A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White Jr.

8069878A. Lincoln

by Ronald C. White Jr.

For years I’ve wanted to read a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and I recently finally got around to it.  There are so many that have been written, it’s difficult to choose which one to read.  I ended up going with Ronald White’s biography, mainly because it was rated well, and it was the most recently written one I came across.  Having now read it, I wonder if I would have appreciated a different one more.

That is not to say this is not well-written and informative; it is.  However, what I had been hoping for was something that demystified that man, Abraham Lincoln.  And while this biography does that to an extent, it is far more an exploration and recounting of the Civil War than an analysis of Lincoln himself.  That said, it is an exhaustively researched volume, and I did come away having learned more about the Civil War than I ever knew before.

Some interesting things to note about Lincoln: according to this biography, at the outset of the Civil War – and indeed, of his political career –  he was not determined to abolish slavery.  While he was not in favor of slavery from a personal, moral perspective, his goal was only to stop the spread of slavery into territory beyond which it already existed.  He was fine with leaving slavery alone where it already existed, and at the outset of the Civil War, his focus was on keeping the Union together.  His views on slavery seem to have evolved over time (with the aid of pressure from anti-slavery factions in the North), and endeavoring to completeley abolish slavery came after a long process of rumination on Lincoln’s part.  Even when he first began to propose the abolishment of slavery, he made clear that he did not believe that Blacks were the social equals of Whites, and he proposed “emancipation and colonization,” meaning, arranging for freed slaves to be relocated to Haiti and Nigeria.

Perhaps his views on the social equality of Blacks also evolved, however, as indicated by his (final) encounter with Frederick Douglass at the White House for Lincoln’s second inaugural reception, where Lincoln warmly received Douglass, saying, “Here comes my friend Douglass …. there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”  It is impossible, however, to know how far this would translate, practically speaking, had Lincoln not soon thereafter been assasinated.  Would he have championed Black suffrage?  Equal pay for Blacks?  Blacks holding political office?  Interracial relations and marriages?  It’s impossible to know this, but given the widely-held views of that time period, it’s unlikely that Lincoln would have been enthusiatic to that extend, no matter how progressive he was for the times.

It’s worth knowing, too, that the lines that divided the North and the South did not dilineate sentiments about racial equality to the extent I think we would like to believe.  Most Northerners at that time were deeply prejudice, and although many were against the institution of slavery, they still viewed black people as an inferior race, and wanted little or nothing to do with them.

I also found it interesting to learn of Lincoln’s supposed spiritual oddyssey.  As a young man, and even by the time he first assumes the office of the President, he seemed to be verging on agnostic.  Over the course of his presidency, however, he apparently underwent some kind of spiritual transformation and became almost pious in his views on god and providence.

In any case, White’s biography of Lincoln does offer a lot of fascinating information about Lincoln’s life, as well as the Civil War, and the generals and other important figures of the time.  A bit on the dry side, and with a little too much comparative analysis with the bible for my taste, it’s nonetheless an informative volume.  I’m not sure, however, that I feel that I understand Lincoln the man much better than I did before reading this book.  But maybe Lincoln will always remain somewhat of an enigma, and understanding the workings of his mind is an impossiblity.

A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

51IF0AJcUYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A Young People’s History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

As last summer wound down, I was gathering materials to use to homeschool my then almost nine-year old daughter and almost eleven-year old twin daughters.  I wanted to approach U.S. History with them in a different way than it had been presented to them in conventional public school up to that point.  Specifically, I wanted to break away from the white-washed version of history which portrays every American historical figure (most of them white) as a hero, and America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave” without examining underlying complexities and uncomfortable truths about the country which we call home.  In a nutshell, I don’t want my children fed a diet of zealous patriotism and nationalism.

On several recommendations, I bought A Young People’s History of the United States and used it as our history “curriculum” this school year.  It was a great choice.  Adapted for younger readers (Amazon doesn’t specify an age range, but I would say ages 10 through teens) from Zinn’s original A People’s History of the United States (which I have, but haven’t read.  I hope to at some point), A Young People’s History covers the time from Columbus mistakenly arriving in America to the “War on Terror” and the George W. Bush presidency.  Told from “the people’s” point of view rather than from the point of view of those in power, this wonderful book discusses the many social and political issues that have shaped, and continue to shape the United States – slavery, segregation, labor unions, poverty, women’s rights, the political issues that have driven the wars in which the United States has been involved, and more.

