Thanksgiving: A Misunderstood History

by Sam Jones

The holiday that many of us are looking forward to this month is actually based on a complicated history of conflict and controversy. As disease threatened the very existence of Native American tribes across New England, the Mayflower pilgrims were dying of starvation. Sam Jones recounts how the social history of Thanksgiving saved some and devastated others in order to give celebrators a new perspective on tradition.

As a kid, I was always taught that Thanksgiving is an American tradition based on a feast held a long time ago between the Native Americans and my European ancestors. As the tale goes, the pilgrims welcomed the Native Americans to their celebratory harvest feast and the two communities lived harmoniously for years. I was also taught that the Native Americans felt, or should have felt, grateful for the pilgrims’ generosity and help. Even today, this narrative is still presented in schools and households from the point of view of the pilgrims, portraying the Native Americans as dependent and voiceless. However, a closer look at the history of the first Thanksgiving reveals that the opposite may have been true—the European settlers could not have survived without the Wampanoag tribe of modern-day Massachusetts.

Photo: Sam Jones

The first Europeans to arrive on the eastern shores of what is now the United States of America were not the pilgrims who settled Plymouth in 1620. Europeans from France, England, Spain, Portugal, and Italy had all been travelling and trading along the eastern coast for over a century prior to colonization. Many of these travelers were trading more than just steel and jewelry. In fact, some travelers killed and captured indigenous people to sell in the slave trade.

One Native American captured by the Englishman Thomas Hunt was a young Wampanoag named Tisquantum. Historical records do not indicate how Tisquantum evaded slavery in Spain, but he managed to learn English on is journey back to Cape Cod. Upon his return, however, the thriving Native American community he had been taken from several years before was nothing more than a burial ground extending north and south along the entire coast of New England.

Photo: Sam Jones

Along with their goods, the European traders had brought various diseases, which decimated tribes along the coastline throughout the 1500s and early 1600s—90% of the region’s indigenous population died between 1616 and 1619 alone. The Wampanoag tribe was one such group that was considerably weakened by disease—their numbers were reduced from 20,000 to 1,000. When Tisquantum finally returned to what was left of his tribe, he was met with suspicion and treated as a servant to his own people.

The pilgrims arrived shortly after Tisquantum’s reunion with the Wampanoag, but nearly half of them died during their first winter in New England. Without food or a proper shelter, the pilgrims resorted to ransacking the graves and storehouses of the Native American tribes that had lived on Cape Cod prior to being wiped out by disease. In the spring of 1621, the pilgrims first interacted with the Wampanoag tribe with the help of Tisquantum who was able to use his English language skills to translate. An unprecedented treaty-like partnership was formulated between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe because both parties viewed cooperation as mutually beneficial for several reasons.

The weakened Wampanoag tribe needed to bolster its strength and resilience to defend against a rival tribe known as the Narraganset, which remained untouched by the spreading disease. The Wampanoag tribe strategically garnered a trading partnership with the pilgrims as a means for their tribe to exert power in the region as middlemen between the Europeans and other tribes as well as to deter the Narraganset from implementing an attack.

In the fall of 1621, the pilgrims and 90 men from the Wampanoag tribe gathered for a feast to celebrate their first successful harvest. This occasion is now commonly referred to as the first thanksgiving. The partnership between the Wampanoag and the pilgrims continued in a similar fashion for the next 50 years. During that time, several ships arrived in Plymouth to settle the new colony. While the pilgrims’ numbers and territory exponentially increased, the Native American tribes throughout the region dwindled as death and disease remained rampant. In 1675 one of the sons of the Wampanoag leader, fed up with the colonists’ laws and encroaching settlements, launched an attack against the colonists. In the end, the European settlers won at the cost of over 5,000 lives. Not only was their manpower and weaponry far superior, but the diseases they brought from their homeland certainly played an active role in weakening the Native American people as well.

The history of Thanksgiving that I was taught as a kid is simplistic and revisionist as it does not acknowledge that the Native Americans had strict intentions in interacting with the pilgrims. They were not, as I was led to believe, a helplessly ignorant group of people. They did not foolishly welcome the white man onto their shores, nor did they gratefully accept help from their future oppressors. In their weakened state, the Wampanoag tribe orchestrated a mutually beneficial partnership with the pilgrims that lasted for roughly half of a century. They arguably saved the remaining pilgrims’ lives, only to be incrementally pushed off their land and killed by foreign pathogens and pistols.

It is unknowable who would have followed the Mayflower pilgrims and in what state the Wampanoag and other New England tribes would have been in had a partnership not been formed. Although in the end, the arrival of the pilgrims in 1620 eventually did lead to the death of tens of thousands of indigenous people at the hands of disease and warfare. This is the history upon which we base our most cherished of American holidays.

Photo: Sam Jones

This year, Thanksgiving will be commemorated as a Day of Mourning for those who died as a result of colonization and as recognition of the continued oppression and racism against their people. Every year since 1970 atop Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, indigenous and non-indigenous people have gathered at noon for a spiritual ceremony followed by select speeches about the history of their people as well as the issues facing indigenous populations across the country today. The ceremony is followed by a march through Plymouth and concludes with a feast.

For my Thanksgiving celebration this year, I will still sit with friends and family to a meal of ham and roasted vegetables, corn bread and pumpkin pie, stuffing and mashed potatoes. I will still express my gratitude for all that I have to be thankful for. But this year, I will also be adding a new tradition—a moment of silence for all of the people at whose expense my successes lie. Because I do not think that the purpose of engaging with the painful history of this country is to make those of us here today feel guilty and ashamed or angry and resentful. Instead, I believe it is to acknowledge the voices that have been silenced and the backs that have been walked on. It is also to impress the need for more tolerance, greater acceptance, and heightened awareness. As we begin another holiday season, our traditions may not change, but the intentions behind them just might.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a specialization in sustainable agricultural development. She loves to cook and frequently enjoys a brisk walk in the woods. Her goals include getting a dog, growing all of her own food, and eating her way around the world.

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