I suppose this would be better suited to November, but I’m reading 1491, and it’s making my head spin. You may know the story of Squanto, the friendly Indian who helped the Pilgrims of the Mayflower survive in Plymouth, leading to the first Thanksgiving.
Here’s what actually happened (sources: 1491, Wikipedia [Tisquantum, Pilgrims]; any errors are my own):
After Columbus’ discovery of the New World in 1492, the European powers starting sending ships over to trade and try to settle. In New England, these ships were mostly English, with a few French. They were successful at trading, but not at settling - the coast was densely populated with Indians (one French captain had wanted to found a naval base on Cape Cod, but reported back that there wasn’t room), and the Indians didn’t let people stay long. They’d let boats land and parties could camp for a while, but then eventually the Indians would make the colonists leave. This went on for about a hundred years.
Around 1610, an English captain kidnapped around a dozen Indians from New England and took them back to Europe to try to sell into slavery. Tisquantum was one of them. He escaped from slavery, managed to find his way to England, where he lived in the house of a rich man for seven years, during which he learned English. Finally, he was able to negotiate his transport back to his home.
He made it to Newfoundland, and from there caught a ride down the New England coast. The coastal villages that had been thriving ten years prior were graveyards. They were empty, or piled with skeletons or corpses.
What had happened: after the kidnapping of Tisquantum and the other Indians, a French ship had wrecked in the area. The Indians were angry about the abduction of their people, so they kept the French sailors hostage. The French were carrying, probably, viral hepatitis, but whatever it was, it wiped out around 90% of the nearby native population in two or three years.
So Tisquantum sailed down the coast, passing former Indian villages and confederations of the coast, now empty save death, until he got back to his home village, Patuxet. It had suffered the same fate - he was the last of his tribe alive. There were about 50 hungry English - the Pilgrims - living in Patuxet, which they’d renamed Plymouth.
There had been 100 before the winter; the Pilgrims made the foolish mistake of landing in New England with few supplies in December. The only way the Pilgrims survived the winter was by robbing Indian graves, which had maize in them (as John J. Sullivan noted in an essay in Pulphead, nearly the very first thing the Pilgrims did in North America was rob an Indian grave).
In the spring, Tisquantum walked into the village, his former home, and introduced himself to the Pilgrims. The name he used, Tisquantum, was probably not his given name. It means something like “rage of the great spirit” or more poetically “the wrath of God”, which we can only speculate he chose in response to the destruction of his people.
He helped the Pilgrims, and negotiated an alliance with them against the Indian groups to the west, which hadn’t yet (but would soon be) affected by the epidemic. He died two years later of “Indian fever,” undoubtedly one of the diseases brought over by the Europeans.
All of this information is out there, but before reading 1491, I’d never seen the pieces put together into this story. Perhaps because it’s so heartbreaking. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to lose every person I’d known, my entire culture and society. I can’t imagine what it would feel like, what kind of determination could convince me to help the people who’d come with that death to my home. I’ve woken up several mornings this past week thinking about this, horrified.
Perhaps something to share with your friends and family next Thanksgiving.