My daughters and I really enjoyed our time studying U.S. History using this book as our guide this school year.  We would sit down together two or three times a week and take turns reading aloud from A Young People’s History, and our readings always led to interesting discussions, and often to further studies elsewhere.

Highly recommend.

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

51yIFRRN4TL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_In the Heart of the Sea

by Nathaniel Philbrick

I love books about true historical events that read like novels.  I read Philbrick’s Mayflower a few years back and was completely taken in by his writing and by the story he told.  When I started seeing trailers for the movie In the Heart of the Sea a few months ago, I was intrigued, but I had no idea that the movie was based on a book.  I came across the book on one of my browsing trips to Barnes & Noble, and when I saw that it was written by Nathaniel Philbrick, I bought it on the spot.

In the Heart of the Sea first details a vivid picture of life on Nantucket in the early part of the nineteenth century – particularly how the predominant Quaker faith and the whaling industry shaped the citizens and their way of life on Nantucket.  Nantucketers were a society unto themselves, and referred to everyone else as “off-Islanders.”  The wealth of Nantucketers was almost solely due to the whales they killed and converted to oil; nearly every male Nantucketer was involved in whaling in some way, and nearly every female would grow up to marry a man she would be separated from for years at a time while he was away on a whaleship.

The tragedy of the whaleship Essex was a story well known by east coasters well into the twentieth century, and yet, somehow the story has become obscure.

In August of 1819, the whaleship Essex – growing old at nearly twenty years – set out on a routine whaling voyage with twenty crewmen aboard.  She was expected to be gone for two to three years – the typical length of a whaling voyage – and to return to Nantucket with upwards of 2,000 barrels of whale oil.  Problems arise very soon after the Essex’s departure, when the ship hits a squall and an arrogant captain George Pollard makes a decision that puts the ship and its crew in peril.  The damage suffered from this incident very well may have set the ship’s unlucky course, as the storm, which could have been avoided, demolished some of the whaleboats, leaving the crew dangerously under-provisioned.

After a little more than a year at sea, the Essex has made its way into what was known as the Offshore Ground: an area of the Pacific ocean that was fertile hunting ground for the lusted after sperm whale, and about as far from any land mass as was possible to be.  On a fateful November day in 1820, an eighty-five foot sperm whale turned on the Essex and bore down on her, bashing her multiple times, and ultimately destroying her.  The twenty crew members spent the next three months crammed into three small whaleboats, drifting on the Pacific.  It wasn’t long before their provisions ran out and the men began to suffer the effects of dehydration, starvation, and exposure, and eventually, the men begin to die one by one, the corpses ultimately providing sustenance for the men who remained barely alive.

The story of the Essex and her crew is as engrossing as it is harrowing and gruesome.  A whale of a tale for sure.

UnknownAs an aside, I watched the movie right after finishing the book.  I would say that the movie is good standing on its own, but compared to the book, it’s a disappointment.  It deviates too much from the true story, and unnecessarily so.  It paints Thomas Nickerson as an aging alcoholic, tortured by his memories of his harrowing ordeal with the Essex crew years before, and especially by the acts of cannibalism the crew engaged in to survive – which cannibalism, the movie would have you believe, was covered up until Nickerson supposedly confessed all to a young writer by the name of Herman Melville.  Upon his tearful confession, according to the movie, Nickerson is suddenly unburdened, and all is well, and Melville goes on to write one of the greatest American novels of all time, Moby Dick.

In reality, while the story of the Essex was the basis for Moby Dick, Melville didn’t receive a late night dramatic confession from a tortured Nickerson over glasses of whiskey; rather, he was given a written account of events written by Owen Chase, which inspired him to write Moby Dick.  There is no evidence that Nickerson was a tortured alcoholic; he moved to the mainland after the tragedy of the Essex, and years later returned to Nantucket and successfully ran a boarding house.

There is also a testosterone-driven rivalry portrayed in the movie between Captain George Pollard and first mate Owen Chase, which just wasn’t there in real life.

Another irritating aspect of the movie was the portrayal of a vengeful “white whale” that apparently stalked the Essex crew even after the Essex sank.  The actual whale that stove the Essex was, in fact, a sperm whale (the white whale is a mythological creature created by Melville), and nobody saw hide nor hair of that particular whale after the destruction of the Essex.


