Thanksgiving Lessons for Scouting

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As Thanksgiving arrives this year, we begin considering more time with extended family and friends. Scouting tends to be put on the backshelf. Even so, Thanksgiving is a great time to think about the philosophy and lessons of scouting. (While this article is focused on boy scout troops, the same lessons of unit cohesion apply to Cub Scout Dens and Venturing Crews, too.)

The history of Thanksgiving is not often as it is represented in the media. To truly learn the lessons of Thanksgiving, we need to return to the the true story of Thanksgiving.

When the Plymouth colonists arrived and were moored alongside shore, they entered into the famed Mayflower Compact, effectively the first constitution written in North America. The Romans had previously had their Twelve Tables, the Swiss their agreement of confederation, and the Jamestown colony their royal charter. All of these were written agreement of government organization, but were all written in Europe. The Compact did not emphasize powers and duties like the US Constitution. It emphasized that all the colonists agreed to be subject to a common government as it was constituted from “time to time.” (That phrase is lawyer-speak for changes that occur every once in a while.) So they agreed to stick to the colony as the rules changed.

This agreeing to be part of the group and be subject to its changing rules is the first similarity between the Compact and a boy scout troop. While the rules for troop organization and management are far more detailed in the Senior Patrol Leader’s Handbook, the new Troop Leaders’ Guide Book (which replaced the Scoutmaster’s Handbook this year), and the Scout Handbook than the Mayflower Compact, neither these scouting handbooks nor the Compact define the daily rules of performance. Neither tells who cooks food, cleans, or organizes the day’s activities. Those are left for future decisions. Consequently, both systems leave lots of room for future lessons to be built into the future activities and organization of the band of people participating.

As the colonists began to set up their colony, they worked on a strict notion of what a Commonwealth meant. The original governor of Plymouth Colony John Carver led the group to set up a plan where all would work for the common good and withdraw from the common stock for their individual needs. When Gov. Carver died six months after arrival, the colonists already had severe problems. Gov. Carver had led the colonists to explore for a suitable building site from their November 1620 arrival into January. Little construction took place as colonist grew sick and died aboard the moored Mayflower. When housing was constructed in February through April, they built fewer houses than planned. Some of this lack of construction was due to the 50% mortality rate. Some due to poor organization.

In April, when the Mayflower was finally released to return to England, the colonists had little to show for their efforts. Their hunts brought some food, but not near enough. At the end of the month, Gov. Carver died of what may have been a stroke. William Bradford was elected governor, a position he would hold for nearly 30 of the next 35 years. When Gov. Bradford assumed office, he continued many of the same practices his predecessor had followed: all contribute to one common store, meaning like a storehouse, not a market; all take from the same store.

By the fall harvest, the colonists had generated enough food and resources to have a healthier winter than the previous year. The colonists held a celebration of the harvest, which is often referred to as the “First Thanksgiving.” Even so, not all was wonderful. Disease from malnourishment and economic struggles continued until 1427.

The colonists bought their way to America by entering into an agreement with the Merchant Adventurers, a joint-stock company, that looked to invest in the colony. In return the society expected the colonists to generate goods to send back to England for sale and profit. The Merchant Adventurers was very unhappy with the goods produced by the colonists for several years. When the second ship arrived at Plymouth colony, it carried correspondence to the late Gov. Carver, complaining about the lack of goods coming back to England. The colonists were feeding themselves, but they were not holding up their end of the deal with the stock company.

The problem Gov. Bradford found himself in, he described in his writings this way,

The experience that we had in this common course and condition tried sundry years…that by taking away property, and bringing community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing – as if they were wiser than God.

For this community [so far as it was] was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.

Simply put, the problem started with productive aged bachelors refusing to work for the benefit of another man’s family. The colony was not seeing production from its greatest source of ability to produce.

In 1427, Gov. Bradford worked out a new arrangement with the colonists. Rather than all produce going to the common store, land would be parceled out to each of the families. The family could keep some of the harvest and production and sell the excess. Here is Gov. Bradford’s own account of the result,

This [allocation of land] had very good success, for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.

