Reflections on Historical Leadders
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Reflections on Historical Leaders

November 16, 2015

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont

Few episodes in American history are more iconic than the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and their gathering the following fall to share the bounty of their first harvest. As we once again celebrate Thanksgiving this November, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the experience of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, their Indian neighbors. Most of what we associate with the origins of that holiday is more fancy than fact, the product of the romantic imaginations of our nineteenth-century ancestors.

In truth, the only contemporary evidence we have of the first Thanksgiving is a 115-word description from Edward Winslow, assistant to Plymouth Colony’s governor, William Bradford. Fortunately, we know much more about the wider story of Plymouth, thanks largely to Bradford’s Of Plimmouth Plantation, a history he penned over many decades but never sought to publish. Perhaps the latter was a mark of his humility, a trait which no doubt contributed to his remaining governor of the colony almost continuously to his death in 1657. Across those many years, he navigated Plymouth through numerous steep challenges, none greater than maintaining productive relations with the Wampanoag. Both communities were vulnerable. Coastal New England Indians had suffered devastating population losses between 1616 and 1618 from epidemic disease contracted from European fishermen.

Meanwhile, the colonists would never have kept their fledgling settlement going in the 1620s without the assistance of local natives. Bradford and his Wampanoag counterpart, Massasoit, recognized the benefits of using diplomacy rather than warfare to advance the interests of their own peoples. They employed a range of strategies to minimize conflict. Nevertheless, as the English presence grew in New England in the seventeenth-century, tensions mounted and the two leaders had to fight even harder to preserve their longstanding alliance. Their perseverance in the way of peace succeeded throughout their two lifetimes, a span of more than forty years extending into the early 1660s.

Tragically, less than fifteen years later, a horrific war broke out (King Philip’s War) that decimated Indians and colonists alike and stands as the most violent conflict in American history in terms of deaths per capita. It bred mutual hatred, severely damaged missionary efforts among native peoples, and led to the enslavement of hundreds of Indians. Massasoit and Bradford would surely have been brokenhearted to see such a turn of events. Still, their labors should not be seen as having been all in vain. Instead, their effective leadership gave their communities two generations of comparative peace and prosperity, a legacy worth learning from and being grateful for this Thanksgiving and every Thanksgiving.