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The First Thanksgiving?

When I was growing up, the Thanksgiving story was simpler.  It revolved around the pilgrims landing in Plymouth and nearly dying of famine and sickness.   They were saved when a helpful native named Squanto taught them how to fish and plant maize (and convinced the Wampanoag tribe to ally with the puritans instead of destroying them).  It never really occurred to me to ask how such a helpful Native-American happened to be on the scene–speaking English, no less.  Where did he learn that?  It turns out that Squanto’s travels to arrive at Plymouth (which was originally his birthplace of Patuxet) were far more epic and heart-rending than those undertaken by the pilgrims.

Squanto’s original name was Tisquantum and he was born in the Patuxet tribe, probably in the 1580’s or 1590’s (there are lots of approximate dates and words like “probably” in Squanto’s biography).   Many historians believe that Tisquantum was taken from North America to England in 1605 by George, Weymouth and then, after spending his youth being “kept” by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, returned with explorer John Smith in 1614.  It is possible that Squanto was separated from a wife and child when he was coerced to Europe, and it is also possible that he had an English wife and children. What is certain is that Tisquantum was one of a group of 27 Native Americans kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt in 1614. A devious and cruel slaver, Hunt intended to sell the North Americans for £20 apiece in Malaga, Spain.  Tisquantum escaped–possibly thanks to help from Spanish Friars with whom he lived until 1618.   The friars tried to convert Tisquantum during the time that he lived with them, but his heart yearned for home, and, when the opportunity to travel back to the New World came, he shipped back across the ocean to assist in setting up the Newfoundland colony at Cuper’s Cove (a fur-trading colony set up in 1610).

Recognized by former associates, Tisquantum/Squanto was enlisted to map and explore the New England coast with Thomas Derner.  Finally, in 1619 Tisquantum made it back to his village at Patuxet.  But when he got there he was in for a horrific surprise.  The village had been wiped out by plague (either smallpox or viral hepatitis) and everyone he knew was dead.  Bleached skeletons lay among the fruit bushes and tumbled-down shelters.   Less than a tenth of the original inhabitants of the region survived and what was once a thriving society lay empty and desolate.

As the last of the Patuxets, Squanto moved in with the remnants of a neighboring tribe, the Wampanoags.  Tisquantum told them of the power and strength of the English. When the pilgrims showed up in 1620, he was under house arrest but he was quickly enlisted to translate the negotiations.  Thanks to his accounts of English power, the settlers came to a favorable arrangement with the Wampanoags (although it was obvious that the English were in ragged shape since many had died and the remainder had been reduced to grave robbing from the dead Patuxets).

Massasoit, Chief of the Wampanoags, and his warriors

Squanto was released by the Wampanoags and moved in with the pilgrims. He taught them to properly fertilize their grain so it would grow in New England’s sandy soil.  He showed them how to plant maize and fish for local fish and eels.  He helped them hunt and negotiate with the Wampanoags.  Yet he remained an outsider in the Pilgrim community.  Through abusive threats he earned the enmity of the Wampanoags who became convinced he was trying to usurp the chieftan’s place.  They demanded the pilgrims hand him over for execution but he was saved by the unexpected arrival of the ship Fortune, which provided the pilgrims with a pretext for ignoring the Wampanoag demands.    By the end of his life he was in an ambiguous position—considered an outsider by both groups dwelling in what had been his home.  During a treaty meeting with the Wampanoag he came down with “Indian fever” and began bleeding through his nose (some historians speculate that he was poisoned by the angry Wampanoags).   Squanto was buried in an unmarked grave—after crossing the ocean many times and moving back and forth between different cultures he was at last united with his tribe.

The second Monday of October is celebrated in America as Columbus Day. The holiday commemorates the day when Columbus’ exploratory fleet first spotted land on October 12, 1492.  Before Columbus, many other people had discovered America in one way or another, but after Columbus arrived, everything changed.  People, animals, diseases, ideas, and art all began to rapidly flow back and forth between the hemispheres in a way which had never before happened.  Today’s post, however, is not about the (always-controversial) Columbus–instead it is about the most terrible new export which the Spanish brought to the new world.

The exploration and colonization of the Americas were made easy for Europeans because big parts of the continents were empty.  Early explorers reported fields that were ready for farming, and orchards filled with fruit but no people.  The reason for this emptiness is sad and deeply troubling.  Smallpox came to the Americas in the early 16th century on Spanish ships and rapidly expanded into a vast pandemic which ravaged the population of the new world.  It outpaced the European explorers in conquering the continents: by the time colonists and explorers reached the hinterlands, great swaths of North and South America were uninhabited: the people who had lived there were dead from the highly contagious virus.  Native Americans had not co-evolved with the disease for millenia (like Europeans, Africans, and Asians had) and the people of the first nations died in droves.  Some estimates put Smallpox mortality in indigenous populations at an astonishing 80% to 95%.   Historians estimate that the original population of the Americas was between 50 and 100 million (approximately the same as Europe).  The conquest of America was not by guns or ships or religions, it was by disease.  The great smallpox plague is one of the more important events in history–yet it is has not been a focus of mainstream popular history both because Europeans did not directly witness the worst ravages (except in rare cases) and because there is an existentially terrifying randomness to the mass death of so many people.

