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de Vos: One tough bird

Jon de Vos
The Friday Report
Jon DeVos
Staff Photo |

When the Pilgrims stepped ashore at Plymouth Rock they found that the Native Americans had celebrated autumn festivals for centuries. The Pilgrims were migrants from England, naming their children after sought-after virtues like Prudence, Chastity and Honor, while drowning elderly next-door witches to take their farms and ward off evil.

At first, they made nice with the Native Americans for the pragmatic reason of being outnumbered. The Pilgrims even invited them to their harvest dinner. The first recorded Thanksgiving occurred in 1621 when four unlucky women got to cook and clean up after 56 Pilgrims and 91 Indians.

Benjamin Franklin wanted America to adopt a National Turkey, calling the eagle a “bird of bad moral character” but he was outvoted. Had he prevailed, tomorrow we’d be scowling at each other over mashed potatoes and leather-tough deep-fried eagle.

One year after that first gathering, the crops failed and the Pilgrims never celebrated much of anything afterwards. One hundred and fifty years passed before the nation again gave thanks together, this time to celebrate the unlikely American victory of the Battles of Saratoga, a major turning point of the American War of Independence.

In 1777, the British army launched a huge two-pronged attack out of Canada trying to divide New England and drive the colonialists into the sea. British General Burgoyne led the major force, 15,000 strong. A smaller army, let by General Howe rode to the east, protecting Burgoyne’s flank and coming to his aid if necessary. It was a brilliant plan that nearly succeeded.

Things were going badly for the revolutionaries. American forces were weakened and decimated through General Washington’s fruitless and unsuccessful invasion of Canada. Burgoyne’s speed and early successes were disheartening.

But Burgoyne became overconfident and contemptuous of the ragtag American soldiers. In a splendid display of arrogance, he marched his troops overland instead of sailing down the Hudson. The march, while impressive, exhausted his men as American troops rested and resupplied downriver, fortifying a stand at Saratoga. The Battles of Saratoga waged for weeks until October 17, 1777, when Burgoyne surrendered.

There were two fiercely-pitched and evenly-matched Battles at Saratoga that led finally to Burgoyne’s surrender. Either of the battles could have gone to the British and finished American Resistance. But Howe never provided any aid to Burgoyne. Instead it seems he got caught up in the Philadelphia night life and his men were busy looting the city. Had Howe stuck to the plan and brought his army to Burgoyne’s support, we might be speaking cockney today.

Later in December of 1777, President George Washington invited the nation to sit down together every December 18th to party like it was 1621 and give thanks for America’s bounty and freedom. But the idea never caught on because many felt that the hardships endured by the Pilgrims were too insignificant to be honored with a national holiday.

We celebrate Thanksgiving today due to the efforts of Sarah Joseph Hale, America’s first woman editor of a national magazine, the Boston Ladies’ Magazine. She lobbied for the holiday for 17 years and five presidents before finally succeeding.

The smoke from the battle of Gettysburg cleared in 1863 to reveal nation mourning the staggering loss of 50,000 lives. A ringing and widely circulated editorial by Mrs. Hale finally convinced Abraham Lincoln to declare the last Thursday of November to be a national day of Thanksgiving. To the dismay of turkeys everywhere

Good thing. You probably couldn’t get much stuffing in an eagle.


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