By Allen Hamrick
Thanksgiving is traditionally the day we give thanks for the things we have and for the people we spend time with. As time rolls on and things change, so does telling the story of Thanksgiving that had been handed down consistently through generations of families year after year. As generations pass, so do some of the traditions we have known and loved. However, each November, the story of the original “Thanksgiving” is told across tables and retold by costumed children in schools around the country, older TV shows and many more.
In this area 400 years ago, before what we call the original Thanksgiving, it was much like other neighboring states – an unbroken land of forests and untamed rivers that flowed effortlessly to the Mississippi and beyond. There were grass lands, majestic hills and mountains as far as the eye could see. The woods were stocked full of bear, deer and many other small game that numbered in the thousands. The rivers and streams were full of fish and the sky was full of fowl that often times dimmed the sun. It was a truly wild and wonderful place. Much can be learned from the people who came here first during that time as they struggled to survive in a wild and untamed land.
Many of the early mountain men who saw what we now call home said that buffalo, elk, and beaver were so plentiful that it was overwhelming. Some of those early to this land were Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton who blazed trails through the Eastern Woodlands. It was a trading society when the first white people came in to this area, and peace existed because greed was only found in small amounts. At this time, West Virginia was a great hunting ground used by many tribes to secure enough food and clothing to keep their peoples through the winter months which could be long and harsh. To my knowledge, there were no villages that existed at this time in this area. So, the trade of skins, corn, nets, fish, and other items was the rule of the day for the native people, the early settlers and mountain men.
Here in Clay County and surrounding areas, many artifacts have been found throughout the generations that are representative of life during that time. The Shawnee, Cherokee, Huron, Seneca, Mohawk, Potawatomi and others were a big part of that time period of history. There are also burial mounds in many parts of the state. The Native culture thrived in this area. However, before the wars, before the hardships, before the time of expansion, it was a time of peace.
There were no poor as we see poor in villages; no matter if there were widows, orphans, elderly – all were taken care of equally. No matter how scarce the food was, as long as there was food all enjoyed a part of it. To the Native peoples, giving thanks was a way of life each day. They considered that everything was created by the Creator and that we are all connected with the earth in one form or another. Any upsetting of that belief was a sure way to a tribe’s destruction.
One of the stories told was about the winters of the early 1600’s that dealt out one some of the worst storms on the newly arrived people to the shores of Plymouth Rock. They had to stay on the ships due to a lack of housing, got sick with diseases and many died before ever realizing their dream of independence. During this time, the settlers robbed the graves of Wampanoag people of their provisions in order to survive. The Native people were hunters and farmers and stored up meat and vegetables to survive the harsh winters. A treaty was signed after the grave robbing, and the Wampanoag people helped the settlers learn how to fish and hunt. Due to an abundance of food, the Chief known as Massasoit came with 90 Wampanoag men and had a great feast called the Grand Sachem’s Council Feast. They brought five deer, fish, all the food, and the cooks.
Many Native people hold the day of Thanksgiving as a day of mourning; this was the beginning of the end for their tribes. The treaty didn’t last long that was signed with promise and in 1637, the official “day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed by Governor John Winthrop. He announced it because the English colonists had just returned from massacring and burning an entire Pequot village, between 400-700 women, children and elderly men died. The rest is history from that point. The Native peoples and their lives were changed forever to the point of near extinction of a race of people due largely in part to greed and the need for land to handle the amount of people coming in to the new world with the thought of riches in the hearts. The Native peoples were removed from the lives they lived year after year until it has become what we know today.
This is not to throw a damper on Thanksgiving as we sit around the table with our families but to also remember what we truly have to be thankful for and live by the idea that everyone deserves a chance to be free. Native American people believed that giving thanks each day for everything was what they were supposed to do, from the smallest of things to the great things.
So, while we set aside this day as a day to give thanks for what we have, whether it be large or small, remember also the ways of our ancestors; it may just shed some light on the things we should really be thankful for. The fourth Thursday of November, a day set aside for Thanksgiving, is a day of mourning for the Native American. The Friday after Thanksgiving is Native American Heritage Day, a day to remember the life and times of the Native American. For most, it is Black Friday, a day for excess, greed and aggressive spending. As our times get stranger every day, we need to remember it isn’t what we have but what we can do that allows life as we know and love to go on whether we have a lot or a little. Respect each other for who and what we are not what many have become. So, as we bury our forks and spoons in whatever we call a feast this Thanksgiving, from turkey to deer, I’m sure it will be good. Remember those that do not have, and if you can, give a little – it won’t hurt a bit.
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