To Be a Slave by Julius Lester

51C1asDyjoL To Be a Slave

by Julius Lester

I was led to this book as I searched for a book to possibly read with my daughters, whom I homeschool, as part of our exploration of U.S. History.  I’ve been reading A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zimmerman with them (an excellent book), and detouring to other books when we want to delve more deeply into certain aspects of the history we’re reading about.  Slavery in America is one of those aspects.  I want to somehow convey to my kids the depth of horror of slavery, and to really try to imagine what it must have been like to be owned as a piece of property, like a table or a dog or an iPad, by another human being, to have no rights, and to spend one’s entire life doing the bidding of another person or people.  It’s hard even for me to imagine, obviously, being a white woman.

In any case, my query online for books for youth regarding slavery led me to Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave, which was originally published in 1968.  It opens thus:

“It was the late forties.  I was not yet ten years old.  One day there came in the mail a letter addressed to my father in which a company promised – in big and bold letters – to research the Lester family tree and send us a copy of our family coat of arms.  I was excited, but when I saw my father fold the letter as if to discard it, I asked anxiously, ‘Don’t you want to know our family history?’

“He laughed dryly.  ‘I don’t need to pay anybody to tell me about where we came from.  Our family tree ends in a bill of sale.  Lester is the name of the family that owned us.'”

I was chilled by this stark, but obvious information.  I had never thought about it before – but of course nearly every black American’s family tree would end in a bill of sale.

Many years later, Lester began delving into black history, and he came upon a book by B.A. Botkin called Lay My Burden Down, which was a compilation of interviews with the last living former slaves undertaken by the Federal Writer’s Project of the Depression.  The book angered Lester, who says, “The slaves depicted there were too reminiscent of the stereotyped blacks of the movies of the forties and fifties – happy, laughing, filled with love for while people.”  Believing that the interviews with former slaves were cherry-picked in order to produce a record of slavery that (white) people could feel good about, Lester went to the Library of Congress and spend weeks pouring through all of the interviews undertaken by the Federal Writer’s Project himself, gleaning from them exactly what he had gone there to find: true, emotional, harrowing, courageous, horrifying, heart wrenching firsthand accounts of slavery from those who were slaves themselves and lived to tell about it.  To Be a Slave is Lester’s compilation of those interviews, along with his notes.

I’ve read numerous books about slavery, both fiction and non-fiction, and this book has touched a deeper never probably than any other I’ve read, mainly for its raw and unvarnished truthfulness.  It’s actually aimed at young people – probably no younger than middle school, but something adults would benefit from reading, too.  This should be required reading; highly recommend.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

the-invention-of-wings-sue-monk-kidd_t580 The Invention of Wings: A Novel
by Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd, author of the widely read The Secret Life of Bees, explains in an afterword to The Invention of Wings that she knew she wanted to write a novel about sisters, but who those sisters would be and what the setting would be in which they would exist was a mystery to her until she attended an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum about women who have made important contributions to history and stumbled upon the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimke.  She had never heard of them before, although they haled from her own hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.  After reading about the two women at the exhibition, however, Kidd was intrigued and began to dig deeper.  And so The Invention of Wings was born.

I had never heard of the Grimke sisters, either, but apparently they were at one time two of the most well-known – and notorious – women in the United States.  Born into a large, wealthy plantation family in the early nineteenth century, the Grimkes were raised when slavery epitomized the Southern way of life.  Both sisters, having witnessed firsthand the cruelties of slavery, abhorred the institution and eventually became pariahs in their community as they became more and more vocal as abolitionists.  As adults, they left Charleston and traveled the states speaking out against slavery and for equal rights, not only among races, but gender as well.  Sarah and Angelina Grimke thus became two of the most famous abolitionists and feminists of their time.

In The Invention of Wings, Kidd creates a fictional account of the Grimke sisters’ lives, as well as the lives of a cast of supporting characters, based on historical fact.  The story is narrated alternately by Sarah Grimke and a slave by the name of Hetty, aka “Handful,” who was presented to Sarah as a handmaid on her eleventh birthday.  While Sarah Grimke apparently really was given a young slave girl named Hetty as a gift for her eleventh birthday, historical records indicate that Hetty died in childhood.  Kidd’s novel is an imagining of what might have been had Hetty lived.  The novel spans several decades – from Sarah’s eleventh birthday through middle age.

