Those who know me best know full well that the one thing that weighs heavier on me than anything else is the injustices that have rained down upon the Native Peoples of America in general, and those in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts in particular, for the more than four centuries since the first Anglo/European explorers and settlers set foot upon New England soils. Adding insult to injury are the myths, the nice little contrived stories, that we in America tell ourselves to make us feel better about our past and our heritage. These stories whitewash the ugly truths that we all must face together, and indeed own up to, if we ever want to be able to honestly move forward. Sadly, the very holiday we will celebrate tomorrow, Thanksgiving, is bound up, strangled in some ways, by its associations with the biggest, most blatantly biased and untruthful one of these stories, “the Pilgrim myth.”I know what you’re thinking right now, “another historian trashing an American holiday.” But that’s not it. I truly do appreciate the concepts behind Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday centered around fellowship and family, and in its purest sense, is an opportunity for us to take the time to contemplate the bounty that surrounds us, to give thanks for what we have, who we are, and the folks we share our lives with. So, you see, I support Thanksgiving and what it stands for. It is the context in which we celebrate it that I am troubled by – that troubling context is the Pilgrim myth.
First, before we explore that myth, let’s take a look at the roots of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. It was proclaimed as such in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln. You see, during the Civil War, Lincoln and his administration realized, in order to survive the conflagration it was involved in, the country needed all the patriotic pomp and circumstance it could muster. This was the root of the holiday; it was based upon a set of timeless traditions begun by the Native Americans of the greater Algonquin nation and the Pilgrims had nothing to do with it. As a matter of fact, they were not even a part of the tradition until the 1890s; why, the term “pilgrim” was not even used to describe these Puritans from Massachusetts until the middle of the 1870s. So, let’s examine those Puritan folks and the relationship that they had with the Wampanoag people. After all, this relationship does form the basis of the pilgrim myth.
To do this, though, to really understand the dynamic that existed between them, we really do have to go back a bit earlier than the traditional 1620 date that we all learned in grade school. You see, it was 1617, or a bit earlier, when regular contact between the Wampanoags and Anglo-Europeans, in the form of British and French cod fishermen (hence the name Cape Cod), really began. After filling their hulls with codfish, these folks would go ashore and lay in a supply of firewood, foodstuffs, and fresh water (and heck, maybe even a Native American child or two that they could sell as a slave back home) for the voyage back across the North Atlantic. While there, they left something behind as well, a devastating plague, thought to be either bubonic or a very virulent form of smallpox. During those three years between this contact and the arrival of the “pilgrims” in 1620, nearly 90% of the Wampanoag population was wiped out. These people had never experienced anything even remotely like this, and overwhelmed by the horrors around them, most of the few survivors from the affected villages fled, leaving whole communities of corpses behind them. In doing so, they unwittingly spread the plague throughout the entire Wampanoag community. This was the world into which the Pilgrims entered in 1620. Not only was the whole of what would become eastern Massachusetts a ghost town, they, as Anglo-Europeans, came with a set of natural immunities which allowed them to move into the empty villages and already planted cornfields without consequence or concern. Additionally, the remnants of the Wampanoags led by Massasoit, fearful of the incredible imbalance that now existed between themselves and the powerful Narragansetts to their west, were ready to aid them; hopeful for protection in a world that, for them, had changed forever. During the next 15 years or so, additional epidemics, none as devastating as the plague that destroyed the Wampanoag people and their culture, swept across New England and New York and affected, to greater and lesser degrees, all of the native populations of the time.
And how did these “God-fearing” souls, the Puritans of the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Connecticut colonies react to the devastation playing out before them? Did they aid their fellow man? Did they offer comfort and assistance? No, on the contrary, they rejoiced and praised God for this blessing. John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts Bay colony, called it “miraculous” and wrote that “God hath so pursued them as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the small pox…so God hath thereby cleared our title to this land.” Puritan minister Increase Mather said “God ended the native controversy by sending the small pox among the Indians.” William Bradford of Plymouth said “it pleased God to afflict these Indians with such a deadly sickness that out of each thousand, over 950 of them died, and many lay rotting above ground for want of a burial…” Even King James himself gave thanks to “almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us for sending this wonderful plague among the savages.” This is the “Thanks Giving” that went on in the Puritan world of the 17th century.
So what about that first Thanksgiving feast, you might be wondering? Well there is again a kernel of truth here, but of course it’s been substantially altered to fit the myth. Massasoit and ninety or so of his Wampanoag brethren did indeed share a meal of Thanksgiving with the approximately 50 Puritan settlers that day in 1620. But it was the Wampanoags who provided the lion’s share of the food, arriving with 5 deer and numerous ducks and geese and all the fixings (note that there were no turkeys involved). Of course this level of generosity by Massasoit was nothing new; without the Native people’s agricultural knowledge and the food they had already shared with these white interlopers, the Puritans would have most certainly already perished. So that’s the real story of that feast, and it was all about the graciousness and generosity of the Native people, not the other way around.
Of course, this is only a small, albeit the first, piece in the puzzle that makes up the history of Anglo-European conquest of North America. Most historians and anthropologists suggest that the pre-contact (prior to 1617) population of native peoples in what would become the US and Canada was between 10 and 14 million souls. By 1840 only 2 million were thought to remain, and by 1880, due to plagues, epidemics, illness, warfare and deculturation, only 250,000 were left. In 250 years or so, “We the People” eliminated an entire inter-related interconnected race of other people and took everything from them.
In 1970, on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of that “mythic Thanksgiving origin,” the government of Massachusetts approached the remnants of the Wampanoag tribe and asked them to select a speaker for the celebration. Frank James of the tribe drew the honor, but first had to show a copy of his comments to the folks in charge of the Plymouth, MA-based event. When they read what he had written, they refused to allow the tribe to speak. James wrote:
“Today is a time of celebrating for you…but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a 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 robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn and beans…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 land of Massachusetts. What has happened before cannot be changed, but today we work towards a better America, the more Indian America where people and nature once again are important.”
No ACLU representative concerned about Frank James’ civil rights and his right of free speech joined the fray. No indignant Federal officials stood up for the Wampanoags and this latest injustice. Everyone involved was solely concerned about preserving the “myth”– the myth involving a group of grateful Indians sharing in the bounty that God had given to a band of our pious and God-fearing Pilgrim forefathers. Something for all of us to contemplate before we carve that turkey this year.