After this change the colony became highly profitable. The colonists started successful trading with the Indians and England. This trade generated sufficient profits to repay the debt to the Merchant Adventurers in full. This success is what propelled Gov. Bradford to remain as governor for nearly 30 of the next 35 years.

In this story, we see many lessons for scouts and scouters. The Pilgrims were put in a position where they had to fend for themselves. They had minimal resources from home. When they had problems, they had to solve it themselves. Grand ideals of how things should work may prevent correction or implementation of new ideas. Once the Pilgrims changed their methods, they found new results. The new method had to have clear accountability for participants.

The story told about the Pilgrims focuses on bachelors and families, how does this translate to scouts? First, bachelors were expected to contribute back to a larger group with which they did not identify or have a real connection. Second, the contributions to the common store did not benefit the bachelors in the same way they benefitted other men’s families.

So what lessons can we learn in a scout campout?

Have you ever been on a scout campout where the troop sets up one mass, cooking area? The patrols’ cook sets and food supplies are nearly piled on top of each other? What happens? Does everyone have an easy time? Do the patrols eat from their own supplies?

In my experience, scouts tend to grab the food that is already ready-to-eat. It may be pre-packaged. It may be cooked. In either case, the scouts are looking for food with the least effort required.

How do the cooks feel? Do they get to eat the fruits of their labor? Is everyone happy and cooperative? Can the Senior Patrol Leader maintain control and order? Are the adults involved?

In my experience, this is absolute mayhem. The matter ends with lots of screaming and yelling. The patrol leaders have no control or hope of regaining control. The Senior Patrol Leader steps in to try to resolve the matter. It gets worse with patrol leaders squabbling. Peace is only restored when the adults get involved.

What was the problem? It is all about the land.

If the patrol has an area of land that is their territory, separated from the other patrols, the patrol leader has a specific turf that is his sole responsibility. Any success or failure is easily visible to him and his patrol.

No outside scout from outside the patrol can be in the area without being obviously out of place. The temptation to take ready-made food disappears. The greater the distance to travel for food, the less tempting the target.

Now the patrol leader owns the results of the cooking effort. In turn he can manage his patrol better, because there is less distraction and more unity of purpose. “We don’t eat until our food is ready, because we have no other food readily available.”

Patrols can avoid the bachelor versus family problem. The point of the patrol is to serve as a family on a campout. All in the patrol contribute and have obvious shared benefits. Each scout has a cooking shift, a latrine shift, and a loafing shift. Some scouts will see the benefits of joint efforts more easily than others. Still, the lesson is there to be learned.

In many levels of scout leadership training, the model of forming, storming, norming, and performing are discussed. These are the different stages of group formation and development. The patrol has this life cycle. When the patrol forms, many grievances are ignored to avoid seeming petty to the new group. When comfort levels increase or tolerance decreases, frustrations are given public airing. This is where storms of conflict occur. As the group figures out rules and customs for resolving these storms, they gain an identity and cohesion. This is where normal practices take charge of the group dynamics. With more practice, the now-accepted-as normal practices are rehearsed and perfected, the group begins to perform more efficiently.

Whether with Gov. Bradford or your patrol leader in charge, we see the same dynamics. The group cannot work unless it has a chance to be identified as its own group apart from the rest. For Gov. Bradford, families were easily identifiable groups. Bachelors did not identify with the families. Families had no natural bond with other families. It was only as each had its own territory to administer that the smaller groups could perform. As the smaller groups performed, the larger group, the colony, really began to thrive.

The lesson for boy scout troops from the story of Thanksgiving is that troops can only thrive when their smaller groupings of people are given the latitude to have territory and resources that are distinctly theirs. Only then can the group-building and dynamics begin to work their magic in creating cohesive patrols. When patrols are cohesive and have identities, the troop flourishes as others want to join the troop and be part of the camaraderie.

Follow Gov. Bradford. Give your patrols distinct property (like patrol boxes) and territory (like dedicated campground space) to make their own. Let them rise and fall on their own merits from there. You will be surprised by how fast they flourish.