Thanksgiving is a time of generosity and sharing for us. These worthy sentiments derive from our mythology. But the truth is something else. The “saintes,” or “pilgrimes,” as their pious leader, William Bradford, called them, left their temporary home in Leyden, Holland in September 1620. They had gone to Holland to escape the Church of England and its repressive policies. But the tolerance of the easy-going Dutch proved too much for them. The Pilgrims felt that in order to establish God’s kingdom on earth they had to remain “pure,” avoiding contamination by other religions. To do this they would deny the rights of others to practice distinct forms of worship. It is an irony of American history that so many of our forbears who fled persecution were themselves intolerant persecutors. Feeling this way, the Pilgrims sought a place as far as could be from the king of England and his official church. By November they were off the coast of Cape Cod. And there they entered into history, with the tale of the first Thanksgiving as embellished history and beloved American lore.
The story would not be complete without the image of the brave band of Pilgrims, Puritan separatists, a minority in the group, fleeing persecution in England. They sailed to Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower, a gallant ship in our imagination but actually a small, vermin-infested, wooden tub. Many of the band, both separatists and non-separatists, died of disease on the Mayflower. But tragedy notwithstanding, as school children we drew pictures of stalwart men in tall hats adorned with buckles and strong women in voluminous dresses, greeted by Tisquantum, known as Squanto, and other friendly Indians with turkeys in hand. And, of course, we memorized the famous legend, immortalized by Longfellow, of the gruff Miles Standish, in love with Priscilla Mullins, the only unmarried woman who had escaped death from illness. He asked John Alden to speak for him but it was John who married Priscilla. When the shy intermediary came to present the case for Miles, the beautiful Priscilla uttered the famous words, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John.” Ever since, American men have remembered Priscilla’s words as they screw up their courage to propose to their lady-loves.
In spite of this romantic origin story, the truth about the first Thanksgiving is that it was not about giving thanks to God. It was the custom in England to hold harvest festivals and that is what it was. In 1621 the Pilgrims had managed to plant maize and other crops with the help of Squanto and had a good harvest by the fall of that year. The menu at their harvest festival, along with venison and water fowl, was mainly corn, squash, and beans, the “Three Sisters,” as this combination of crops traditionally grown by the Indians is known. It may seem to be an insignificant historical detail, but if it had not been for these humble American Indian foods we would not be celebrating Thanksgiving today.
Starvation had loomed large when the Pilgrims first landed in 1620. In order to survive they dug up and looted the graves of the many Wampanoag Indians who had recently perished in an epidemic of the European plague sweeping north from the Spanish colony in Florida and the English colony at Jamestown. The Pilgrims found abundant grave goods, including large supplies of corn (maize) which they pulled out of the burials. They were desperate, and if they had not robbed the dead they would have starved during the harsh winter. In more ways than we care to know, these first colonists, like so many other white people, owed their lives to the Native Americans.
Our vision of the first Thanksgiving casts the Pilgrims and the Indians in brotherly love sitting down to a sumptuous banquet. This vision of friendliness has shaped our view of Indian and Euro American relations ever since. But it is a myth created to ameliorate American guilt about the genocide of the Indians. The Pilgrims wanted the land and if it meant the extermination of the Indians they were ready to carry it out. Like other Europeans who dispossessed the Indians, the Pilgrims saw the die-off of the local Wampanoags as a sign from God that they were meant to inherit the land. The Indians, of course, were not about to obey this European version of a divine mandate. Bradford knew this and he predicted that there would soon be bloody war between the English and the Indians over ownership of the land. And he was right. But in 1620 it was Squanto, the English-speaking Patuxet Indian, returned after years of captivity among the English, who saved the colony from extermination at the hands of the native tribes. Squanto was indispensable in forming the alliance between the colonists and Massasoit, the sachem or chief of the powerful remnants of the Wampanoags. Massasoit had his own motives for the alliance. He wanted the Pilgrims as allies in possession of firearms against other tribes with whom the Wampanoags were at war. But like the Tlaxcalans in Mexico who allied themselves with the Spaniards against the Aztecs, he soon discovered that he had made a pact which could not long be honored.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, a lecturer in American Southwest history, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.