, more than half of the 102 individuals that disembarked from the Mayflower had perished of hunger and disease. The utterly unprepared and amateurish Pilgrims had arrived too late in the autumn of 1620 to plant crops, had underestimated the severity of the New England winter, and, to their surprise, found that their landing spot near the Cape Cod peninsula was unpopulated—so no human help or local advice was available. In another example of the effects of globalization, the Native American population in the area had been wiped out just a few years earlier through small pox and other diseases introduced by previously arriving English trading ships. One of these earlier ships in 1608 had sweetly proposed to exchange English metal goods for beaver and other animal skins, but then had captured and enslaved some of the natives and transported them to Europe.

One of them was a young man of the Patuxet tribe named Tisquantum (later shortened to Squanto), who was sold as a slave to Spanish Catholic priests for £20. Freed in 1612, Squanto traveled to England and lived in London for six years, with what must have been a wild hope of returning to his native village. In fact, it was not so improbable an aspiration because globalization was by then well established. Each year English trading ships would travel to New England to trade, pillage, and enslave. In 1618, Squanto’s English-language abilities and general acumen were noticed by an English ship captain who offered to take him back to New England in return for his translation and intermediary skills. Landing somewhere near the State of Maine, it took Squanto three years to walk his way south and find his native village (the place called Plimoth by the Pilgrims).

Squanto-Wampanoag

Squanto Greets the Surprised English Settlers

In the spring of 1621, as despair and death faced the weakened remaining English settlers, to their utter amazement a Native American speaking English, as well as the area’s Wampanoag language, stepped into their settlement, offering them friendship, advice on what crops to plant, and how to hunt and trap animals. More importantly, Squanto served as an ambassador or bridge to the area’s Narragansett and Wampanoag Indians, so that for a remarkable half century there was an uneasy peace between the English and the natives.

But by 1675, with more than 22,000 English immigrants, the natives realized they were being displaced from their own lands, and they launched an attack under the leadership of Metacom. This is sometimes described as the First Indian War. Of course, the locals were no match for English guns and growing numbers of colonists. The English presence in North America was by now an unassailable presence, whose later growth would populate the continent from “sea to shining sea.”

Thanksgiving Is as Much a Globalization Story as It Is an American One

Americans who enjoy their Thanksgiving repast are mostly oblivious of the fact that the story of the very founding of the United States is very much a story of globalization. Squanto’s trans-Atlantic journeys, his role in enabling the English bridgehead on the American continent, and the export and re-importation of the Mexican bird known to us as the turkey are vivid examples that globalization was commonplace—and even routine—by the 17th century.

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[1] From the diary of William Bradford (1590 – 1657), Governor of Plymouth Plantation Colony, Cape Cod, 1620: “A Hideous and Desolate Wilderness.” In History of Plymouth Plantation. In 1621, when only 50-odd half-starved survivors were left of the 102 that disembarked from the Mayflower, the word “governor” may have sounded far too grandiose a term. But with new annual arrivals, despite losses, the number of English grew to 180 by 1624, and had increased to over 1500 by 1650. (Patricia Scott Deetz and James Deetz, Population of Plymouth Town, Colony & County, 1620-1690.)
[2] John Bemelmans Marciano. On the origin of the species: Where did today’s bird come from? The answer may surprise you. Los Angeles Times, November 25, 2010.
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