On a russet November day in 1621, in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, just across the bay from Cape Cod, the Plymouth Colony settlers were preparing a meager harvest celebration when 90 natives of the Wampanoag nation walked in on them.
Seeing that the settlers were preparing a feast of sorts, the Wampanoags turned right around, went back into the forest and, though not invited to dinner, came back with five deer as hostess gifts. Thus began the first American Thanksgiving, as described to us by Edward Winslow, one of the founders of Plymouth Colony.
The festivities continued for 3 days. New Englanders all, these native Americans and English immigrants fried cod fish and boiled lobsters, slurped clams and mussels from pearled shells, and snacked between meals on popcorn, berries and roasted pumpkin seeds. They feasted on venison ribs accompanied with barley bread dipped into goose gravy; they gnawed on turkey and swan legs, stripped roasted corn from the cob and picked the sticky corn from their teeth with fish bones. They played games, conversed as well as they were able, laughed, got sleepy, and napped, snoring probably. In the evenings, they warmed their hands around bowls of cooked peas and squash flavored with wild onion and told stories. They had a fine time, and then the Wampanoag waddled home, undoubtedly with digestive disorders, and the English battened down for the long, terrifying cold of winter.
The first Thanksgiving was over.
What was happening right here in the vicinity of present-day Fort Myers while the “pilgrims” and the “Indians” were enjoying their harvest festival in Massachusetts? Archeologists and historians have given us a wealth of information which we can use, like an artist’s palette of colors, to paint a fairly accurate picture.
In November of 1621, the people of the great Calusa empire that had ruled south Florida, presumably from Mound Key, were engaged in their normal day-to-day activities. They would neither visit, nor be visited by Europeans for a harvest celebration. The Calusa harvested plenty year-round; they felt no compulsion to fatten up for winter. (They may have had no equivalent in their vocabulary for the word “winter.”) And besides, encounters with Europeans in the past had not, as they say, “gone well.” Particularly for the Calusa.
Described by early Spanish accounts as tall, good-looking, and fierce, the Calusa had not been much impressed with the short, hairy, odorous and idiotically costumed interlopers from wherever they came from across the water. The Calusa had enjoyed beach combing, however, for the interesting and useful objects that often washed ashore from these intruders’ everlasting ship wrecks.
They had, in truth, made every effort to get along with these noxious people. Astutely, the Calusa had calculated the advantage to them of friendship with people who, though physically repulsive and innately treacherous, had powerful weapons. Many years ago , King Caalus had given his sister to their commander, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, in marriage. The alliance was, of course, entirely political. All formalities were strictly observed, although King Caalus had not put his people to much trouble in the way of a wedding feast. He had provided only fish and oysters in the canny assumption that the Spanish would supplement the meal with their own interesting foods. And indeed, they had brought from their big boat a kind of bread [biscuits], sticky sweets in which to dip the bread [preserves, jelly and molasses], and a drink the color and bitterness of blood, but that, as blood, warmed the gut and produced a delightful euphoria.
The occasion went well enough. Caalus’s sister was accustomed to being married to cement friendships; this was her third such marriage. With the conspiratorial sophistication of monarchs, Caalus and his queenly sister had found Menendez’s insistence upon wearing the tonnage of clothes with which the Spanish burdened their women, having religious symbols marked on her forehead with a wet thumb, and being renamed Dona Antonia, amusing at best. Publically, she performed these ceremonies with great dignity, but privately, she and her brother Caalus may have laughed about it all. They loved each other very much and plotted these alliances like Renaissance Medicis. Before “Dona Antonia” sailed away with her new husband to Cuba, we can imagine that she and her brother put their foreheads together with smiling eyes.
As it had turned out, however, Dona Antonia was to return from Cuba to complain to her brother that her marriage was in name only, that her “husband” had deposited her in a convent to live out her life with the nuns. In any case, the peace that should have resulted from this union was short lived. Only a year later, King Caalus was executed for protesting Spanish atrocities and his successor two years later. Dona Antonia died, one may suppose, a lonely and heartbroken death in the Havana convent. For a time the people were scattered, decimated by Spanish attacks and by the horrific evils visited upon their flesh by these vermin.
But even in the face of all that had happened, the Calusa had been neither persuaded nor coerced into subjugation. And they never would.
Finally, the Spanish went away. Now, though greatly reduced in number, the survivors of these afflictions would not willingly tolerate more intrusion by the Spanish, neither by their priests nor their soldiers.
And thus, in November of 1621, on the day that the Wampanoegs were having a fine time up in frosty Massachusetts with the newcomers from England, smiling through wood smoke at their children tumbling together in the fragrant leaves of autumn, the Calusa were relieved to be left alone, without visitations by tourists from Spain, England or anywhere else, thankyouverymuch.
With quiet chatter and laughter, they spent their days weaving mesh fishing nets, or with tiny deer bones, stitching very finely woven fabrics of tree moss. Mollusk shells jingled softly as boys strung them for fishing net weights and sharks’ teeth scraped wood as craftsmen tooled the likenesses of animals in buttonwood.
Drifting with the wood smoke over the village were the happy cries of children, the tapping of shell against shell as artisans chipped tools from whelks, the soft splashing of nets cast by young men standing in canoes, and the incense of burning pine.
When the kids come running back from play, giggling and panting and hungry for lunch, mothers left their platting of palmetto leaves to go to a holding pond and scoop up a few pin fish to cook. For dinner, the village families had, perhaps, appetizers of oysters on the half shell, some boiled crab and venison kabobs, followed with turtle soup and roasted snook seasoned with sea salt, a little papaya and heavenly sweet Muscatine grapes for dessert.
And then to sleep. The people sleep in a communal house under a palmetto-thatch roof. The house is built up upon a shell mound that glimmers in the moonlight. Soft river breezes play among the palmetto leaves and among the soft needles of the pines and caress the faces of a people who, in little more than a century, will be gone forever, whose story will be conjectured by scientists rescuing bits of bone and shell and carved wood from beneath the blades of earth excavators. Bits of skeletal bone mixed with ancient mollusks will form our shell and asphalt roads. The broad, 6-foot-deep canals, along which a king once floated on a raft canopied with woven fiber, will wither into a weed-choked ditch.
Time passes. Civilizations pass away. New life comes. The Calusa supplanted a culture more ancient than their own. Just as the world of the Wampanoag collapsed beneath the sheer weight and technological superiority of the English, so the empire of the Calusa could not forever withstand the inevitability of conquest.
But in the long view of time, we see humanity continuing, emerging from the chrysalis of one culture and civilization into that of another. Costumes, languages, technology evolves, but mankind still walks around on two legs, still cracks crab claws to suck out the meat, still delights in pulling silvery fish from the water. We still fashion with our hands things of beauty; we still bend to pick up pretty seashells. We continue to stand and gaze out over sunlit water, our hearts quickening with excitement, leaping up in our throats like birds.
This is it. This is the ageless instinct for movement, for discovery, by which humanity thrives. Nothing is ever really lost. It just becomes.
For this, let us give thanks.