On the fourth Thursday in November, Americans sit down to a huge feast and tuck into turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and all the other foods associated with Thanksgiving. Few give any thought to the history and origins of the holiday. If they do, it’s often because of Thanksgiving activities in their child’s classroom or the ever-popular Thanksgiving play. But these are based on myth and deliberate fiction that has been handed down for 200 hundred years.
The Thanksgiving story that our children learn in school is told from a decidedly settler-centric point of view. We’re told that the settlers and Indians were pals, they helped each other and celebrated together. History, they say, is written by the winners. There are few examples where is this as true as in the story we are fed about Thanksgiving.
What would the story be if it was told from the Indians’ point of view? How differently would we be remembering it? What would we think of Thanksgiving if the Indians had treated the settlers in the same manner in which the settlers treated them?
1. Indians would have desecrated graves looking for things they could use.
According to colonists’ accounts, a party led by Miles Standish found a grave, ransacked it and then covered the corpse again:
The next morning we found a place like a grave. We decided to dig it up. We found first a mat, and under that a fine bow… We also found bowls, trays, dishes, and things like that. We took several of the prettiest things to carry away with us, and covered the body up again.
A larger party went out a few days later and, finding more graves, stole from them. One of the graves was that of Chief Massasoit’s — the leader of the Wampanoag — mother. No thought was given to the idea that Indian burials might be as sacred to those who made them as the gravesites of the Puritans were to them.
2. Settlers would have been treated as heathens.
The Puritans who came to America from England were not searching for “religious freedom.” They knew that the place they were sailing for was already occupied. Their view, however, was that the land was theirs because the people living there were primitives. They arrived fully aware that they would be taking the land away from the indigenous people. They wanted to build the “Holy Kingdom” on the native’s land. That the inhabitants had their own religion was never a concern. The only religion that counted was that of the Separatists/Puritans.
3. Settlers would have been captured and sold as slaves.
The Indians had seen Europeans before; the Puritans were not the first. The Spanish, Portuguese and English raided the Americas for slaves. In 1614, twenty-six Wampanoag were captured and sold as slaves. Many more were captured by John Smith — yes, that John Smith — and sold into slavery. One of the Wampanoag sold into slavery was the fabled Squanto, who was able to make his way home and, eventually, into the Plymouth settlement.
4. The settlers would have been invited to a harvest celebration being held by the Wampanoag.
The story of the Puritans inviting the Indians to their feast is generous. What actually happened was that the Wampanoag heard the settlers shooting their guns in celebration and thought they were preparing for war. So they sent 90 warriors to check it out. When the group, led by Massosoit, saw it was a party rejoicing in the harvest, they went out and bagged five deer and some fowl (probably geese and duck, maybe turkey) and brought this bounty to the celebration. It was not, by the way, a religious observance. The Puritans didn’t celebrate on religious holy days; they believed it to be sinful. It was a harvest celebration and, also, assuredly didn’t take place in November. The Wampanoag, like all people, knew about harvest feasts, so to say that the settlers taught them about this is being unfair and naive.
5. The settlers would have been killed.
All it took for the newcomers to turn on the natives was one Englishman, who was found dead in a boat, possibly murdered but it was unknown by whom. In 1636, the slaughter began with the Pequot villages. It continued when Major John Mason took his troops to attack more Pequot, including women and children, in their homes at dawn. Their homes were burned and any who escaped the flames were shot or run through. Plymouth’s Governor, William Bradford, described how Mason’s men massacred the natives:
Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them… For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.
This is the day that was celebrated as Thanksgiving by the New Englanders, not the day (three days, actually) that Massasoit and his men brought food to the Puritans. After the massacre, the Pequot River became the Thames and the place where the tribe had lived became the settlement of New London. The Pequot were wiped from the face of the earth.
History is, indeed, written by the conquerors. The conquered lose their land, their culture, their religion, their language… everything that made them who they were. They are told to assimilate or die. They are looked down upon as lesser human beings by those who took their world from them. So it was with the American Indians in New England.
For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is the complete opposite of what others celebrate. It is not a day of family and food, but of remembrance:
For many Indian people, ‘Thanksgiving’ is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, ‘Thanksgiving’ is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship.
Spare a thought for the Pequot and the Wampanoag on Thursday. Think about how different the day would be if they had treated the settlers in the same manner those settlers treated them, before and after that first Thanksgiving. Be thankful that they were better hosts than the settlers were guests.
Featured Image via Wikipedia