Editorial Board

The First Immigrant Thanksgiving

A modern American debate with deep, familiar roots.

A tradition of coming and going.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

This article was first published in Bloomberg View on Nov. 27, 2013.

There were no Americans at the first Thanksgiving. The newer set of immigrants, recently arrived from England, considered themselves thoroughly English. And so they remained: Almost two decades after the feast, in describing the Pequot War, William Bradford lamented an Indian attack “upon the English at Connecticut.”

The Pilgrims perceived their errand into the American wilderness not as an immigrant’s desperate lunge for something better but as a travel itinerary from God. There was nothing particularly opportunistic, or even human, about the landing in America. “The placing of a people in this or that country is from the appointment of the Lord,” the English preacher John Cotton said in 1630.

There were other diners at that first Thanksgiving feast, of course. Although their journey lacked the divine paperwork that accompanied the Pilgrims, they too had arrived from elsewhere. For years, it was presumed that American Indians had traveled to the New World some 12,000 to 16,000 years ago via a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska. That view is getting complicated.

Archaeologists working at a site in Virginia have discovered artifacts they date to about 16,000 B.C., including spear points fashioned in the manner of a Stone Age culture from southwest France. Meanwhile, genome analysis of a 24,000-year-old Siberian arm bone revealed genes related to both western Eurasians and American Indians.

As National Geographic reported, “Nearly one-third of Native American genes come from west Eurasian people linked to the Middle East and Europe, rather than entirely from East Asians as previously thought.”

Having self-deported from Europe themselves, the Pilgrims went about building their City on a Hill without worrying much about who owned the deed to the hill. The mutual obligations of newcomers and hosts were ill-defined in early 17th-century America. Three centuries of fighting confirm the parties never got it right. The roiling contemporary debate over immigration suggests we still haven’t.

The Pilgrims no doubt would’ve been shocked to find that their cultural potluck at the first Thanksgiving was also a family reunion with a long-lost, if rather diluted, European clan. But peoples, like lands, change over time. In 1621, the English, Dutch, French and Spanish were the strangers at the American feast. They conquered and stayed. But the breadth of human history, and the expanse of human migration, tells us finders are not forever keepers. And the strange is often more familiar than we know.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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