Some years ago when my Cousin Jean read a draft of an article on our family’s hometown of McKeesport, a small town near Pittsburgh, she replied that before it was even McKee’s Port, this was Aliquippa’s Town.
Who was Aliquippa? Queen Aliquippa led some 30 families of the Iroquois, and she was the first resident of the “Forks of the Yough” – the corner where the Youghiogheny River meets the Monongahela. Aliquippa’s home was the point from which McKeesport later spread out and up the hills. In my childhood, grandparents on both sides of the family lived in that old part of town, by the confluence of those rivers (which sometimes flooded.) Two shuls were still active there, the fire station was just up the street from one of them, aging immigrants like my grandparents lived in small houses by the river side while younger families of various minority groups populated the area. And to think that this was also the site of its first resident, Queen Aliquippa! Go know!
What do we know about Queen Aliquippa? The records are limited. George Washington wrote in his journal on December 31, 1753, about his meeting with Aliquippa. Washington was 21 years old at that time, fighting with the British against the French, while Queen Aliquippa was well up in years, possibly in her 70s. Earlier accounts have Aliquippa and her husband and infant son going to visit William Penn in Delaware in 1701. It’s reasonable that she would try to see Penn before he returned to England, considering the decency, respect and integrity with which he treated Native Americans. Although he had been given a royal grant to a large territory roughly corresponding to today’s Pennsylvania, he reached out to the tribal leaders of the areas and purchased each section of the land from them. Penn’s sons, however, did not carry on their father’s values.
In 1748 Conrad Weiser, who served as interpreter and diplomat between the Native Americans and Pennsylvania Colony is said to have dined with Aliquippa in her town “near the mouth of the Monongahela River”. Whatever else, she was known to be a strong supporter of the British and spurned the French. Other Native Americans who were struggling with each other for control of stretches of the land thought that siding with the French would be to their advantage.
Aliquippa’s later years corresponded to the French and Indian Wars, when these European countries were battling for possession of the new territories. While I never learned anything about Queen Aliquippa when I was a schoolgirl in McKeesport, it’s impressive that by the time Cousin Jean who is nearly 20 years my junior went to school there, the curriculum had changed.
Regarding the First Thanksgiving, many of us were told about the jolly good time they had in 1621
Or we may have seen the various revisions of that story.
Whatever the interpretation of the Pilgrim-Native American first feast in 1621 and their ongoing relationship, it’s complicated. Maybe that’s why it took many decades for Thanksgiving to be officially declared a national holiday observed annually.
Sometimes it was a one-off event, such as when George Washington in 1789 declared a special day of gratitude for completing the Constitution. Under Abraham Lincoln, in 1863 though, it was declared an all-time national holiday, and while its date has sometimes wavered, ever since Lincoln one day towards the end of November has always been designated in the U.S. as Thanksgiving.
Every person who has experienced it carries their own memories. The meal Mom prepared was in the best of Ladies’ Home Journal traditions. Norman Rockwell could have painted Mom’s table: Roasted turkey with chestnut stuffing as the main course and center piece. When I was old enough to handle a sharp knife, shelling the chestnuts for that stuffing was a chore, but worth it. Side dishes likely included candied sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. I know that Mom made pumpkin pies from time to time – but I can’t imagine how she did that before the easy availability of “pareve milk” (processed soy, almond, rice or coconut enables that oxymoron).
When my own children were growing up, they learned in their day school, as I had in my childhood’s Sunday School, that one origin of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving was the festival of Sukkot as it’s found in the Torah (Exodus 23:16; Deuteronomy 16:13,15; Leviticus 23:42-43). In the Torah it was a time of being thankful for the harvest, and for Divine protection during the journey from Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land. The Pilgrims knew their Bible and how to apply it to themselves. My children sometime asked if we have Sukkot, why do we need Thanksgiving too? I answered that I was grateful that my grandparents had arrived in America when they did. That was reason enough to do Thanksgiving as well as Sukkot.
Later, after we came to live in Israel, the children said, “If the Pilgrims were thankful that they had survived their first year in America, we should celebrate after we have lived one year in Israel!” This we did. We observed “Yom Aliya” – the anniversary of arriving in Israel. Thanksgiving then slid over to the Shabbat that followed.
A few years ago we had “Thanks-a-Latke” – the year that Chanukah and Thanksgiving coincided. Such a rare event deserved a special large celebration with turkey to accompany the latkes and jelly donuts; and by then there were grandchildren to celebrate it too. We had such a lovely time, we continued it annually. Until now.
Postings and articles are rampant this year on the alternative commemorations, sans large gatherings, sans large meals. Worse, some people are challenged to find reasons for being grateful during this pandemic. Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, writes openly of her miscarriage.
Others are finding new ways to express gratitude. “I will call a number of people in my life to whom I owe so much. I will thank them for their love and kindness and remind them that I’m so very glad they were born,” wrote the epidemiologist, Michael Osterholm.
I’m still thankful that America’s doors were open when my family went knocking well over a century ago. Maybe all would have been just as good (or better?) for the family had they come to Israel back then instead. But that’s hypothetical. It turned out as it turned out. All for the good. Today I’m especially grateful for the good health that I and my family and close friends continue to enjoy, and for much more beside. The traditional meal however will be replaced by some symbolic items for old times’ sake, and I see even that will be pushed off to Shabbat. All good.
If we could just reach the light that’s beginning to glimmer at the end of this tunnel sooner rather than later! How good it would be to enjoy a full house for the Seder this Pesach and meet up in person during chol hamo’ed! Meanwhile, best wishes to all for a safe weekend with a prayer for many, many better days to come.
Walter Riggs, “The Early History of McKeesport,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 13:1, January 1930, p. 3-19
“Aliquippa’s Town,” American Revolution Bicentennial 1776 – 1976: A McKeesport Commemorative,
“Story of Queen Allaquippa, Fort Necessity”, National Park Service, US Dept. of the Interior, pdf
“1681-1776: The Quaker Province, the Founding of Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission pdf
“Letter from William Penn to the Kings of the Indians in Pennsylvania,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania pdf
“French and Indian War – the Contest for the Ohio River Valley, The Braddock Campaign,” National Park Service pdf