American author E. B. White is best known for his beloved children’s book Charlotte’s Web. What many don’t know is that he’s the co-author, the “White” in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. A connoisseur of clear, precise writing, he once stated, “I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.” His point is that all writing – whether it be a primary or a secondary source – exhibits a bias since every time pen is put to paper or letters are typed on a keypad, words are filtered through a human perspective.
The key for a reader is to recognize the bias. But frankly that can be tricky, so it’s important to ask the right questions:
1. Who wrote the source?
2. Who were they writing for or who was their audience?
3. Why were they writing or what was their purpose?
4. When did they write?
Remember, bias isn’t necessarily bad. It can tell us a lot about what people believe, their values, what they hope to achieve, etc.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the story of Thanksiving, that fourth Thursday in November when we gorge on turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. But before we do, please take a moment and share what you learned about the actual historical event in 1621 that this day commemorates.
Brief questionnaire about what you learned in school and at home about Thanksgiving.
Now, let’s watch two videos.
Wow, those are distinctly different presentations of this historical event! I’ll bet one or the other elicited a powerful response from you.
Ok, but those are videos uploaded on YouTube, right? What about real historians, the people who really study this stuff. Let’s look at how two contemporary historians view that event. The following are two excerpts from their respective books. Remember, these are secondary sources, which means these authors interpret and analyze primary sources. Neither one of these fellows was there at the table with the Pilgrims and Indians. They’re making judgment based on the limited primary sources we have from this time.
When the Pilgrims came to New England, they too were coming not to vacant land but to territory inhabited by tribes of Indians. The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a “vacuum.” The Indians, he said, had not “subdued” the land, and therefore had only a “natural” right to it, but not a “civil right.” A “natural right” did not have legal standing.
The Puritans also appealed to the Bible, Psalms 2:8: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” And to justify their use of force to take the land, they cited Romans 13:2: “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”
The Puritans lived in uneasy truce with the Pequot Indians, who occupied what is now southern Connecticut and Rhode Island. But they wanted them out of the way; they wanted their land. And they seemed to want also to establish their rule firmly over Connecticut settlers in that area. The murder of a white trader, Indian-kidnaper, and troublemaker became an excuse to make war on the Pequots in 1636.
As one of the first acts of their new democracy, the colonists selected John Carver as governor. Then, having taken care of administrative matters, in late December 1620, the Pilgrims climbed out of their boats at Plymouth and settled at cleared land that may have been more of an Indian village years earlier. They had arrived too late in the year to plant, and like their countrymen farther south, the Pilgrims suffered during their first winter, with half the colony perishing. They survived with assistance from the local Indians, especially once named Squanto – “a spetiall instrument sent from God,” as Bradford, who became governor after Carver’s death, called him. For all this they gave thanks to God, establishing what would become a national tradition.
The Pilgrims, despite their fame in the traditional Thanksgiving celebration and their Mayflower Compact, never achieved the material success of the Virginia colonists or their Massachusetts successors at Massachusetts Bay. Indeed, the Plymouth colony’s population stagnated. Since the Separatists’ religious views continued to meet a poor reception in England, no new infusions of people or ideas came from the Old World. Having settled in a relatively poor region, and lacking the excellent natural harbor of Boston, the Pilgrims never developed the fishing or trading business of their counterparts. But the Pilgrims rightly hold a place of high esteem in America history, largely because unlike the Virginia settlers, the Separatists braved the dangers and uncertainties of the voyage and settlement in the New World solely in the name of their Christian faith.
Questions to ponder:
How can two different historians (one now deceased but formerly a professor at Boston University and the other a professor at Dayton University) have such different views on one event? Didn’t they study the same primary sources? Well, interestingly enough, there are only two primary sources that have survived from that time. Remember, a primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event.
In 1621, Edward Winslow wrote a letter to a friend in England that describes the meal shared by the Pilgrims with the Indians:
“And God be praised we had a good increase… Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
Roughly twenty years later, William Bradford wrote this description in his History of Plymouth Plantation:
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which is place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
So, now that you’ve watched a couple of movies and read some secondary and primary sources that relate to the historical event that we recall as the first Thanksgiving, please answer a few more questions before we reconvene in December to discuss. Remember, though when we come together then, we all bring our biases with us!
Questionnaire about bias.