Were the Pilgrims America's Original Refugees?

Were the Pilgrims America's Original Refugees?

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Regardless of where you stand on admitting refugees from Syria or other war-torn countries into the United States, there is a certain irony in seeing this long-standing heated debate continue to unfold as we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, a national holiday rooted in the tenets of  gratitude, kindness and acceptance of others .

The main protagonists of the Thanksgiving story -- the Pilgrims -- were, after all, refugees of a sort as well. While they might not have necessarily fit neatly into the United Nations' modern legal classification of a "refugee," they were undeniably seeking religious freedom and a refuge from persecution.

Among the roughly 100 passengers who set sail aboard the Mayflower in 1620 in search of a better life, about a third were members of the radical Puritan faction known as the English Separatist Church. The group fled religious persecution after illegally ceding from the Church of England, heading first to the Netherlands and eventually across the Atlantic to the New World.

Although aiming for an area near the Hudson River, the ship ultimately landed on the shores of Cape Cod in what is modern-day Massachusetts, where its passengers founded the Plymouth Colony. The first winter was a rough one: nearly half the colony died from starvation and inadequate shelter.

But, as the story goes, the group acquired crucial agricultural advice and survival skills from the area's native inhabitants, and by the fall of 1621, had managed to scrape together enough food to at least marginally sustain themselves. The 53 remaining members of the colony famously celebrated a  harvest feast with members of the Pokanoket tribe, an event considered the basis for today's Thanksgiving holiday.

The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899).
The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). (Wikipedia)

“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… 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,” wrote Edward Winslow, one of the colony's leaders.

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“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.”

Of course, the arrival of the newcomers didn't bode all that well for the Pokanokets, part of the larger Wampanoag Nation, whose population was rapidly decimated, largely due to smallpox and other diseases imported by the colonists.

As liberal comedian John Oliver noted last year on his HBO show "Last Week Tonight," it was really the only influx of refugees in American history that had a significantly detrimental impact on the people already living here.

“Every generation has had its own ugly reaction to refugees. ... And those fears have been broadly unfounded,” he said. “In fact, there was only one time in American history when the fear of refugees wiping everyone out did actually come true, and we’ll all be sitting around a table celebrating it on Thursday."

As we get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family who may not always be politically aligned, it's worth remembering what this holiday is intended to commemorate, and to keep in mind the many millions of people around the world today forced to flee their homes in search of safety.