Junkfood Science: A Thanksgiving children’s story

November 23, 2008

A Thanksgiving children’s story

Who would have imagined that a little newspaper column for children would also teach many grown-ups about one aspect of American history and food production that few of us ever learned in school? Our Thanksgiving celebration has become a meld of history, romance and myth but is also one of our most cherished American traditions. While the very first American Thanksgiving celebration wasn’t held by the Pilgrims at Plymouth colony, nor did that feast in 1623 begin our annual Thanksgiving Day, which wasn't officially marked until more than 150 years later, it does commemorate the spirit of early immigrants who came to America.

In today's Los Angeles Times’ kids reading room feature, writer Jennifer James tells about a Thanksgiving dinner with her family when Grandpa taught them a special history lesson. Her article was titled “A time to pay tribute to the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock.” As they were all seated around the table, there was a little paper cup with just three kernels of dried corn beside Grandpa’s plate and little cousin Sam asked him what it was for. Ms James continues:

Grandma answered, "It is to pay tribute to the Pilgrims."

"But why three kernels?" asked the always curious Sam…

Grandpa answered, "It reminds me of what a tough time the Pilgrims had. In the beginning, three kernels of corn was each person's daily food ration." The table got real quiet after he said that. Grandpa continued, "Against all odds, they made a life for themselves in the wilderness..."

After dinner Grandpa told them about Samoset, the tribesman who ventured into the Pilgrim’s camp, speaking perfect English that he’d learned from English fishermen before the Pilgrims’ arrival. Grandpa went on to tell the children:

For the Pilgrims, life was a constant battle for survival. Later, Governor William Bradford made a decision. Instead of the colonists sharing their crops equally, he assigned a parcel of land to each family and told them they could keep whatever they produced for themselves."

"Then what happened?" asked Sam.

"At last the Pilgrims began to prosper. Governor William Bradford wrote in his book 'Of Plimoth Plantation,' 'This had very good success, for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.' "

"Shoot! If you can keep everything you make, of course you're going to work harder. Everybody knows that."

Grandpa answered, "The first seed had been planted for the American Revolution. People were free to practice their religions as they saw fit and were free to keep the fruits of their labor. This had never happened before in the history of mankind
… [Her full children’s story is here.]

In The Economic History of the Puritan Settlement at Plymouth Plantation, Dr. Thayer Watkins, Ph.D., at the Department of Economics at San Jose State University in California, chronicles the origin of the traditional Thanksgiving founded on the harvest celebration at Plymouth Colony. Based on the memoirs of their Governor William Bradford (1590-1657) and other historical records, he explains how these early settlers quickly learned the importance of the freedom of individuals to pursue private enterprise and in the greater productivity that comes from individual initiative. The real story of Thanksgiving, he wrote, “was the shift from communal farming to private farming in which the people in the Plymouth Colony got to keep the benefits of their own efforts instead of sharing in a distribution of the communal effort.”

Initially, the settlers had organized a communal-based economy as had been promoted by Plato in ancient Greece. Everything they produced was done in common and shared equally, but soon food production yields were so low that their very survival was threatened. Governor Bradford described how many were surviving by selling everything they had, even their clothes, to the Indians for food and others had simply starved. As Governor Bradford wrote:

So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery: At length, after much debate of things, the Governor… gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance), and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little-ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression. The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a comonwealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this comunity (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent.... For the young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children, without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes, then he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice.... Let none object this is men's corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

With each person motivated to succeed, they produced food in greater abundance, with enough to share with those in need. It didn’t change the compassion of each religious person towards charity in caring for those truly in need; in fact, it enabled them to have more to share. The story of the pilgrims is the foundation of the American economic system based on private property and free enterprise, the moral and ethical basis of pursuing wealth, the virtues of hard work and saving, and the freedoms of each individual to pursue their beliefs, dreams and happiness.

After their abundant harvest, Governor Bradford made this proclamation calling them all together to give thanks on November 29, 1623, which has become the Thanksgiving in our history books:

"Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as He has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience. Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all you Pilgrims, with your wives and your little ones, do gather at the meeting house, on the hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since you Pilgrims landed on Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to your pastor and render thanksgiving to Almighty God for all His blessings."

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