“Turkey Day” is, for most Americans, about family, parades, football, beer and bellies stuffed with food. Decorations of Pilgrims and Indians remind us of the Thanksgiving story we learned in school. Yet it didn’t exactly happen that way.
(Venison was the main course of the first Thanksgiving meal? Turkey wasn’t even on the menu? How much else that we think we know about Thanksgiving just isn’t true?)
Historians dispute the events of 1621, when Pilgrims and members of the local Wampanoag tribe sat down to a harvest feast. Smallpox, brought by British slaving ships several years earlier, had killed over 90 percent of the Wampanoag. Only half of the hundred Pilgrims who had survived the Mayflower’s journey across the Atlantic, and onto Plymouth Rock, made it through the winter of 1621.
Struggling Pilgrims and natives turned to each other for survival. The smallpox-devestated Wampanoag sought a defensive alliance against the neighboring Narragansett tribe. The Wampanoag leader massasoit offered the Pilgrims food when their supplies ran out. The pilgrims could not have survived without Squanto teaching them the Wampanoag ways of hunting, fishing, growing maize and other crops. Squanto was a member of the Patuxet tribe, a tributary of the Wampanoag confederacy. The British had enslaved Squanto as a young man. They sent him to England, where he became proficient in the English language and learned English customs. A perfect interpreter and ambassador.
Historians hotly contest the details of the shared feast. Descendents of the Wampanoag claim they were never invited to share the Pilgrim’s first harvest, despite their essential role. Instead, about 90 warriors entered the Pilgrims’ settlement when they heard gunfire, worried about an attack. They were relieved to find the Pilgrims firing off cannons and muskets in celebration. The account most of us are familiar with comes from a scant single source – a letter written by Edward Winslow, a leader of the fledgeling colony. The letter was lost and forgotten for a time, and only reemerged in 1841.
Both Native Americans and Pilgrims distrusted each other. Like most Europeans of their day, the Pilgrims looked down on Indians as “heathen savages.” Some historians believe the Wampanoag poisoned Squanto as a suspected traitor. He was found dead, bleeding from the nose, in 1622 – just a year after that legendary first celebration of thanks. Theirs was an alliance of necessity, not the harmonious cross-racial, cross-cultural fellowship taught to us as schoolchildren.
The minor details are lost to history.
European colonists throughout the Americas – English, Spanish, French and others – had many thanksgiving celebrations. Florida, Texas, Maine and Virginia point to historical documents claiming they are the first American colonies with a day of thanksgiving. Yet Abraham Lincoln set the date we celebrate today – the fourth Thursday of November – over two centuries later, in 1864. Until the 20th century, most Americans were unfamiliar with the feast shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag.
(This mini-documentary explores the details of the Pequot War and the Mystic Massacre.)
It is certain, however, that Massachussetts Bay Governor James Winslow proclaimed an official day of thanksgiving 16 years later, in 1637. He thanked God after a band of Puritans, leading enemy tribes, massacred over 700 men, women and children of the Pequot tribe in what is present day Mystic Connecticut. Many were burned alive.
“Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.” – Captain John Underhill’s writings on the Mystic Massacre
The massacre reflects a long, sad pattern of abuse, broken treaties and outright genocide of indigenous peoples in North America to this very day. From the Trail of Tears, to Little Big Horn, to Wounded Knee, to the involuntary sterilization of American Indians in the late 20th century, to the current dispute over the North Dakota pipeline.
Many Native Americans in New England protest Thanksgiving day as their Day of Mourning. Indians on the West Coast likewise observe Unthanksgiving. The townspeople of Plymouth, Massachussetts celebrate by dressing as Pilgrims and marching, to cheering crowds of onlookers, through their streets to Plymouth Rock. A small band of protesters gather on nearby Coles Hill to fast and reflect upon the destruction of First Nations peoples. Tiokhasin Ghosthorse explains.
“Americans need to look at their denial, whether or not they do anything about it is not up to me. We can only show what we have been through and continue to do that without trying to complain about everything. If we were to be listened to, finally, I think that this country and the peoples will turn. We’re not asking people to go back to where they came from. We’re asking them to finally change their minds and their hearts.”
So Happy Thanksgiving! To one and all. Feast and have fun. Give thanks for your blessings. And, together, share your family’s special holiday traditions. Welcome the lonely and forgotten. Share your bounty with the less fortunate.
(The Peanuts gang celebrates Thanksgiving in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. In this opening scene, Lucy explains why football is the most important Thanksgiving tradition.)
Thanksgiving is a beautiful tradition.
Just remember the sad truth behind the happy myth of Europeans and Indians in peaceful fellowship. And, perhaps, take a moment to reflect upon those who feel no cause for celebration.
I am a beat reporter here at The Daily Voice, and a writer and editor for DailyTwoCents.com and Writedge.com. My interests are wide ranging outside of the virtual newsroom, yet here I mainly focus on serious world news and commentary. I graduated from the University of Washington with a B.A. in history.