What images come to mind when you hear the word “pilgrim”?
For me, I see men wearing black, broad-brimmed hats with large belt buckles and women wearing white bonnets and aprons.
Often I imagine these folks gathered around a table with Native American neighbors ready to eat a meal of abundant, fresh food surrounded by the warm, comforting colors of fall.
Though I am now aware of the inaccuracies within these images formed during my childhood, they continue to persist in my mind. Consequently, a sorting out of reality from popular images is necessary and insightful.
Many expeditions to the present East Coast of the U.S. had, to varying degrees, floundered prior to the arrival of the so-called “pilgrims” to Plymouth.
In 1620, as the well-known story goes, a group of Christians who had separated from the Anglican Church sailed to “the New World” on the Mayflower.
As historian Samuel Eliot Morison shared in “The Oxford History of the American People,” while their charter was for land in what would become Virginia, in early November they made landfall at Cape Cod.
After surveying the now famous tourist destination, Morison noted that they decided “it was incapable of supporting human life” and sailed to Plymouth in mid-December.
The immigrants endured a miserable winter, in which disease spread through the camp leaving only 50 of the 102 original settlers alive by spring.
During the next year, the survivors were able to establish their struggling colony through fishing, hunting and, most important, receiving help from the Wampanoag tribe.
Given the many failed early immigrant colonies, coupled with the frequent tension and conflict between European immigrants and the native population elsewhere, it is safe to say that the kindness and generosity of the Wampanoag tribe allowed these “pilgrim” separatists to survive.
In the fall of 1621, a meal was planned and prepared to celebrate their survival and the harvest of crops.
While the details are unclear, it appears that these early European immigrants and some of the Wampanoag tribe collaborated to gather food for a three-day feast.
While the meal should not be glamorized, neither should it be dismissed as a fanciful modern-day myth created to teach children about Thanksgiving.
Indigenous peoples did, indeed, encounter and assist a group of struggling immigrants – sharing techniques for growing an important, native crop (corn), and, according to the few extant accounts, sharing a harvest meal together.
The black, broad-rimmed and belt-buckled hats can go, along with the bright white bonnets and aprons. After all, any white clothing would surely have been tinged by a sea voyage and a yearlong struggle to survive.
The anachronistic roasted turkey on a platter should also be set aside, along with any paternalistic imagery of the immigrant community inviting the local native peoples to share a meal that they had prepared themselves.
It was a meal of equality – jointly gathered and collectively enjoyed.
Nevertheless, despite the myriad depictions and presentations that must be sorted through to eliminate the “mythification” of the events, we should take time to remember and, yes, give thanks for this remarkable meal.
In other settlements, conflict between the native peoples and European immigrants was common.
At Plymouth, a more cooperative relationship emerged. In the first few years, at least, these immigrants survived, in part, by receiving help in their time of need from the Wampanoags.
These early immigrant “pilgrims” survived because of friendship and help extended by the native peoples. Community was formed, food was shared and the common good was advanced – even if it was only for a short time.
This is noteworthy and to be celebrated. As we prepare to gather for a meal with friends and family, it is also a reminder that there are people in our world who are in a plight similar to the early Plymouth settlers.
In cities, states and nations across the world, there are immigrants seeking a better life, who, like these early pilgrims, arrive to find their new home strange, challenging and perhaps even unfriendly.
There are people struggling with diseases for which they have no access to proper medicine, much less trained doctors or hospitals.
And there are people who are food insecure – lacking a balanced diet with sufficient nutrients in some places and lacking enough food to continue living in others.
Even after peeling away the layers of mythology that now surround this harvest meal, we find a needed reminder that when people are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned or in need of any kind, the right thing to do is to offer help.
Isolated though this experience was in the colonial era, and skewed though it has become through anachronistic glamorization, this meal – gathered and shared by immigrants and natives – reminds us what can be when humanity is recognized in “the other,” and of the good that can result from this remembrance.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com.