Government & Politics

True History of Thanksgiving Will Turn Your Stomach

The First Thanksgiving. The Native Americans brought food. The Pilgrims brought passive aggression.

Just in time for Turkey Day comes this cheerful little ditty from November 2005.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Feeling bloated with turkey and burnt-out on football? Well, sit back, relax, and allow me to acquaint you with the real story of Thanksgiving, the one you probably weren’t taught in grade school.

The traditional history of Thanksgiving goes something like this: In 1620, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, MA with a boatload of settlers. The group faced a harsh winter, but fortunately for them, the “friendly savages,” AKA the Wampanoag Indians, taught the settlers techniques to cultivate corn, grow native vegetables, and how to store them. By the end of summer 1621, the Pilgrims and the Indians threw a massive three-day party to celebrate the successful growing season and to generally “give thanks” for their friendship and for having survived in this harsh, untamed “New World.”

History Isn’t Pretty

While this version of events makes for a nice, “feel good” type of tale, it skirts the truth in a number of ways. In other ways it’s an outright lie.  True, there was friendship and peace among the Pilgrims and Indians during that three-day 1621 feast, but the friendship was uneasy and the peace was short-lived. The Wampanoag Indians were invited to the feast not just to celebrate the successful growing season, but also to negotiate a treaty that would secure the lands of the Plymouth Plantation for the Pilgrims. The Indians, perhaps trying to please their Pilgrim hosts, actually brought most of the food served at that 1621 feast.

But the Pilgrims, Puritans who fled England because of religious persecution, had a strained relationship with the Native Americans. They accepted their help, but they didn’t really trust them. The Puritans were America’s original “religious right” – they saw themselves as the “Chosen Elect” mentioned in the book of Revelation, and anyone who did not agree with their strict religious beliefs was considered an enemy. This, of course, included the “heathen” Native Americans.

Indeed, as more and more Puritans arrived in the New World, the balance of power began to shift. The ungratefulness of the original Thanksgiving Day Pilgrims is exemplified by a Thanksgiving day sermon given by “Mather the Elder” in Plymouth in 1623, just two years after that first Thanksgiving. In that sermon, Mather gives thanks to God for spreading the smallpox virus among the Wampanoag Indians, especially since it killed “young men and children.” Mather the Harsh!

The Puritans began invading Indian villages, killing the young, old and sick, and selling the rest off for slavery. In the span of less than a generation, the peace between the Indians and the Pilgrims had completely dissolved. The children of that first Thanksgiving, Puritan and Wampanoag alike, grew up warring with one another. The Wampanoag chief was beheaded and his head was displayed on a pike in the middle of Plymouth for the next 24 years.

History Repeats Like A Gassy Grandma

It makes you wonder how much we’ve learned as a nation in the last 375 years. The Taliban regime was our “friend” 20 years ago; we helped it oust Russian invaders from Afghanistan. Less than two decades after America helped put it in power, the Taliban government was supporting the terrorist groups that carried out the 9/11 attacks. Will our new “friends” in Iraq behave the same way? More importantly, who are the Pilgrims and who are the Indians in this scenario?  History repeats itself, but America doesn’t always learn from its mistakes.

Finally, there is another little-known history to Thanksgiving, a history that better reflects what the holiday has come to represent today. The original Plymouth colony was founded on the concept of communism; the land was owned and farmed by the community as a whole. But the results were disastrous – by 1623 starvation was imminent. In desperation, Plymouth Governor William Bradford abolished the communal concept and began distributing private plots of land among the Pilgrims. He encouraged them to plant early and farm the land as individuals, not collectively. As a result, the harvest was bountiful and the concept of private property, individual initiative, and a free marketplace all planted roots deeply in the soil of America’s capitalist system.

Now, be a good American and go out and do some Christmas shopping.


Originally published in Wayne TODAY, November 2005

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