In the old world, smallpox was an ancient scourge dating back to prehistory.   Using genetics, scientists have estimated that the virus originated 10,500 years ago and, indeed, 3,000 year old Egyptian mummies have been found bearing evidence of the disease.  During the 17th century, smallpox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year (and left many survivors blind or hideously scarred). The people of the Americas escaped this scourge entirely by crossing a landbridge from Asia before smallpox evolved.   When the Vikings discovered America, they found a resilient culture which easily shrugged off attempts at colonization.  Crucially none of the Norse explorers or colonists brought any terrible illnesses with them.  But what had been fortunate for the first Americans became a terrible weakness, when smallpox did finally arrive with the Spanish.
The scope of the great dying boggles the imagination.  A Spanish priest traveling with Cortes into the dying Aztec empire described the scene writing “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in a house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them so that their homes become their tombs.”

Of course the Spanish did not know the remedy for the disease either.  It is a historical fluke that the people of the new world died by the millions in the decades after Columbus rather than the other way around (and wouldn’t that have been a twist?).  In fact syphilis was a new world disease unknown in Europe until adventurers brought it across the Atlantic.  The story of the smallpox plague is a dark and terrible one, but it does have a more positive corollary.  In the 16th century, as the conquistadors unwittingly spread pestilence into North and South America, a solution to the terrible plague had already been perfected on the other side of the world in China.  Thanks to Chinese physicians, Turkish diplomacy, an English nobleman, convicts and… milkmaids (and lots of careful work), the horrible scourge has been all but eradicated from Earth, but I will save that brighter story for tomorrow.

Smallpox among the Aztecs

Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market.  Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.”  The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature.  True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid.  For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available.  The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations.  Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.

Vanilla planifolia, the Flat-leaved Vanilla Orchid

Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla.  These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas.   Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla  planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia.  According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.”  As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.


Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods.  Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods.  Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks.   The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded.  Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.

Vanilla Pods

The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long.  From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans.  When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.

Hernán Cortés, food adventurer

Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient.  Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid.  It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods.   It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret.  The vanilla flower (Vanilla  planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.

Melipona subnitida--the Stingless Melipone Bee, the only natural pollinator of flat leafed vanilla flowers

Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion,  discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery.  He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.

Portrait of Edmond Albius, circa 1863 (Antoine Roussin / Publisher )

Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available.  The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products.  Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile:  anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former.  Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess  which synthetic compounds can never capture.

And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.

Last year Ferrebeekeeper featured a two part article concerning turkey breeds which sketched the long agricultural history of the magnificent fowl. One thing that article failed to explain however, was how turkeys obtained their (wildly inappropriate) English name.  As you can imagine, the birds are named after the Ottoman nation which bestrides Europe and Asia Minor in what was once the heart of the Byzantine empire.  A trail of misidentification lies behind the name, which ultimately involves an entirely different genus of birds from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Chalchiuhtotolin, the Aztec Trickster Deity who manifested as a turkey

Turkeys were first domesticated by the ancient people of Meso-America in the distant past (most particularly by the Aztecs who called the birds by the elegant and onomatopoeiac name “huexoloti”).  When Spaniards conquered the Aztec empire four hundred years ago, they brought turkeys back to Spain and selectively bred them to reflect Iberian tastes and preferences.  The Spanish called turkeys “Indian fowl” as a result of Columbus’ mistaken belief that the Americas were somehow part of Asia and were close to India.  This name became enshrined in the French word for turkeys “la dinde” (d’Inde meaning “from India”).

Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris)

The English saw these Spanish turkeys and mistakenly thought that they were domesticated guineafowl (Numida meleagris) which at the time were believed to come from Turkey (a major shipping nation with long ties to East African commerce).  The name stuck and even became part of the scientific nomenclature for the genus–the genus name “Meleagris” comes from the species name of the helmeted guineafowl Numida meleagris.  Later as the English explored Africa, the the guineafowl received the more appropriate English name which it now enjoys (insomuch as birds care what they are called). However the unfortunate turkey–one of the most North American of all animals–is foolishly named after an African bird once mistakenly thought to come from Asia minor.

Oh history, why can you never make any sense?

I’m going to expand upon yesterday’s post about invasive animals in Florida.  Pythons are indeed large aggressive predators, but it isn’t as though they chose to move to Florida like Aunt Edna when she retired.  Enthusiasts brought them from Burma.  The pythons escaped or were set free and they found a way to survive.

Florida’s groves of tasty, tasty oranges are hardly natives either.  Over long centuries, Spaniards carefully hybridized trees that bore perfect sweet fruit.  They then carried saplings across the oceans from the fragrant orchards of Iberia.

Fresh-squeezed, Ice-cold, Juicy…what was my point again?

We humans are ourselves an invasive tropical species from Africa.  As we have explored the world, we have encountered all sorts of useful and interesting plants and animals.  Thereafter we took those friends with us.  Dogs, ducks, and dairy cows, roses, rye and rice–all of our favorite living things are invaders of a sort.  Sometimes we make bad or dubious friends (pythons? really?) but our existence depends on the grains we harvest, the fruit we grow, and the animals we farm.  Such is the price of our success.  If we all returned to fishing, hunting, and gathering, we could expect to remove three or four zeros from our total population number of six billion.

The story of invasive species however extends far beyond humankind’s symbiotic alliances and restless propensities.  A couple of quick examples will clarify this point.  Like the pythons, Florida’s native manatees have a great deal of trouble with cold weather.  Every winter, many starve to death in the warm outflows from power stations where they shelter (or they freeze outright).  They must have expanded their range northwards as the ice ages ended.  The armadillos that live on the panhandle are edentates who began trekking out of South America during the Pliocene (3 million years ago) when the Ismuth of Panama formed and rejoined the sundered Americas.

This story goes on and on and gets bigger and bigger: flowering plants showed up from elsewhere, so did mammals and reptiles back in the Paleozoic Era.  In fact, if you go back far enough all life-forms are invaders.

Well, maybe some of us...

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

January 2021