(This Thanksgiving I’m posting a short, edited snippet of pages 55-66 of Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. In it Mann describes the history of Indian-European relations that existed before the arrival of the Mayflower by following the story of a single Indian, Tisquantum, and the role he played in the events leading up to the first Thanksgiving. This fair use reproduction is just a small chunk of Mann’s 500+ page book. If you’d like to read more about this topic — I’d recommend buying and reading all of 1491. It’s excellent. Happy Thanksgiving.)
I had learned about Plymouth in school. But it was not until I was poking through the scattered references to Billington [the author’s ancestor] that it occurred to me that my ancestor, like everyone else in the colony, had voluntarily enlisted in a venture that had him arriving in New England without food or shelter six weeks before winter. Not only that, he joined a group that, so far as is known, set off with little idea of where it was heading. In Europe, the Pilgrims had refused to hire the experienced John Smith as a guide, on the theory that they could use the maps in his book. In consequence, as Smith later crowed, the hapless Mayflower spent several frigid weeks scouting around Cape Cod for a good place to land, during which time many colonists became sick and died. Landfall at Patuxet did not end their problems. The colonists had intended to produce their own food, but inexplicably neglected to bring any cows, sheep, mules, or horses. To be sure, the Pilgrims had intended to make most of their livelihood not by farming but by catching fish for export to Britain. But the only fishing gear the Pilgrims brought was useless in New England. Half of the 102 people on the Mayflower made it through the first winter, which to me seemed amazing. How did they survive?