Q&A with Eddie Underwood

November 27, 2013 

Eddie Underwood

City of Residence: Warner Robins

Occupation: Adjunct history teacher, Georgia Military College

QUESTION: Is the general picture of pilgrims and Indians at Thanksgiving reasonably accurate?

ANSWER: Reasonably. The dress and garb in modern paintings and drawings probably isn’t accurate. They didn’t have buckles on their hats and shoes then, that didn’t come into being until decades later. But showing turkeys, deer, pumpkins, vegetables -- all that is accurate. There was a lot of interaction with Native Americans, so scenes of pilgrims and Indians and their children playing is accurate.

QUESTION: What brought on the first Thanksgiving?

ANSWER: It was the first bountiful harvest pilgrims had since arriving in the New World. They arrived in 1620 and settled in what was already named Plymouth. They didn’t name it or have any affinity for the original Plymouth; it was just where they happened to sail from in England. It was the second successful English settlement in the New World after Jamestown in 1607. The Pilgrims intended to land nearer the Hudson River but were blown off course. They stayed off shore for a month or so deciding whether to land or head further south. They had time to write up the Mayflower Compact plan of government. It remained poor sailing weather, so they stayed and landed there in the Cape Cod area.

QUESTION: They had a rough time of it.

ANSWER: They did. Winter was coming on, and their provisions from the ship were low. The pilgrims were very tolerant of others as were the local Indians who taught them planting techniques and introduced them to new foods. The Indians kept them alive. When harvest came, they had a celebration and invited their Indian friends.

QUESTION: The celebration probably wasn’t called Thanksgiving Day, was it?

ANSWER: No. First off, it was a three-day celebration, and it was in the regular English tradition of a harvest festival. Though they were very religious and thankful, they didn’t consider this a sacred holiday. If it was they would have had it in church. It was a traditional fall festival. Corn was very important to Native Americans and they themselves commonly had corn festivals. Even the Creeks in our area had them.

QUESTION: So what was it like here? What would the locals in Middle Georgia have been doing during the time of that first Thanksgiving?

ANSWER: The Creek were the most populous, but there really wasn’t a big Indian population in Georgia then. The Spanish had come through with their hogs and dogs and caused rampant disease, which killed off three quarters of the Indian population. Those left recombined. The Creeks didn’t build the mounds in Macon, those were built hundreds of years earlier, and the Creeks wouldn’t have even known who did it. In the mid- to early-1600s, James Oglethorpe hadn’t settled here yet, and the Indians would have been familiar with the French and Spanish but not with the English. Our area would have been very sparsely populated while the largest Creek population was nearer Columbus around the Chattahoochee. They would have had their own corn festivals.

QUESTION: So technically, the celebration at Plymouth wasn’t necessarily the first harvest or corn festival or Thanksgiving?

ANSWER: Some debate whether it was even the first Thanksgiving as we know it. There were definitely other harvest and corn festivals before and after. At the time, (President) Lincoln made Thanksgiving official across the U.S., about half the states had their own Thanksgiving Days on various dates. Georgia had its first Thanksgiving in July of 1742 when Oglethorpe proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving to God after winning victory in the Battle of Bloody Marsh against the Spanish for what amounted to control of St. Simons Island.

QUESTION: Still, the pilgrims at Plymouth are the focus.

ANSWER: And turkeys. You know Benjamin Franklin fought hard for the turkey to be our national bird due to its role in the success of the colonies and because he said it was such an intelligent bird. He maintained bald eagles were just scavengers and thieves.

Answers may have been edited for length and clarity. Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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