Thursday, November 25, 2010

The “Illegal Aliens” of 1620

Thanksgiving Day means different things to different people. But in addition to school and work holidays it often involves family gatherings around big meals, watching football games by some, and maybe even thinking a little about the first English-American Thanksgiving Day.

After a perilous voyage on the Mayflower in the autumn of 1620, an extremely difficult winter, and then a fruitful harvest in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth Colony held a harvest festival and gave thanks for God’s blessings that made possible their survival.

Giving thanks for blessings received is certainly a good thing, and I hope all of us will use this Thanksgiving season to reflect upon our many blessings and to give thanks for what we have received, just as those first English immigrants did.

At the same time, it might be good to reflect on how the Pilgrims of 1620 could certainly be considered “illegal aliens.” They definitely were not invited by the Native Americans, and they clearly encroached upon land occupied by others.

True, the “Indians” had no laws prohibiting others from coming to Massachusetts, and they did not own titles to the land on which they lived. (To them the idea of owning land seemed as preposterous as owning the sky.) Still, the English “aliens” were invaders of their territory.

There have been several recent works portraying the Pilgrims’ journey to “New England” and their struggles in their new habitat. “Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower” is a TV movie produced by the History Channel in 2006. One of the commentators in that movie is Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2006).

Earlier this year Nick Bunker’s lengthy book, Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World, was published. While much of this book is about the background of the Pilgrims, it does, of course, tell their story from the time they first set foot in the “new world” on November 11, 1620—and, it should be noted, that was on Cape Cod, not on Plymouth Rock.

That first month was a hard one, and it was during that time that the Pilgrims stole seed corn that the “Indians” had buried for use the following year, and they also dug up a grave, confiscating some of the jewelry and other articles in it. It is no wonder, then, that the English “aliens” found those first Native Americans they encountered to be quite hostile.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, let’s remember that those who first celebrated it were the same as illegal aliens in the land occupied by the American Indians. Perhaps we can use this occasion to do something for the sake of present day Native Americans, such as donating to the American Indian College Fund. (The address is 8333 Greenwood Blvd. Denver, CO 80221, and information about the AICF, rated four stars, out of four, by Charity Navigator, is easily found on the Internet). Or maybe your church, like mine, has a ministry to Native Americans to which you could contribute.


  1. I think we can hardly imagine how hard life was back then -- for everyone, and especially for those early immigrants. I also feel that way about two recent immigrants at my church -- one from Rwanda (who suffered terrible violence and saw most of her family murdered) and another from Uganda (who also has suffered greatly).

    I appreciate where you ended up in the posting, with concern for those impacted by immigration, and wonder how we can bring compassion and caring for those on both sides of the immigration equation.

  2. A pair of directions.
    Land and property ownership dates back to the earliest of recorded history. Indeed the American Indian tribes, including the one from which I descend (and could still claim status if I so desired) had boundaries which were defended.
    The early English immigrants attempted to live communally but only found poverty in that their first year. They began to prosper when they returned to the concept of personal property the second year.
    The family, and on rare occasion a local church, seem to be the only functional communal economies.

    Immigration policy in the United States has become quite disfunctional. The Nixon doctrine of forcing a melting pot of un/under-represented cultures and languages did not accomplish its goal. A minimum of three generations are needed to melt in typically. Immigration reform is desperately needed to keep out the truly illegal trash - militants seeking to overthrow the established government, criminals using vice to enrich themselves (theft, drugs, prostitution, slavery, etc.). Most lands historically have allowed for immigration with limited rights and autonomy (not citizenship) - especially as refuge. Hatred and ignorance currently drives the push for American reform. It should rather be based on a general plan of welcome to those who come in good will to prosper our land within our land. Unfortunately we prefer our tribalism (ethnic, religious, political, cultural) as much as the rest of the world, and are willing to defend it even from people of goodwill and our own prosperity. As a start, we should encourage cultural exchange within and without our country, and promote the eight major languages of the world at school (English, Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic, Swahili/Bantu) Mandarin, and Hindi) with a prerequisite for high school graduation that one be proficient in English and at least one other (non-tribal) language. Immigrants should generally be expected to be proficient in English conversation within a year of arrival, and must take an oath of non-subversion of our constitution - or have any expectation to make change to it before becoming a citizen.

    Thank you God for this remembrance day of the bounty of our land. May we honor you, generously share it with others, and be generally welcoming.