I loved this book.  I actually listened to it on audio, so it took me a while to get through it, but it was such a treat to listen to this epic, sweeping story play out.  The characters and scenes are so vivid.  While it’s certainly not the first novel I’ve read that addresses slavery, it doesn’t feel redundant or stale by any means.  The horrors of people owning other human beings like property, and literally valuing them at a fraction of “whole humans” and treating them accordingly . . . it’s a heavy weight on the conscience of America.

A must read.

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

519QdZq5fjL Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
by S.C. Gwynne


This book, which I’ve been reading over the past week or so and just finished about thirty minutes ago with tears in my eyes, kind of blew me away.

My husband bought this book for me on a whim a while back (sweet man – he knows that the way to my heart is through books), and it sat on my to-read shelf gathering dust with a lot of other books until I recently read One Thousand White Women for my book club.  I found that book to be a pretty romanticized and often cheesy depiction of life with Indians in the untamed American west, and it left me very curious about what life was really like in that time and place.  Empire of the Summer Moon delivers.

Told in meticulous and beautiful detail, this historical account of the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most fierce and powerful Indian tribe America ever saw, is absolutely riveting – and in some ways turned my ideas about “how the west was won” upside down.  Despite the sanitized version of history I grew up with in school, there has always been the knowledge that the Indians were here first, and the white people came along and spread disease, enslaved Indians, and stole their land.  The truth, apparently, is more complicated than that.  While it is true that the white people did those things, it’s also true that long before white people came to America, the Indians were fighting each other, as well as Spaniards and Mexicans over land, and murdering and enslaving each other.  America has a bloody, bloody history dating back to the very beginning.

Central to this historical account of the Comanches are the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah.  In the 1830s whites began settling in Texas – at the time, a desolate land isolated from civilization.  The land was virtually free for the taking, but whites venturing there were takingimages their lives into their own hands, as the Indian presence was a grave menace.  The Parker family was one such family that, despite terrible danger, decided to settle in the southern part of Texas.  They built a fort to protect themselves against enemy Indians – a collection of log cabins to house the extensive family, a main fort, all fenced in by razor-sharp cedar posts and a reinforced, bullet-proof gate.  On a fateful day in 1836, however, the gate was left open, and the fort was raided by Indians.  Many Parker family members were killed, and a handful taken prisoner by the Comanches – among them, nine-year old, blonde, blue-eyed Cynthia Ann.  While the other prisoners were eventually killed or ransomed back to their white kinsfolk, Cynthia Ann was adopted by the Comanches and fully assimilated into the tribe – so much so that future attempts by whites to buy her back from the Comanches failed – she flat out refused to leave her Indian family.  She married and had three children and spent twenty-five years as a full-fledged Comanche Indian squaw.  Eventually, she was captured by whites and returned, against her will, to her white relatives, where she spent several miserable, despondent years until her death.  Cynthia Ann’s story is heart-wrenching, and raises ethical and humanitarian questions that are impossible to answer.

smallOne of her children was Quanah, twelve years old at the time of his mother’s re-capture by white men.  Quanah went on to become a great Comanche warrior and war chief, and was one of the last hold-outs of the Comanche nation against the whites.  Eventually the Comanches numbers dwindled thanks to buffalo hunters that virtually wiped out the Indians’ food supply over a period of years, to white man’s diseases, and actual combat between whites and Indians, and the last of the Comanches, led by Quanah, surrendered and began the demoralization of reservation life.  Somehow Quanah assimilated well into the white man’s world, refusing to look back, and he became a highly respected and prosperous man.  Quanah never forgot his mother, Cynthia Ann, and his search for her grave and insistence on being buried next to her were extremely moving.

This frank history is not for the faint of heart; it is filled with graphic accounts of horrific, almost unimaginable atrocities Indians perpetrated on whites, on other Indians, and which whites committed against Indians.  There were parts that actually gave me bad dreams.  Nonetheless, it’s a necessary read, I think, for anyone who wants to understand the true history of America – or at least an integral portion of that history.

Despite the heinous, bloody crimes of the Comanches, I was left at the end feeling a great sense of loss for the majestic days when the Indians roamed free and wild.

