Edward Winslow’s Good Newes from New-England published in 1624 in London begins its account in November of 1621. There is no word of the first Thanksgiving. As David Silverman shows in his This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, published last year as Americans gathered to celebrate their made-up national holiday, that autumnal gathering of Wampanoag and Europeans was a diplomatic parlay between the Natives and the vastly outnumbered Pilgrims. As Silverman also points out, these celebratory Puritan banquets were called “rejoicings.” The first “Thanksgiving” (a day of devout prayer and penance) came later.
Winslow’s Good Newes begins not with happy feasting by Natives and newcomers, but with the threat of war: “the Great people of Nanohigganset, which are reported to be many thousands strong, began to breath forth many threats against us; the common talke of our neighbor Indians on all sides was of the preparation they made to come against us.” Rather than bringing gifts of “Indian Corne,” oysters, turkey, and venison, the Natives are filling their quivers with new arrows.
Squanto, whom Winslow calls Tisquantum, figures prominently in the account. Winslow doesn’t mention that Squanto had been taken back to England in 1605 by Captain George Weymouth. In London, he was cultivated as an interpreter and guide for the exploration and exploitation of New England by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, shareholder in the Plymouth Company. After several crossings of the Atlantic, Squanto had come back to what would become Massachusetts only in 1619, the year before the Pilgrim’s arrival on his native shores.
Winslow, who would go on to serve several terms as Governor of the Plymouth Colony in the 1630s before returning permanently to England to join Oliver Cromwell’s puritanical government, refers to Squanto merely as an “Interpreter” and doesn’t trust him at all, seeing the Native’s main motive as self-aggrandizement—”to make himself great in the eyes of his Country men, by meanes of his neerenesse and favour with us.” Tisquantum was not a sower of corn but of dissent and intrigue, a spreader of rumor not organic fertilizer: “So that he might possesse his Countrymen with the greater feare of us, and so consequently of himself, [Tisquantum] told [the Indians] wee had the plague buried in our store-house, which at our pleasure wee could send forth to what place or people wee should, and desstroy them therewith, though wee stirred not from home.” Tisquantum’s intelligence was top quality: the illegal immigrants from across the big water were indeed in possession of biological weapons of mass destruction. Winslow’s Good Newes is very bad news for people across the continent.
We learn from Silverman that before the Pilgrims’ arrival disease had already killed three-quarters of the Wampanoag people whose representatives were at the first “Thanksgiving.” The Pilgrims had set down in a patch of the New World conveniently devastated by epidemic. Ousamequin, leader of the Wampanoag, believed that an alliance-of-convenience with white invaders was a necessary move in order to resist the incursions of their long-standing enemies, the Narragansetts, who were largely untouched by the new sicknesses. The sculptor Cyrus Dallin (he, of “Appeal to the Great Spirit” fame/infamy) depicted Ousamequin as “Massasoit” in a savagely noble bronze statue unveiled at Plymouth at the tricentennial of the first “Thanksgiving” in 1921. Various casts of the statue are dotted across the landscape of Manifest Destiny, including one in front of the Utah State House, not yet pulled from its plinth in this year of protest.
As Squanto’s turbulent life ends in 1623, apparently beset by the plague of smallpox, he has just been engaging in further negotiations between the Pilgrims and Natives. Winslow reports Squanto’s death without the least bit of sympathy, as if he got what he deserved: “God strucke Tisquantum with sicknesse, in so much as hee there died.” Others maintain Squanto was poisoned by Wampanoags distrustful of his uncomfortably close relations with the white people.
Winslow played a crucial role in establishing the foothold for the European Giant that would subsequently stride across the continent. He was chief delegate in treating with the Natives after the arrival in Plymouth in December of 1620, and had ample opportunity to observe the them at close hand. Indeed, Good Newes purports to be an account not just of warfare and subterfuge, but also of local customs.
Winslow was interested in music, and his may be the first ethnomusicological observations made by a “New American.” He remarks on the “musicall notes” of the Natives’ burial and mourning customs; these songs seem strange to him, but he does not dismiss them as ugly. Indeed, Winslow registers the central importance of singing for the Natives, remarking that in their religious meetings they would “sing, daunce, feast, give thanks, and hang up Garlands and other things.”
Before leaving for America by way of England, the Pilgrims had bidden farewell in July of 1620 to the English congregation of Separatists in Leiden, in The Netherlands, where they had lived for more than a decade. Writing in his “A brief Narration (occasioned by certain aspersions) of the true Grounds or Cause of the First Planting of New England” of 1646, Winslow recalled that:
“When the Ship was ready to carry us away, the Brethren that stayed ]in Leide] having againe solemnly sought the Lord with us, and for us, and we further engaging our selves mutually as before; they, I say, that stayed at Leyden feasted us that were to goe at our Pastors house being large, where wee refreshed our selves after our teares, with singing of Psalmes, making joyfull melody in our hearts, as well as with the voice, there being many of the Congregation very expert in Musick; and indeed it was ; and indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine eares heard.”
Other European accounts portray the parallel fascination of Native Americans with the new music arriving from Europe. One of the most unsettingly resonant comes from another Englishman and from the other side of the continent: Sir Francis Drake on the California Coast in 1579. Drake bought a consort of viol players and trumpeters on his voyage around the world. That he made space for such musicians in the close quarters of the Golden Hinde proves just how important music was not only for his own spirits, but also as a psychological weapon in inter-cultural relations, even warfare. The intricacy of English polyphony was a sign to captured Spaniards asked to dine with Drake that high standards obtained even at the outer reaches of the globe. To the Indians it was a magical music from another world, a sign of things to come.
