The Real First Thanksgiving

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The Real First Thanksgiving

thanksgiving feast

For three centuries, the national mythology has held that the first Thanksgiving brought together people from different cultures to peacefully celebrate survival in a difficult land. Since that time, the popular image of the celebration has served as a national symbol of cross-cultural togetherness, cooperation, and thankfulness, particularly in times of difficulty.

The real first Thanksgiving that took place in the fall of 1621, however, differed from the popularized (and often fictionalized) version of the event portrayed for mass consumption by writers, painters, and filmmakers. A look into the historical context surrounding the first Thanksgiving, the actual events that took place between the Pilgrims and Indians, and the immediate aftermath of the celebration provides a more accurate portrait of one of the most important historical events that anchors American nationhood.

The mythological first Thanksgiving holds that Indians of the Wampanoag tribe in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Pilgrims from England sat down together peacefully in the fall of 1621 and shared several days of feasting and celebration in a spirit of friendship provided by the generosity and hard work of both groups. While it is true that both Native Americans and whites took part in the event sponsored by the Pilgrims, the circumstances that led to the meeting and the actual views of both groups toward one another have been buried under the weight of national myth making.

According to the myth, both the Pilgrims and the Indians viewed the first Thanksgiving as a time of rejoicing and celebration in thanking God for surviving a difficult winter. The Indians, as the story goes, welcomed the European newcomers, and some, like Squanto, readily assisted them in growing foodstuffs to help them survive the winter. Taken out of context, however, the racial politics between Native Americans and whites in the region, key to understanding the developments that led to the first Thanksgiving, have been obscured and sanitized in the mythical version of the event.

The celebration of the first Thanksgiving took place after the European invasion of North America in the 16th and 17th centuries. Beginning in 1550, ships owned by English, French, and Spanish mercantile and royal interests made periodic visits to tap the lucrative fisheries lying off the northeastern coast, barreling cod and mackerel to sell to European markets. During these trips, they encountered Native Americans, with whom they traded for essential goods like foodstuffs, manufactured items, and slaves.

This interaction led to cultural exchange as Europeans adopted some of the skills and technology of Indian nations while several Indians, some by choice but most as slaves, went to Europe and learned the ways of whites. Some Indians, like a Wampanoag man named Squanto (who figured prominently in the first Thanksgiving), later returned to their people. As a result of a sustained contact, however, disease killed thousands of Native Americans prior to the arrival of the first waves of English settlers in the New England region.

Following the fishing fleets in the early 17th century, other Europeans came to the New England region, some to establish permanent colonies of families. Pushed by religious warfare in northern Europe, a host of dissenting fundamentalist Christian sects that wanted to purify the Protestant Church of England sought refuge in any nation that would take them. Known as Puritans, some chose to colonize so-called empty lands across the Atlantic Ocean to find a safe haven and fertile ground to practice their faith.

mayflower compact (1620)

One such group of Puritans was the Pilgrims, a group of Christian fundamentalists also known as Separatists who wanted to flee what they perceived to be a decadent world. Driven out of England and Holland by religious violence, Pilgrim leaders organized into joint-stock companies to gain backing from Puritan merchants for their journey to find a safe haven. They set sail aboard the Mayflower on September 16, 1620, arriving on the rocky shores of Cape Cod Bay on November 9. The independent spirit of the colonists was apparent even before their arrival. Prior to landing, the 41 men aboard (101 people had set sail, but women and children could not take part) formed and signed a constitution (known as the Mayflower Compact) establishing the rule of law, self-rule, popular self-government, and congregational autonomy for the new Christian community. One abiding goal was to spread the true "gospel of the Kingdome of Christ in those remote parts of the world."

After landing at Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims attempted to establish an ideal community of agrarian simplicity, but difficulties confronted them immediately. Improperly attired and lacking the necessary knowledge and equipment, the first colonists faced a dire winter under the leadership of William Bradford, the second governor of the colony. During the year, more than 50 of the 100 colonists perished for lack of food. Led by Capt. Miles Standish, a non-Puritan, the Pilgrims attempted to keep peace with the Indians, known as the Wampanoag, under Massasoit, a powerful leader who controlled a wide swath of territory.

