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All That Stuff About The Pilgrims Being First

November is a good time to dwell on this nonsense about the Pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving. Now that I have your attention, let me hastily intrude that in our current series, the original Colonial feast of gratitude and praise was convened in our present State of Maine in the year 1606 by the 120 gentlemen adventurers who came in the vessels Gift of God and Mary & John to settle the Popham colony.

When I noted recently that the first large vessel to be built in America was the pinnace Virginia in 1607, I received a letter from a dear lady asking, "How could this be? The Pilgrims didn't come until 1620!" Let me see, now. By the time the Pilgrims finally got around to making the trip, the English settlement at Pemaquid, very busy cutting seasonal fish, already had a population of 800, more than the capital of French Canada, Quebec City.

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History can be quirky. By the time St. Augustine, Fla., got started, Jacques Cartier's Tadoussac on the St. Lawrence River was having density problems.

Be that as it may, and it probably was, the Pilgrims were a bit late in coming. While they were still in Holland, two trading companies had been chartered by the British crown, The London Company and the Plymouth Company. The first was licensed to settle "Virginia"; the second had "The Maine" or what now amounts to New England. And it so happened that the Pilgrims, as dissenters looking for a haven of freedom, asked permission of the Plymouth Company to come to the "Maine" and make a new home. Both these trading companies were made up of respectable gentlemen of esteem, and the big wheel in the Plymouth Company was Sir John Popham, the Lord Chief Justice.

So let's forget the sentimental aspects of this and get down to the nitty-gritty facts of commerce. The Plymouth Company had a good thing going, and salt-slacked cod was fetching a good price. The company had life-and-death rights, could raise armies, control trade, coin money, and even say what kind of gospel was in style. Why take chances on a bunch of odd ones who found fault and demanded rights? The matter was discussed, and the answer was "no." The Pilgrims were told to find some other place, and Massachusetts was suggested as a possibility.

Back in the 1930s, I set some of this down, and The Saturday Evening Post printed it at Thanksgiving time with the title, "Who Says They Were First?" However, before publication my contribution was screened by able researchers, and the staff of the magazine was astounded at some of the facts turned up to dispute established schoolbook history. The Mayflower, seemingly, was chartered to bring the Pilgrims, and missed her turn in the fisheries fleet that brought Maine codfish to England. This is why the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, Mass., by way of Monhegan Island, Maine.

Her skipper knew how to get to Monhegan because that's where he loaded fish. Indeed, on their voyage to America, the Pilgrims paused off Monhegan to hand-line a few "coddes," and it's in the Mayflower's log. The Post found that in 1620, 32 European vessels loaded fish in Maine. And we can note that to catch, cut, salt, dry, and load all that fish, somebody has to do it. Having passed Monhegan on their way, the Pilgrims knew very well they weren't alone in a savage New World.

The first service and feast of thanksgiving was conducted by the Rev. Richard Seymour, an Anglican chaplain of the Popham colony. It was attended by the 120 male settlers; there were no women or children in the Popham group. And no Indians. They were not invited and would not have come, as relations were not cordial. The Pophamites expressed their gratitude for safe arrival in Maine, promised devotion, and partook. It was August 1607.

Back in the 1930s when the Post article appeared, our Maine Development Commission, which handled "publicity," saw a chance and staged its version of a reenactment of The First Thanksgiving. A scene for the purpose of a photograph was staged, with a happy group of fake colonists sitting by the seashore eating Maine lobsters. The resulting press picture was used all across our country. The picture included men, women, children, and Chief Bruce Poolaw and his Penobscot wife. Skipping the error of women and children, the presence of the chief et ux. was a delightful booboo.

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CHIEF BRUCE was, is, a Kiowa, wedded to a Penobscot princess and living at our Indian Island reservation where his tepee is a popular gift shop. Since no Indians came to that first Thanksgiving, his presence in the picture shows the extent to which Plymouth legends persist. Thanksgiving must have an Indian, even when there wasn't one. Chief Poolaw wore his Sioux war bonnet, a headpiece Maine Indians knew nothing about.

It was Squantum, however, who came from the bushes at Plymouth to grasp the hand of Miles Standish and say, "Welcome, Englishmen!" And Squantum was at the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving feast. (They say!)

Squantum, Tiscuantum to his Cannabais tribe, was the sachem who lived with Lord Chief Justice John Popham for a year. When he got back to Maine, he used to go about welcoming Englishmen to show that he spoke English (and French). So, hearing the Pilgrims had arrived, he went down to Massachusetts to see if he knew any of them. I believe they finally kicked him out and he came back to Maine to run for the school board. You don't want to believe all you read in a history book.

Happy turkey to you!

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