- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

We all know the story of the “first Thanksgiving.” According to lore, in 1621, the Plymouth Colonists in what is now Massachusetts gathered with area Wampanoag Indians to share an autumn harvest feast and give thanks for their bounty.

Unfortunately, history scholars generally regard this tale — and the idyllic images of Pilgrims and Indians sharing turkey legs and pumpkin pies — as total malarkey. It never happened.

It’s too bad that Americans grow up celebrating that phony, fictional Thanksgiving tale when there’s a real, and much more important, story of abundant harvest from Colonial America. In fact, there may not be a United States today if the story didn’t unfold the way it did — and the American ideals of property rights and personal responsibility would certainly hold much less significance.

In May 1607, King James I of England sent three ships filled with 104 hearty travelers to what is now Jamestown, Virginia, to establish the Virginia Co.

When they arrived, the settlers found fertile soil and food — including deer, turkeys, fish, oysters, strawberries and raspberries — readily available. Despite this abundance of food, all but 38 of the original 104 settlers died within six months of arriving in Virginia — mostly of starvation.

Two years later, in the summer of 1609, King James gave the Virginia Co. another try. This time, 500 Colonists were sent from England to Virginia. It was an even bigger disaster. By the next year, 440 of the 500 settlers had starved to death. This “starving time,” as it became known to history students, was so great that journals reveal instances in which Colonists resorted to digging up the graves of recently deceased Indians and turning their corpses into meals.

To get to the bottom of why so many Colonists perished in what appeared to be a land of plenty, and to make a last-ditch attempt to save the Virginia Co., business leaders in England sent Sir Thomas Dale, a British military officer, to assess the situation.

Upon his arrival, Dale was shocked and confused to find that these famished settlers spent most of their time bowling in their yards rather than farming or hunting.

Dale realized the reason the Colonists were so unproductive was that they were asked to work for the common good. The settlers had no ownership of the fruits of their labor. Everything they produced went into a shared storage area and was allocated equally among everyone, with no regard for how much individuals had contributed. As a result, there was simply no incentive to work hard — the laziest person got as much to eat as much as the most industrious.

Thomas Dale changed that by introducing private property to the settlers of the Virginia Co.

Dale allotted each man 3 acres of land, and anything grown or hunted on that land was his to keep, trade or sell as he wished. It was also declared that no man would be forced to work on communal efforts, such as building churches or clearing roads, for more than one month per year — and never during planting or harvest season.

After Dale implemented this system of private property to take the place of communal farming and equal distribution, the colony flourished. By the time he left Virginia three years later, the colony had grown by hundreds of people and the settlers were well-fed and in good spirits.

The system of private property rights Dale created in Virginia gave settlers the incentive to work hard and be frugal. It also allowed settlers to trade the food they grew or hunted with people willing to develop crafts and vocations. As a result, and with a good deal of experimentation and innovation, some settlers were able to specialize in trades such as blacksmithing, milling, carpentry and tanning, transforming the small settlement into a thriving market economy.

After King James learned that the area was not rich in gold or hospitable to silkworm productions, he gave up on the Virginia Co. But the crown allowed the settlement to continue as a self-governing colony — ultimately forming the genesis of democracy in America.

By introducing property rights and a sense of personal responsibility to the Virginia Co., Thomas Dale didn’t just save the lives of a few hundred settlers four centuries ago. He also managed to inject this continent with the notions of private property, free enterprise and individual liberty that have served as the foundation for and the guiding force of the United States. For that, we should all be truly thankful.

Drew Johnson is an editorial writer and columnist at The Washington Times.

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