A Jamestown Thanksgiving 400 Years Ago

By George Noga

Jamestown in 1611, Plymouth in 1621 and the United States in 2011

My Thanksgiving postings in 2009 and 2010 focused entirely on Plymouth where the Pilgrims first observed Thanksgiving in 1621. A reader emailed that next time I should include the story of Jamestown as it was similar to Plymouth but little known in our pop culture. I was ashamed to admit I was ignorant of the Jamestown story other than the usual pedagogy. So, here it is.

“We have become disconnected from and ignorant about the source of our great prosperity we celebrate at Thanksgiving.”

Our story has three parts: (1) Jamestown in 1611; (2) Plymouth in 1621; and (3) these United States of America in 2011. The story of the first Thanksgiving is not mainly about a feel-good, multi-cultural celebration; it is about the triumph of private property and self interest over utter privation and starvation caused by a deeply flawed view of human nature.

At Thanksgiving we celebrate our remarkable prosperity but we have become disconnected from and ignorant about the ultimate source of that prosperity. This Thanksgiving why not share with your children and/or grandchildren the real reason we have such a bounty to celebrate.

Part 1 – Jamestown, Virginia 1611

Jamestown did not have the first official Thanskgiving; if they did it would have been exactly 400 years ago in fall 1611 – but I get ahead of the story. The first British settlers (104 men and boys) arrived in 1607 to find fertile soil and an abundance of seafood, game, fruit and nuts. Within 6 months all but 38 were dead, mostly of starvation. In 1609 another 500 settlers arrived and 6 months later 440 had died of starvation and disease in what became called “the starving time” when people ate dogs, cats, mice and even practiced cannibalism.

The survivors gave up and headed back to England. As they sailed out of Chesapeake Bay they encountered 3 ships with new settlers and decided to make one more attempt. The British government also had sent Sir Thomas Dale as the new governor. Prior to Dale’s arrival everything went into a common store that was owned by everyone and hence no one. There was no direct connection between work and reward; working harder gained one nothing. Like socialism everywhere, it was an unmitigated disaster. People starved in the midst of plenty.

“The new Jamestown Governor imposed a flat tax of 8.33%.”

Dale immediately diagnosed the problem as absence of property rights. His first action was to give each man 3 acres of land and to require them to work (taxation) no more than 1 month each year for the common wheal. Interestingly, this amounts to a flat tax of only one-twelfth, or 8.33%.

Overnight, the colony began to prosper; people became industrious and inventive. The Indians, who had regarded the settlers as incompetents, suddenly gained respect for them. John Rolfe (husband of Pocahontas) said that men now engaged in “gathering and reaping the fruits of their labors with much joy and comfort.” The colony became a success and the great migration from Europe to America was on.

If Jamestown settlers would have gathered to give thanks for their first harvest amid abundance, it would have been in the fall of 1611 – exactly 400 years ago. Who can say for sure they did not celebrate the first Thanksgiving in America?

Part II – Plymouth, Massachusetts 1621

When the Pilgrims landed in 1620 they were governed by the Mayflower Compact and also an agreement with English investors who funded the expedition. These agreements established communal property ownership. All benefits from trade, farming, working, fishing and everything else went into a common stock and were withdrawn as needed. Women washed clothes and dressed meat for everyone and not for their own families.

This was pure communism: from each according to his ability; to each according to his need.

The Pilgrims failed to heed the lessons of Jamestown and, in fact, repeated all its errors. Therefore Plymouth experienced identical results with about half dead within months. They produced barely enough food to keep alive and faced imminent famine.

Just as Governor Dale in Jamestown, Plymouth’s Governor Bradford took action. Following the example of the success in Jamestown, Bradford instituted individual property rights and granted parcels of land to each family. The result? Following are Bradford’s words: “This had very good success, for it made all hands industrious. Much more corn was planted; the women now went willingly into the fields and took their little ones with them to set corn which before would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

It should come as no surprise that Plymouth, just as Jamestown 10 years earlier, prospered. The rest, they say, is history.

Part III – United States of America 2011

America today enjoys a cornucopia of material wealth thanks to the lessons learned 400 years ago in Jamestown and 390 years ago in Plymouth. Americans gather this week rightly to give thanks for these blessings. Yet we know all is not well. Our country is gripped by economic crisis manifested by stock market losses, the housing bust, little or no economic growth and high unemployment – all of which have dogged us for a decade.

Several cities (Vallejo, Harrisburg) and counties (Jefferson – Birmingham) have declared bankruptcy. Our largest state (California) is teetering on the precipice. Even our beloved republic will succumb to its self-inflicted debt spiral before many more Thanksgivings pass.

“America has reverted to principles that created starvation
in Jamestown and Plymouth and has forsaken the principles
that saved the colonies and resulted in the first Thanksgiving.”

Where did we go wrong? I would aver it is because we have forgotten the hard lessons learned 400 and 390 years ago at Jamestown and Plymouth respectively. America has reverted to the principles that created the starvation in Jamestown and Plymouth and forsaken the principles that saved those colonies and resulted in the first Thanksgiving.

The story of Jamestown and Plymouth is identical to the stories of all Utopian, socialist and communist societies throughout recorded history. None has ever succeeded and they all failed for the same reason, i.e. they are in opposition to human nature. Jamestown and Plymouth experienced starvation, and even cannibalism for that reason. As soon as these colonies adopted policies comporting with human nature they succeeded instantaneously.

When society breaks the link between work effort and benefit, the inevitable result is privation and misery. Forced brotherhood and redistributive schemes ultimately result in hardship and desperation. Such principles failed Jamestown and Plymouth.

In contrast, private property and self interest always have worked through the millennia. It worked in Jamestown. It worked in Plymouth. It worked in the United States of America; and that, my friends, is why we celebrate Thanksgiving!


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