A truly breathtaking book.


Three Generations, No Imbeciles by Paul A. Lombardo

Three-Generations-No-Imbeciles-Lombardo-Paul-A-9780801890109Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell

by Paul A. Lombardo

The United States has a long history of shameful behavior behind the legacy of patriotic heroism, bravery, innovation, and resilience.  Our forefathers stole land from the natives who were here before us, spread disease, enslaved hundreds of thousands of people, and well into modern times have continued to marginalize and mistreat minorities.  One of the chapters in U.S. History that is not taught in school is the eugenics movement which took hold in the early twentieth century.

Eugenics – or “better breeding” – was a social movement rooted in quasi-scientific theories about heredity.  It was believed – though never actually proven by any stringent scientific methods – that individuals with undesirable traits, including, most notably, epilepsy, alcoholism, “pauperism,” (those living in poverty), criminal tendencies, and “feeblemindedness” were born with those traits by way of genetics, and that they would pass those traits onto their offspring.  The only way to prevent the world being overrun by these “lesser breeds” was to prevent them from reproducing via forced sterilization.

“Anxiety about those who failed in the contest of life, relying on charity and inflating the taxes of everyone else, was widespread.”

(Things haven’t changed much, have they?  Just listen to anyone in today’s Republican party and you’ll hear much the same.)

“Degeneracy theory gave a human face to the biblical curse condemning children to inherit the sins of their fathers.”

Forced sterilizations – the vast majority of which were performed on women – began in the late nineteenth century on people institutionalized, either in prisons or in mental hospitals.  In order to give it legal clout in the face of public disapproval, a test case was chosen in 1923 to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The case was Buck v. Bell, and the plaintiff was Carrie Buck, a young unwed mother who was deemed “feebleminded,” as was her own mother who resided in a state institution, and her infant daughter.

“Feeblemindedness” was a very vague term, encompassing a vast array of “conditions,” including, but not limited to illiteracy, low IQ (determined by very unsophisticated and untested tests), wanderlust, immoral behavior (like becoming pregnant out of wedlock – nevermind that Carrie Buck became pregnant as a result of being raped by her foster parents’ nephew), and “shiftlessness.”  Upon learning that Carrie was pregnant, her foster parents did what many did in those days to distance themselves from the shame of an unwed pregnancy in the household: they had her sent away and committed.  Torn away from her baby only a couple of months after giving birth, Carrie was committed to the same institution where her natural mother resided – for reasons unknown – and both they and the infant girl were deemed “feebleminded.”  Carrie’s surgical sterilization was planned to take place on the heels of her case which would go to the Supreme Court, which the doctors and lawyers orchestrating had every intention of winning – to the point of assigning an attorney to represent Carrie who did nothing to defend her rights and merely bolstered the State’s sham of a case.

In the famous Supreme Court decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote,

“It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

Carrie Buck was in fact forcibly surgically sterilized after the case was decided, as was her thirteen-year old younger sister, and thousands upon thousands of more people over the next several decades, with California leading in the number of sterilizations performed.  Carrie was eventually released from state custody and lived to be an old woman, dying in 1983, having been married twice and living most of her life in abject poverty.  People who knew her later in life scoffed at the notion that she was “feebleminded.”  She was, in fact, of average intelligence.  The daughter she gave birth to illegitimately was adopted by Carrie’s foster parents and died of an illness at the age of eight or nine, after doing well enough in school, both academically and in her “deportment,” despite having been deemed “feebleminded” as an infant.

The U.S. eugenics movement fueled Nazi Germany’s quest for racial cleansing,

“But neither scientists nor the public connected U.S. laws to German atrocities.  Fifty years after Buck, more than a dozen compulsory sterilization laws were still in force, and surgeries were documented in institutions as late as 1979.  Far from being a legal dead letter, Buck has never been overturned.”

German scientists actually worked closely with American scientists in the development of their own eugenics movement, which of course was the foundation for the Holocaust.  At the Nuremberg trials, Buck was referred to again and again in defense of the Nazi’s genocide.

