The inhabitants of North and South America were a remarkably healthy race before Columbus. Ironically, their very health proved their undoing, for they had built up no resistance, genetically or through childhood diseases, to the microbes that Europeans and Africans would bring with them.
In 1617, just before the Pilgrims landed, the process started in southern New England. For decades, British and French fisherman had fished off the Massachusetts coast. After filling their hulls with cod, they would go ashore to lay in firewood and fresh water and perhaps capture a few Native Americans to sell into slavery in Europe. It is likely that these fisherman transmitted some illness to the people they met. The plague that ensued made the Black Death pale by comparison.
Within three years the plague wiped out between 90 percent and 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England. The Native American societies lay devastated. Unable to cope with so many corpses, the survivors abandoned their villages and fled, often to a neighboring tribe. They carried the infestation with them.
During the next fifteen years, additional epidemics struck repeatedly. European Americans also contracted maladies, but they usually recovered.
The impact of the epidemics on the two cultures was profound. The English Separatists found it easy to infer that God was on their side. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called the plague "miraculous." In 1634 he wrote to a friend in England:
But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection...
Many Native Americans likewise inferred that their god had abandoned them. After a smallpox epidemic the Cherokee "despaired so much that they lost confidence in their gods and the priests destroyed the sacred objects of the tribe." After all, neither Native Americans nor Pilgrims had access to the germ theory of disease. Like the Europeans three centuries before them, during the black plague, many Native Americans surrendered to alcohol, converted to Christianity, or killed themselves.
The net result of these epidemics was that the British, for their first fifty years in New England, would face no real Native American challenge.
The historian Karen Kupperman speculates:
One can only speculate what the outcome of the rivalry would have been if the impact of European diseases on the American population had not been so devastating. If colonists had not been able to occupy lands already cleared by Indian farmers who had vanished, colonization would have proceeded much more slowly. If Indian culture had not been devastated by the physical and psychological assaults it had suffered, colonization might not have proceeded at all.
All this brings us to Thanksgiving. More than any other celebration, more even than such overtly patriotic holidays as Independence Day and Memorial Day, Thanksgiving celebrates our ethnocentrism. Thanksgiving is the occassion on which we give thanks to God for the blessings that He hath bestowed upon us. We have seen, for example, how King James and the early pilgrim leaders gave thanks for the plague, which proved to them God was on their side. The archetypes of Thanksgiving - God on our side, civilization wrested from the wilderness, order from disorder, through hard work and good Pilgrim character traits - continue to radiate from our history textbooks.
Our image of the first Thanksgiving portrays the Pilgrims in their starched Sunday best next to their almost naked Indian guests. In fact, the Pilgrims did not introduce the tradition; Eastern Indians had celebrated autumnal harvests for centuries. As a holiday greeting card puts it, "I is for the Indians we invited to share our food." The silliness of all this reaches its zenith in the handouts that school-children have carried home for decades, complete with captions such as, "They served pumpkins and turkeys and corn and squash. The Indians had never seen such a feast!" When the Native American novelist Michael Dorris's son brought home this "information" from his New Hampshire elementary school, Dorris pointed out that "the Pilgrims had literally never seen 'such a feast,' since all foods mentioned are exclusively indigenous to the Americas and had been provided by (or with the aid of) the local tribe."
This notion that "we" advanced peoples provided for the Indians, exactly the converse of the truth, is not benign. It reemerges time and time again in our history to complicate race relations. For example, we are told that white plantation owners furnished food and medical care for their slaves, yet every shred of food, shelter, and clothing on the plantations was raised, built, woven, or paid for by black labor. Today Americans believe as part of our politial understanding of the world that we are the most generous nation on earth in terms of foreign aid, overlooking the fact that the net dollar flow from almost every Third World nation runs toward the United States.