How Thanksgiving almost didn’t happen in the South
If you believe as I do that all of American history began right here in Beaufort County, surely that would include the first Thanksgiving.
After all, we had so many explorers and priests poking around these parts that the Native Americans were speaking Spanish and crossing themselves eons before the Puritans clunked their ugly shoes aboard the Mayflower.
Charlesfort was the first Protestant settlement in what we now call the United States of America, and it was right here on our own Parris Island in 1562.
Contrary to popular opinion, I was not writing for The Beaufort Gazette at the time, and my sketchy reading of the era does not turn up a happy meal with the natives at Charlesfort.
In fact, what I find is far from the warm and fuzzy images placed in our hearts in grammar school.
Actually, you may want to avert your eyes at this point, because some of this stuff is grosser than giblet gravy.
I read in the first volume of “The History of Beaufort County” that the Spanish sent a large delegation of settlers to this area (we think) in the summer of 1526.
They “constructed the first Spanish municipality within the territorial limits of the United States,” the book says. But did they have Thanksgiving?
They had sickness and death. They had mutiny. They had executions. They mistreated the Indians. They experienced the first slave revolt in South Carolina history. And soon the 150 settlers from an original 600 who survived decided to go back to Hispaniola. The book says:
“On the bitter cold passage home, seven men froze and one man, driven insane by hunger, ate the frost-bitten flesh from his own bones.”
So much for Thanksgiving.
But then came the Frenchmen, surely with some pots and pans and whisks and butter.
Mariner Jean Ribaut came with 150 people on two ships to our own Port Royal. That’s what they called the Sound, it was so grand. And they built the Charlesfort garrison on Parris Island and placed a stone monument for their king on Dawes Island.
But before Thanksgiving, Ribaut went home with all but about 30 of the settlers to get more people and supplies. He said he’d be right back. He wasn’t. He was thrown in jail in the Tower of London before he got back, and the ones left behind soon enough had a mutiny with a hanging and decided to build a boat, stuff the cracks Spanish moss, make a sail of shirts and bedsheets and set out across the Atlantic Ocean for home.
The winds did not cooperate. They were soon starving. And, yes it’s true, they cannibalized one of their own to survive.
So much for Thanksgiving.
But maybe, just maybe, we can consider this our first Thanksgiving.
The history book says that the Frenchmen who stayed behind were so confident in Ribaut’s return that they did not bother to plant Indian corn or other crops for the winter.
After they had completed the fort, the book says, they spent their time hunting, fishing and fraternizing with Indians.
But then, this:
“By January 1563, all their food had run out and famine was sapping the morale of the garrison.
“The local Indians became less generous with their contributions, and a party of Frenchmen traveled up the Combahee River to visit with Chief Quade and seek aid.
“Chiefs Quade and Couexis, the major Indian lords of the region, were generous with their supplies and filled two canoes with maize and beans for the garrison at Charlesfort.”
That was certainly a time of great thanksgiving — eating corn and beans with great relish. And it was the Native Americans who reached out to serve the settlers, who very well may not have deserved it.
“The Frenchmen’s luck, however, was not to last,” the book says. “The supplies and part of Charlesfort were destroyed by fire and the men ‘found themselves in such extremity that without the aid of Almighty God … they had been quite and clean out of all hope.’ “
Flash forward to today’s Thanksgiving in the Lowcountry.
Now settlers think we’re put upon if we have to sit through a red light, in our air-conditioned cars with leather seats and the sound of Dave Brubeck gently sliding from the Bose sound system.
Whether or not we had the first Thanksgiving, it is certain that we have a lot to be thankful for.