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Pilgrims, the Mayflower and all

AS we prepare for Thanksgiving by cleaning our homes, gathering up turkeys and potatoes and laying out tablecloths, it's instructive to think: We're no Pilgrims.

Or Indians for that matter.

I know this from reading a loaned copy of "Mayflower" by Nathaniel Philbrick, a 2006 "story of courage, community and war."

As the title suggests, there was more to the participants in the first Thanksgiving than just a bunch of peace-loving foodies who got together for a great meal. (Pilgrim Instagram: selfies and #yams.)

I hadn't given a lot of thought to the Pilgrims since some second grade history lessons.

Even aside from their perilous, slow and not-incredibly-accurately-aimed journey on the Mayflower, these travelers seeking their own religious community were marvels for their flexibility and ability to adapt.

They were also politically savvy — and, alternately, politically short-sighted.

That goes for the Indians too.

The cast of characters in this drama worthy of its own History miniseries includes:

Massasoit: In the wake of a plague, the Indian leader and his Pokanoket people are reeling. Their tribe is greatly diminished in comparison to their local rivals. And they have no reason to like the English after an earlier slaughter.

But Massasoit comes to see an alliance with the Pilgrims as the path to greater power. By the time of the first Thanksgiving, probably in late September or early October 1621, Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets show up with five freshly killed deer for the feast. Everyone — enjoy!

Squanto: There's more to this guy than just helpful interpreter. Squanto is handy with the language, sure, but he also uses it to his advantage — trying to steer the Pilgrims against Massasoit so he can seize power for himself.

Once Squanto's scheme is uncovered, Massasoit insists the Pilgrims turn over Squanto's head and hands — separated from his body. Fortunately for Squanto, Pilgrim leader William Bradford insists the interpreter is too valuable and must be spared. Shwew!

Miles Standish: This guy was gangsta. Short and stout, the Pilgrims' military leader does not back down in a fight. Feeling threatened by the Massachussett tribe, the Pilgrims send Standish and a small force on a bold raid.

Standish claims to be on a trade mission and lures Massachussett warriors Witmuwamat and Pecksuot into a settlement house for a meal. Standish signals for the door to be shut.

"He turned to Pecksuot and grabbed the knife from the string around the pniese's neck. Before the Indian had a chance to respond, Standish had begun stabbing him with his own weapon. The point was needle sharp, and Pecksuot's chest was soon riddled with blood-spurting wounds."

And that's just the beginning of the bloodshed.

No wonder we don't learn this whole story as school kids.

The Pilgrims and Indians were more complicated, more fully formed, more human than we often stop to consider.

It's been a long time since 1621 — and in many ways not so long at all.  We owe much of the structure of our country to these people who were so determined to survive.

These days we're trying to agree to make the government run and figuring out if nationalized health care works.

But as we work out our differences, at least we're not demanding our rivals' head and hands or stabbing anybody dead with their own necklaces.

Are we?

Have a great Thanksgiving, and if somebody shows up at your house with five freshly killed deer, by all means treat 'em with kindness.

Brad McElhinny is editor and publisher of The Charleston Daily Mail. Contact him at 304-348-5124 or Follow him on Twitter



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