Within days of their arrival, the Pilgrims began robbing Native American communities to attain goods needed to survive. On their second day, they entered Indian homes and took knives, bowls, fishing equipment, and other goods, intending to repay the inhabitants but leaving in haste and not doing so. At other locations, they discovered corn buried by the Indians, which they dug up and took back to their temporary settlement. According to the writings of one colonist, divine intervention came to their aid: "It was with God's help that we found this corn, for how else could we have done it, without meeting some Indians who might trouble us?"

Four days later, the Pilgrims discovered the cemetery of a local Indian community. Although pledged to eschew worldly goods, several Pilgrims could not hesitate to remove several of the items. A colonist recalled: "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."

native americans around fire

Despite the thefts, which Massasoit and other local Wampanoag leaders soon learned about, the Indians tolerated the Pilgrims, allowed them to stay, and even befriended them. Reduced by a terrible plague raging within their community between 1617 and 1619, the local Wampanoag were also militarily weakened, though still strong enough to wipe out the struggling Pilgrims. Revealing a desire for peace, however, the Wampanoag arranged a treaty with the Pilgrims in March 1621 (one of the first documented treaties between American Indians and Europeans), pledging mutual defense against the neighboring Narragansett Indians. To cement their temporary alliance, the Pilgrims later invited Massasoit and his retinue to share in the first Thanksgiving that November.

Stealing could not get the colonists through the winter, but Squanto generously helped them do so. Squanto was a Native American from the Wampanoag village of Patuxet. Although many stories of the first Thanksgiving point out that Squanto learned English from traveling English fishermen who visited the village of his people, in reality he learned it while being a slave in Europe. He was stolen as an adolescent near his village by a British slave raider along with two dozen Indians and sold into slavery in Malaga, Spain, in 1614. Squanto remained until 1619, when he escaped back to his homeland on a British vessel, only to find his people mysteriously gone.

Discovering that his people had perished during the 1617-1619 plague, Squanto gravitated toward the Pilgrim settlement, whose language he spoke and with whose people he was now familiar. Learning of their plight, he soon showed them how to plant. Lucky to encounter him, the Pilgrims took advantage of Squanto's agrarian knowledge in growing corn, beans, and squash, enabling them to ward off hunger the following year.

plymouth in 1622

Ironically, the Pilgrims had chosen Plymouth, the former site of Squanto's village of Patuxet, as the site of their new colony. They had done so after finding favorable evidence of former habitation by Native Americans, such as fields of corn, a park-like terrain derived from the careful pruning and burning of underbrush, and ample freshwater streams. Rather than encountering a wilderness free of inhabitants and thus open for settlement, the Pilgrims had settled an already populated land.

Laden with a bountiful harvest, the colonists celebrated surviving their first season in the New World in November 1621. In doing so, they gave birth to a myth that still holds fast to American consciousness—that the first Thanksgiving was a time of celebration for all inhabitants of the New England region. In reality, the Thanksgiving feast represented to the Pilgrims a validation of their God-given mandate to live in North America at the expense of the resident Native American population. After being persecuted in Europe and risking their lives in a new land, they felt blessed with divine favor. The celebration to them was a time for rejoicing in their own survival.

For Native Americans still living in the region, the first Thanksgiving continues to represent a time of great difficulty for their people. In response to a request by the Massachusetts Department of Commerce for a Wampanoag Indian to speak at the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing, a Wampanoag man named Frank James wrote:

Today is a time of celebrating for you. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat, and beans. Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts; yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers, little knowing that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them. Although our way of life is almost gone and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America, where people and nature are once again important.

After department administrators read what James had written, he was not allowed to speak at the event.

If anything might link this year's Thanksgiving with the first one that took place in 1621, it is that they both embody a moment of calm in a storm of ethnic violence. The tolerance displayed by the Wampanoag in helping the Pilgrim settlers to survive their first winter and allowing them to remain in Massachusetts after the fall of 1621 perhaps stands as one of real event's most salient themes to remember.

Directions: Write a detailed paragraph that compares what we have been usually taught about Thanksgiving (“the myth”) versus what actually happened according to the Native Americans. Use at least three specific details from the article.

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