Most of us remember story of the “First Thanksgiving.” According to lore, in 1621, the Plymouth colonists, in what is now Massachusetts, and the Wampanoag Indians gathered to share an autumn harvest feast in first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.
In reality, history scholars general have concluded that this tale — and the idyllic images of Pilgrims and Indians sharing turkey and a hearty laugh – is pretty much total baloney.
There is, however, a real, and much more important, story of hard work and bountiful harvests that should serve as the basis for Thanksgiving in America, because it ultimately became the basis for the America itself.
In May 1607, King James of England sent three ships filled with 104 people to what is now the Tidewater region of Virginia to establish the Virginia Company.
When they arrived, the settlers found themselves surrounded by a bountiful environment. Mussels, oysters and fish; turkeys and eggs; strawberries, raspberries and mulberries; deer and plenty of fertile soil were all readily available.
Despite this abundance of food, all but 38 of the original 104 settlers died within six months of establishing Jamestown — mostly of starvation.
Two years later, in the summer of 1609, the King James gave the Virginia Company another try. This time, 500 colonists were sent from England to Virginia to attempt to establish a permanent settlement on the coast of North America.
The second time proved an even bigger disaster. Even in this land of plenty, 440 people — all but 60 — starved to death.
The famine was so great that journals record at least one occurrence when several colonists resorted to digging up a newly dead Indian and turning him into a meal. Archaeologists recently discovered that a 14-year-old girl was also among those eaten.
In a dire, last-ditch attempt to save the Virginia Company, the business’ leaders in England sent a British military officer named Sir Thomas Dale to asses the situation in Virginia and determine why the settlers were having such a hard time making it.
Upon his arrival, Dale was shocked and confused to find that these starving settlers spent their time bowling in their yards, rather than farming or hunting.
Dale realized the reason the settlers were so lazy even in the face of their hunger was because they were being asked to work for the common good. For the first seven years after arriving, the settlers had no ownership of the fruits of their labor.
Everything the settlers produced went into a shared storage area and they were all allocated equal amounts to feed their families, no matter how hard they worked or how much they personally produced. There was simply no incentive to work hard — the laziest person got as much to eat as the hardest working person.
Thomas Dale changed all of this by introducing private property to the settlers of the Virginia Company.
Dale allotted each man three acres of land, and anything grown on that land was his to keep, trade or sale as he wished. It was also declared that no man would be forced to work on communal efforts, such as building churches or clearing roads, for more than one month per year — and never during planting or harvest season.
After Dale implemented this system of private property to take the place of communal farming and equal distribution, the colony flourished. By the time he left Virginia three years later, the colony had grown by hundreds of people and the settlers were well-fed and in good spirits.
The system of private property rights Dale created in Virginia gave settlers the incentive to work hard and be frugal. It also allowed settlers to trade the food they grew or hunted to people willing to develop new crafts and vocations. As a result, and with a good deal of experimentation and innovation, some settlers were able to specialize in trades such as blacksmithing, milling, carpentry and tanning.
By introducing private property rights and a sense of personal responsibility to the Virginia Company, Thomas Dale didn’t just save the lives of a few hundred settlers four centuries ago. He managed to inject this continent with the principles of private property, free enterprise and individual liberty — that have served as both the foundation for, and the guiding force of, the United States.
Because of Thomas Dale, and the advancements and innovations that resulted from his simple idea 400 years ago, we all live in a richer, safer, healthier, more peaceful and better world. For that, we should all be truly thankful.