It is hard to imagine in this day and age people being forcibly surgically sterilized for any of the reasons that were seen as completely justified and reasonable back in the day.  And yet, despite astronomical leaps in scientific knowledge and supposedly progressive social views, minorities, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities are still marginalized and even targeted for elimination now.  Knowing the history of eugenics in the U.S., it is impossible not to believe that modern-day prenatal screenings, designed specifically to target and weed out certain disabilities, is tied to eugenics.

“In the shadow of the Holocaust and in the light of Carrie Buck’s saga, eugenics is now almost universally considered a dirty word.  But many of our motives today are no different from those of the Buck era: we continue to hope that science can be used to improve the human condition.  We all want to eradicate disease; we all hope to have healthy children.  We all also want lower taxes.  Whether or not we use the word eugenics to describe those motives, we must recognize their power, both in historical context as well as today.”

“Today we can diagnose some forms of deafness, blindness, and cancer as well as numerous other diseases, where we know the genes that lead to disease and we can reliably predict its onset.  The search for the cause of mental retardation has not abated since the time of Buck, and many genetic markers for cognitive impairments remain under study.  How much does it matter if we use a technique – less troubling to some than coercive surgery – to “cleanse the germ plasm,” as the eugenicists would have said?  Does our embrace of techniques such as preimplantation selection of “normal” fetuses or prenatal genetic diagnosis and selective abortion make our motives in “eradicating defects” less suspect?  Our modern emphasis on autonomy as a principle important to both law and ethics does not free us from the hard questions posed by our newest technology.”

Three Generations, No Imbeciles is an unflinching look at a chapter in our history that still reverberates today.  Utterly fascinating and ultimately unsettling, this should be required reading in every U.S. History classroom.

Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling

Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling

This is the story of Sylvia Mendez and her family, who lease an asparagus farm from a Japanese family forced to evacuate to an internment camp during WWII.  When Sylvia’s aunt attempts to enroll Sylvia and her brothers in school, they are turned away and sent to the “Mexican school.”  Sylvia’s father is outraged by this discrimination and undertakes a lawsuit against the school district.

Meanwhile, Aki Munemitsu and her family try to keep their spirits up and make sense of being forced to abandon their farm and everything they know and being imprisoned in an internment camp hundreds of miles away from home – forced by a country to which they’ve been nothing but loyal, but which now sees them as a “threat to national security” based merely on their Japanese ethnicity.

Inevitably, Sylvia and Aki, whose old bedroom Sylvia now calls her own, become pen pals, and then friends.

Based on true events, the case of Mendez vs. Westminster School District effectively ended racial segregation in California schools, and was instrumental in ending racial segregation in schools nationwide.

What made this story all the more interesting to me is that it took place locally – Westminster is only a stone’s throw from where I call home.  I was unaware of this little piece of history until I read this book.

Written for the grade-school set (ages 9 and up), it’s a very quick read.  Not extremely in-depth, it does skim over a lot of details that could make the story more interesting.  However, I enjoyed it and would recommend it to kids and grownups alike.

Review: Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

I wanted to read something relevant to the season; a friend gave me this book late last year and I’ve been saving it to read this November in honor of Thanksgiving.  What’s the real deal behind Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims and Indians of lore?  I think we know it wasn’t exactly like the cheesy, kitschy lessons passed along in early grade school where the Indians welcomed the Pilgrims, with their big buckled shoes and tall hats, with open arms and the two communities founded America peacefully together.  So what really happened?

What really happened was that a relatively small group of Separatists (so-called because of their extremist Christian views and desire to separate from England’s church) left England to escape religious persecution (at the time, the English monarchy ran the church and everyone was expected to worship as the Church dictated; to fail to do so was punishable by severe penalty).  Initially they emigrated to Holland, but after several years there, they felt that their children were losing touch with their English heritage, and so they decided to set off for the Americas, hoping to recreate their English homeland in virgin territory, where they could worship as they chose.  And so, on September 6, 1620, after numerous delays, the Mayflower set sail from Holland.  She carried a little over 100 passengers; contrary to wide assumption, only about 50 of those passengers were Pilgrims.  The rest were comprised of “Strangers” – that is, people who did not belong to the Pilgrims’ congregation but who wished to make a new home in America just the same.  The journey across the Atlantic was a long and arduous one; still, only two lives were lost along the way.

When the Mayflower finally reached America in November, what they came upon was a the sterile, desolate landscape of Cape Cod.  Winter was almost upon them, and they were desperately short on food and other provisions.  Over the first four months of their residency in America, half of the passengers of the Mayflower would die from starvation and/or illness.

