The Truth About Thanksgiving

By Bradley Harrington

“Thanksgiving is a typically American holiday. In spite of its religious form (giving thanks to God for a good harvest), its essential, secular meaning is a celebration of successful production. It is a producers’ holiday.” — Ayn Rand, “Cashing in on Hunger,” 1974 —

wte3-column-22-illustration-first-thanksgivingAs we ponder our Thanksgiving meals this year, it would be of great benefit for us to ponder what’s been happening to our American history as well.

The Wikipedia entry for William Bradford, Governor of the Plymouth Colony for a non-consecutive period of 30 years, as an example, does not even remotely tell the correct tale of the Pilgrims’ arrival to the New World.

In its “Great Sickness” section, for instance, the online encyclopedia refers to an “epidemic” as the source of responsibility for the deaths of half of the colonists in their first year in America.

That’s a fantasy; the actual historical facts tell a completely different story. To tell that story properly, however, let’s first back up to the founding of the Jamestown colony.

“The first American settlers arrived in Jamestown in May of 1607. There, in the Virginia Tidewater region, they found incredibly fertile soil and a cornucopia of seafood, wild game such as deer and turkey, and fruits of all kinds. Nevertheless, within six months, all but 38 of the original 104 Jamestown settlers were dead, most having succumbed to famine. Two years later, the Virginia Company sent 500 more ‘recruits’ to settle in Virginia, and within six months a staggering 440 were dead by starvation and disease. This was appropriately known as the ‘starving time.’” (“How Capitalism Saved America,” Thomas DiLorenzo.)

One eye-witness at the time described the situation as follows, saying that the cause of the starvation was “want of providence, industry and government, and not the barrenness and defect of the country, as is generally supposed.” (“George Percy’s Account,” recorded in “The Old Dominion in the 17th Century: A Documentary of the History of Virginia, 1606-1689.”)

As DiLorenzo asks: “How could there be a lack of ‘industry’? After all, the Virginia Company had not chosen a group of indolent and lazy people to settle the Virginia Colony. The problem was that all of the men were indentured servants who had no financial stake in the fruits of their own labor … Working harder or longer was of no benefit to them, and they responded as anyone would, by shirking.”

And, as historian Phillip Bruce relates in his book, “Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century,” this meant that “the settlers did not have even a modified interest in the soil … Everything produced by them went into the store, in which they had no proprietorship.”

In other words, as DiLorenzo explains, “The absence of property rights — and of the work/reward nexus that such rights create — completely destroyed the work ethic of the settlers.”

It was Sir Thomas Dale, arriving in 1611, who first correctly identified the problem as being “communal” ownership — and who solved it by giving each settler a three-acre plot of land to do with as he would, and guaranteeing that no settler would have to work more than one month out of a year to contribute to the treasury of the colony.

DiLorenzo summarizes: “Private property was thus put into place, and the colony immediately began to prosper. There was no more free riding, for each individual himself bore the full consequences of any reductions in output.”

In the words of historian Matthew Page Andrews in “Virginia, The Old Dominion”: “As soon as the settlers were thrown upon their own resources, and each freeman had acquired the right of owning property, the colonists quickly developed what became the distinguishing characteristic of Americans — an aptitude for all kinds of craftsmanship coupled with an innate genius for experimentation and invention.”

Problem solved. By 1623, all landholdings were converted to private ownership.

And the Plymouth Colony? It, too, initially succumbed to the same collectivism that nearly leveled Jamestown — and, consequently, within six short months, half of its 101 settlers were dead.

It was Governor Bradford who solved that problem, the same way Thomas Dale had solved his. As Bradford himself declared in his work, “Of Plymouth Plantation”:

“After much debate about things … It was decided that the Pilgrims should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family, a parcel of land, for present use … This had a very good success, for it made all hands very industrious …”

“Securing property rights,” DiLorenzo concludes, “not only saved those fledgling settlements but also made it possible for other colonies to flourish. The American colonies had economic freedom — secure property rights and only minor taxation — and as a result they thrived economically.”

So that’s the straight story, Dear Reader. And now you know how it came to pass, in 1621, that the Pilgrims and the Indians were able to share their bountiful feasts with one another — whereas before, only collectivistic ineptitude, starvation and death had been the order of the day.

Bradley Harrington is a computer technician and a writer who lives in Cheyenne. Email:


This column was originally published in the “Wyoming Tribune Eagle” on November 25, 2016. Here is this column’s original downloadable PDF file.

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