Finding their way ashore north of present day San Francisco in the lagoon now known as Drake’s Bay inside Points Reyes, the captain and his men were met by Miwok women inflicting “unnaturall violence against themselves, crying and shreeking piteously, tearing their flesh with their nailes from their cheeks.” They seem to have thought that the pale ghosts of their ancestors had come back from the sea. As the nephew of the English seaman, also named Sir Francis Drake, put it in his The World Encompassed, an account of the voyage published a half century after its completion, the men of the Golden Hinde then “fell to prayers, and by signes of lifting up our eyes & hands to heaven, signified unto them the God whom we did serve, and whom they ought to worship.”
The devotional music of the Englishmen enthralled the Miwoks: “In the time of which prayers, singing of psalms, and reading of certain chapters in the Bible, they sate very attentively. Yea they took such pleasure in our singing of psalmes, that whensoever they resorted to us, their first request was commonly this, Gnaah, by which they intreated that we should sing.” That Gnaah was probably an attempt by the Miwoks to evoke the nasal English singing of the Elizabethan Age. Ironically, the psalms—the music of the newly Chosen People and the central Protestant contribution to communal religious singing—were first heard in the Americas not in Massachusetts but on the Pacific Coast, as if offering up a prelude to Manifest Destiny at its terminus almost three centuries in advance of its fulfillment.
It was a French religious refugee in seventeenth-century Switzerland who composed the central melody for the European conquest of North America. In the mid-1540s Louis Bourgeois joined John Calvin in Geneva where together they compiled the Geneva Psalter. Bourgeois’ melody for the 100th psalm in Calvin’s French translation would become the most famous of all Protestant hymns. Commonly known as Old 100th, the melody is used every Sunday across the world as the Protestant Doxology as the collection plates brought towards the altar: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” It is the hymn of Thanksgiving, not only in the general sense, but also over four centuries of European domination of this continent.
When the Puritans crossed the Atlantic they had with them copies of The Book of Psalmes published in 1612 in Amsterdam and “Englished” by another refugee, Henry Ainsworth, who had printed the volume for use by the fugitive congregations in Holland. Ainsworth’s translation of the 100th psalm is closer to John Calvin’s teachings than the general words of thanks sung in the modern Doxology:
Showt to Jehovah, al the earth;
Serv ye Jehovah with gladness;
Before Him come with singing mirth;
Know that Jehovah He God is.
The key phrase is “al the earth,” though beleaguered band of Puritans could hardly be confident then that, if not all the world, then a good part of it would indeed be subjugated or destroyed by the inexorable progress of their Godly mission. The truest attitudes of the Pilgrims towards their new land could be heard in the psalms they sang and which continued to serve as the music of American conquest.
Louis Bourgeois not only compiled and probably composed many of the tunes in the Geneva Psalter, but he also wrote simple four-part polyphonic settings of fifty of these melodies. Winslow’s claim that many of the Pilgrims were “expert in music” might suggest that they were capable of this kind of music-making, though the reference only to “melody” would more likely indicate that the his congregation followed the standard practice of psalm-singing in The Netherlands, in which only the single line of the tune was sung.
Like others before and since, from Plato to the Taliban, the Pilgrims took seriously the power of music, both its uplifting potential and its seductive dangers. In this they followed John Calvin himself, who in his preface to the Psalter of 1543, acknowledged music as a viable means of recreation and pleasure, but cautioned that one “ought to be the more careful not to abuse it, for fear of soiling and contaminating it … It should not be allowed to give free rein to dissolution, or to make ourselves effeminate in disordered delights, and that it should not become the instrument of lasciviousness nor of any shamelessness.”
Echoing Calvin, Winslow’s fascination with the Native music of Massachusetts appears colored by his own titillation at hearing—and resisting—songs of error and sin.
Across the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries, the Pilgrims tenuous landing and establishment of a colony remained embedded in the narrative of American nation-building not at Thanksgiving, itself a nineteenth-century reinvention, but at the commemoration of the Landing at Plymouth, celebrated on December 22nd in New England and elsewhere. A Broadsheet from 1800 from doceuments these pre-Christmas celebrations, and demonstrates that mutual respect between Natives and colonizers was not then part of Pilgrim pageantry. The central hymn of the 1800 commemorations of the Landing at Plymouth was, as always, “Old Hundred.” The text adapts the old Pilgrim psalm to the purposes of Manifest Destiny.
Hail, Pilgrim Fathers of our race!
With grateful hearts, your toils we trace;
Again this Votive Day returns,
And finds us bending o’er your urns.
Jehovah’s arm prepar’d the road;
The Heathen vanish’d at his nod:
He gave his Vine a lasting root;
He load its goodly boughs with fruit.
The hills are cover’d with its shade;
Its thousand shoots like cedars spread:
Its branches to the sea expand,
And reach to broad Superior’s strand.
Of Peace and Truth the gladsome ray
Smiles in our skies and cheers the day;
And a new Empire’s splendent wheels
Roll o’er the tops of western hills.
The voices of the Pilgrims can be heard in that melody and in its chilling, updated words. Yet Silverman reminds us that, with the quadricentennial of the first “Thanksgiving” now just one year away, the descendants of the Native peoples who were there in Plymouth in 1621 have not disappeared, but form two federally-recognized tribes of the Wampanoag. Yet in the self-righteous strains and text of this American Old 100th one can sense the attentive ghosts from those first encounters listening still.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org