Although at first it seemed that their new home was unoccupied, they soon encountered Indians, who were, naturally, wary and suspicious of these Europeans, having already had negative relations with European traders and merchants before them.  One of the first things the Pilgrims did was pillage Indian graves and steal corn from the Indians’ underground stores.  Not a good way to begin friendly relations.

Still, the Indians and the Pilgrims, after some initial minor skirmishes, managed to forge a tenuous alliance; in a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours atmosphere, the Indians taught the Pilgrims how and what to plant in the way of crops, showed them where the best fishing and hunting could be had, and the Pilgrims provided the Indians with modern conveniences such as tools, guns, and medicine.

If you are one of the many who believe that America was founded on Christian ideals, you would be wrong.  Although the Pilgrims were devoutly (fanatically?) Christian, they recognized the importance of creating a secular government, “a government based on civil consent rather than divine decree.”  They understood all too well the dark side of living under government-imposed religion and they intended to create a society in which every citizen was free to worship (or not) as they wished.  Even marriages, from the very beginning, were civil ceremonies, not religiously ordained ones.

What about Plymouth Rock?  Did you know that Plymouth Rock was never even mentioned until more than a hundred years after the Pilgrims landed in America?

“In 1741, the ninety-five year old Thomas Faunce asked to be carried in a litter to the Plymouth waterfront.  Faunce had heard that a pier was about to be built over an undistinguished rock at the tide line near Town Brook.  With tears in his eyes, Faunce proclaimed that he had been told by his father, who had arrived in Plymouth in 1623 [three years after the Mayflower landed], that the boulder was where the Pilgrims had first landed.  Thus was born the legend of Plymouth Rock.”

And what about the first Thanksgiving?  First of all, it most likely did not take place in November, but more likely in September or early October.  Further, it was not referred to as the Pilgrims themselves as “Thanksgiving”; that name was not applied until the nineteenth century.

“Countless Victorian-era engravings notwithstanding, the Pilgrims did not spend the day sitting around a long table draped with a white linen cloth, clasping each other’s hands in prayer as a few curious Indians looked on.  Instead of an English affair, the First Thanksgiving soon became an overwhelmingly Native celebration when Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets (more than twice the entire English population of Plymouth) arrived at the settlement and soon provided five freshly killed deer.  Even if all the Pilgrims’ furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted, or sat on the ground as they clustered around outdoor fires, where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits and where pottages – stews into which varieties of meats and vegetables were thrown – simmered invitingly.”

Also served up was wild turkey, which was plentiful in the area, fish, and plenty of beer, a staple of the English.  There was certainly no cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie.  “There were also no forks, which did not appear at Plymouth until the last decades of the seventeenth century.  The Pilgrims ate with their fingers and their knives.”

Okay, honestly?  I would love to try to recreate this and experience an authentic Thanksgiving – wouldn’t you?

So for about fifty years, the Pilgrims and Indians coexisted somewhat peacefully – not always agreeing with or understanding one another, and certainly with occasional skirmishes and acts of violence, but for the most part, they lived respecting the others’ way of life and contributions to each other’s way of life.

However, when the second generation of Pilgrims were all grown up, and more and more Europeans had emigrated to America, relations with the Indians began to deteriorate.  The white people became more and more greedy for land and all but froze the Indians out of what had originally been theirs.  It was inevitable that all our war would break out, and in 1675 what became known as King Phillip’s War began – a bloody war lasting fourteen months and resulting in massive loss of life.  In the end, the Pilgrims and Puritans prevailed, and most of the surviving Indians were taken into slavery:

“It has been estimated that at least a thousand Indians were sold into slavery during King Philip’s war, with over half the slaves coming from Plymouth Colony alone.  By the end of the war Mount Hope, once the crowded Native heart of the colony, was virtually empty of inhabitants.  Fifty-six years after the sailing of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims’ children had not only defeated the Pokanokets in a devastating war, they had taken conscious, methodical measures to purge the land of its people.”

Kind of makes one stop and think about the pride we Americans take in being American, and the value we place on our liberty and freedom, when we were so willing to take that from the native people of America.

An excellent read if you’re interested in American History – I highly recommend this one.