What the first Thanksgiving can teach us about adjusting to climate shock

Narrow growth rings in nearby stands of trees indicate that each story of supposedly miraculous rain prayers really did take place during a drought. Many European expeditions happened to arrive during exceptionally bad years of frozen winters and parched summers. Between 1540 and 1541, for example, followers of Hernando de Soto reported snow storms in Arkansas and Alabama, and followers of Coronado rode horses over the frozen Rio Grande; the first Spanish explorers in California found the mountains of Monterrey Bay covered in snow, and the first English colonies at Roanoke and Jamestown starved during the region’s worst droughts in centuries.

.. Europeans of the era imagined that climates would be more or less the same along the same latitudes — meaning Virginia would have the seasons of Sicily, and New England those of southern France. Colonists thus tried and failed to cultivate tropical fruits in Virginia and silkworms in Maine.

.. Desperate to seize food and land, Massachusetts settlers launched a war against neighboring Pequot Indians in 1636, massacring hundreds of men, women and children in the region’s worst colonial conflict.

.. The Pilgrims were simply unprepared for a shift in climate. They gave thanks — prematurely, it turned out — once it looked like the worst seasons had passed. But the colonists didn’t really thrive until they themselves changed, by adapting to New England’s climate and learning to raise crops and livestock in a way the region could support.

.. But the climate fluctuations of the Little Ice Age were only a fraction of the climate change projected under most global warming scenarios.