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Onondaga Lake’s 1656 Thanksgiving feast

The site once known as Ste. Marie Among the Iroquois was once home to a friendly Thanksgiving meeting between French colonists and Haudenosaunee tribesmen.

The site once known as Ste. Marie Among the Iroquois was once home to a friendly Thanksgiving meeting between French colonists and Haudenosaunee tribesmen.

— Upon arrival at the entrance of the lake, led by native guides, the French approached their long anticipated reception. On the shore, at the spot previously chosen for the mission site, the Onondaga awaited their arrival with a great multitude of people.

The French opened this auspicious occasion with a display of celebration and amusement with salvos from five small pieces of cannon and muskets. The noise was said to have rolled over the water, and was most agreeably reechoed by the surrounding forests.

On shore, the Onondaga Elders had erected two scaffolds from which to deliver their harangues and to pay their compliments aloud. But almost as if nature herself was unable to contain her emotion upon viewing such a joyous occasion, the entire ceremony was interrupted by a downpour of rain and all were compelled to seek shelter in the neighboring woods. Welcoming words were replaced by caresses and gestures of friendship and goodwill on both sides.

It was the custom of the Iroquois to entertain those who came to visit them with songs, dances, and complimentary speeches seasoned with the graces of their culture. It was their fashion to carry on such civilities into the late evening hours. However, an exception was granted to their newly arrived French guests. Seeing that the travelers were so fatigued after so long a journey, the Iroquois belayed their usual festivities, and instead extended a courtesy of a different kind. When the French retired to prepared bark shelters to rest, their Haudenosaunee hosts serenaded them with the softest and most agreeable airs, performed by those most capable of sending them to sleep. To the Haudenosaunee a dream was a cherished thing. And this was a welcome worth dreaming about.

Feasting, exchanges of gifts of all kinds, and displays and assurances were shared with ceremony. The celebration lasted for several days. After having been preserved amid so many privations, dangers, and fatigues, the French were restored to health and were assisted in everything needed to provide for a prosperous establishment. It was a Thanksgiving worth celebrating, then and now.

Jonathan Anderson is the former historic site manager for Ste. Marie de Gannentaha, the former President of Friends of Historic Onondaga Lake and the former volunteer operations chair of Ste. Marie Among the Iroquois.

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