Thanksgiving is one of the most popular holidays in the United States (and Canada), a day to reflect on and be thankful for all we have, while delighting in childhood dramas of the First Thanksgiving, a feast shared by Pilgrims from the Mayflower who landed at Plymouth Rock and American Natives in the fall of 1621.
But how accurate is our collective memory of this event? How much is mythology and how much is fact, meaning the best conclusion based on historical evidence? And are we forgetting details that might make the holiday much more meaningful, a chance to celebrate both Indian culture and generosity?
Let’s consider some awkward truths about the First Thanksgiving. Much of this information can be found in Lies My Teacher Told Me, by historian James Loewen, which I encourage everyone to read.
There was no such thing as “Plymouth Rock” and no such thing as a “Pilgrim”
At least not by the diction of the time, anyway. The term “Pilgrim” was actually not in common usage until the 1870s. It is used today to describe the English Separatists, who broke from the Church of England. (These were not, bear in mind, the Puritans, who desired no such break from the Church.) The Mayflower had 102 passengers onboard, but only about 35 were Separatists. The rest were ordinary settlers seeking wealth and land in the New World, devoid of religious motivation for their travels.
The “Plymouth Rock” part of the story, that is, the exact spot where the Mayflower passengers supposedly disembarked, originated over a century after the event. Further, they made landfall at Cape Cod a month before going on to what would become the Plymouth area.
Natives saved the Plymouth colonists from starvation, despite horrific white-Indian relations…and still may not have been invited to the First Thanksgiving
In the winter of 1620, half the Plymouth colonists died of disease and starvation. They knew nothing of how to survive in this strange new world. One the other hand, Native American tribes developed half the crops on the globe today, according to Loewen.
Only the intervention of Natives like Hobomok and Squanto saved them. Squanto was enslaved by English invaders in 1614 and had somehow escaped from Spain and made it back to his Patuxet village, to find everyone dead of disease and war. Whites enslaved him, yet he took pity on the Plymouth colonists. William Bradford called him “a special instrument sent of God.”
The Plymouth colonists were grave-diggers. They ransacked Massachusett, Narragansett, and Nauset graves, taking anything of value. To the Natives, this was desecration. The colonists were also thieves, stealing Indian corn, beans, and other crops from the Wampanoags and others.
Nearby, the Europeans had already gone to war with Indian tribes, such as in 1585 when Richard Grenville’s forces destroyed an entire Indian village in present-day Virginia after one Indian stole a silver cup, or in 1611, when Jamestown attacked the Powhatan Indians for refusing to return English settlers who had joined the Powhatan tribe to avoid starvation; the English destroyed a village, slaughtered about 15 Indians, stabbed the queen of the tribe to death, threw children into the river and began “shoteing owtt their Braynes in the water” (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States).
Despite this, the Wampanoags befriended the Plymouth colonists. Though admittedly, according to Loewen, this was in part because the Wampanoags had been decimated by the plague and desired allies to survive.
In the fall of 1621, the colonists celebrated their first successful corn harvest, and may have invited their saviors and allies, the Wampanoags, to feast with them for three days. (They did not celebrate annually, though they did have a similar feast in 1623.)
However, some historians doubt the Natives were invited. Tobias Vanderhoop, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, says his ancestors heard celebratory gunfire during the colonists’ feast, and marched to investigate, concerned their fragile peace treaty with the whites was on the verge of collapse. Vanderhoop says only when they arrived were they invited to join… and it was a “tense” meal.
About 50 years later, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony waged war on the Wampanoags to seize their lands, and the Wampanoags were all but destroyed.
Was the First Thanksgiving actually in Florida?
Native Americans had a long history of celebrating the autumnal harvest before Europeans invaded their shores, and “both the Separatists who came over on the Mayflower and the Puritans who arrived soon after brought with them a tradition of providential holidays—days of fasting during difficult or pivotal moments and days of feasting and celebration to thank God in times of plenty.”
But even before the November 1621 feast of the Wampanoags and the Mayflower settlers, there was Pedro Menéndez de Avilé and crew, the Spanish who landed in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, held a mass to thank God for their safe voyage, and feasted with the local Timucua.
There is also some evidence of a “thanksgiving to God” at Baffin Island, Canada between Englishmen and Natives in 1578.
The English celebrated a “day of thanksgiving to Almighty God” on December 4, 1619, without any Natives, when 38 British settlers landed at Berkeley Hundred on the James River. The Spanish may have similarly celebrated by themselves at San Elizario on the Rio Grande, in present-day Texas, in 1598.
In any case, days of thanksgiving became common practice in the New England colonies.
The first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men.
The Continental Congress set aside a few days a year during the American Revolution for thanksgiving, George Washington declared a national day of thanksgiving in 1789, Sarah Josepha Hale (creator of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) campaigned from the 1820s to the 1860s for a national holiday, and Abraham Lincoln declared the final Thursday of November Thanksgiving Day in 1863, the most dire year of the Civil War, “when the Union needed all the patriotism such an observance might muster.”
Not until the 1890s did the feast of the Plymouth settlers and Wampanoags become part of the modern American tradition.
English settlers were most thankful for the plague
Native American peoples, their immune systems unprepared for European diseases, died by the millions. Smallpox, bubonic plague, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhus, and so on, began wiping out entire tribes as soon as the invaders arrived in the Americans in the late 15th century. 90% of the original Indians in New England died from disease.
While this is well-known, less known is how it delighted New England settlers. Today religious Americans give thanks for God for all they have on Thanksgiving; the prayers of our forefathers were far more disturbing.
William Bradford, a founder of the Plymouth colony, wrote, “It pleased God to afflict these Indians with such a deadly sickness, that out of 1,000, over 950 of them died, and many of them lay rotting above ground for want of burial…” He described the Indians with small pox:
[T]hey fall into a lamentable condition as they lie on their hard mats, the pox breaking and mattering and running one into another, their skin cleaving by reason thereof to the mats they lie on. When they turn them, a whole side will flay off at once as it were, and they will be all of a gore blood, most fearful to behold. And then being very sore, what with cold and other distempers, they die like rotten sheep.
John Winthrop, governor of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony that came after the Plymouth colony, called the Native American epidemic “miraculous,” writing, “But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox… God hath thereby cleared our title to this place…”
Speaking of a land dispute in 1631, Puritan minister Increase Mather said, “God ended the controversy by sending the small pox amongst the Indians. Whole towns of them were swept away, in some of them not so much as one Soul escaping Destruction.”
This view laid a firm foundation for the enduring American belief that the formation and success of the United States was God’s will, no matter how many other people were killed or cultures destroyed in the process.
Meanwhile, Native Americans have held a National Day of Mourning on the final Thursday of November since 1970.