Over the years, Thanksgiving has become a beloved holiday in America, a time when people are encouraged to come together and share their mutual gratitude for the blessings of good health and sustenance. It is a time to sit back and reflect on the accomplishments of our forefathers by celebrating family and more historically, the bounty of the harvest. As children, we were told the first Thanksgiving occurred when the Pilgrims and the Indians sat down together in a moment of peace and lauded their ability to work together and find value in the development of a new land.
What is not so commonly known is how this shared thankfulness was short-lived and soon punctuated by ruthless killing and broken trust. Rather than marking the conclusion of a difficult period, Thanksgiving was really the beginning of the end for the Indians and the start of a bloody and uncertain period in history. The mix of myth and history that is Thanksgiving has long been used to pull America together under a shared story of national identity, but underneath this feel-good narrative is one that reeks of fear, greed, and rampant religious imperialism.
One static character who appears in all Thanksgiving stories is Squanto, the Native American man who helped the Pilgrims survive their first brutal winter in a strange land. It was all very convenient, Squanto spoke excellent English, a fact that made communication easy and effective for the pilgrims. But these white people were not the first to arrive on these shores; Squanto had already known their kind some years before when he was enslaved by English explorers and taken to Massachusetts, thus forced to learn their language. During his time in captivity, Squanto befriended a white man named John Weymouth who eventually returned him to his land in what is now Connecticut, but it was too late. Squanto’s family had been almost entirely wiped out by smallpox, a highly contagious disease left behind by the English.
When the pilgrims, otherwise known as the Puritans, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1620, they landed on the rocky shores of a territory inhabited by Squanto’s native people, the Wampanoag Confederacy. While polite history tells us these pilgrims were simply pious souls looking for a fresh start in the great wilderness of North America, they were, in fact, deliberate religious dropouts who intended to found a new nation completely independent from non-Puritan England. They came to America with every intention of taking the land over from the native people and building their prophesied “Holy Kingdom,” where their fundamental religious ideals could reign supreme.
These indigenous people were not the “friendly savages” history often described but rather, members of a larger confederacy of Indian people know as the League of the Delaware who had been defending themselves against the Iroquois for 600 years and, more recently, European slavers who had been raiding their coastal villages. They were not ignorant to the wiles of the white invaders and did not trust them, but they were kind overall and embraced a religion that encouraged charity and hospitality. Because Squanto had developed a deep friendship with John Weymouth in the past, he urged the Indians to trust the pilgrims.
One thing all of history can agree on is how severely the pilgrims struggled to survive during their first year in the new land. Although they eventually arrived in the hundreds, the first settlements were meager and fragile. Squanto and his people noticed the pilgrims were not doing well and needed help, and as polite Thanksgiving stories love to tell us, the Indians edified the newcomers by bringing them deer meat and beavers skins, teaching them how to find food, and showing them how to erect proper shelters. But the pilgrims were clever, and while they really did need the help, they were quietly waiting for the next colonist ships (and the balance of power to shift) before revealing their real agenda of dispatching with the “heathens.”
The famous meal among the pilgrims and the Indians that now provides the centerpiece of modern-day Thanksgiving was more truthfully a carefully designed opportunity for the pilgrims to humor the Wampanoag and negotiate the terms of a white settlement in Plymouth. Massasoit, the Indian chief, agreed to the proposal and the people dined together in celebration. It’s interesting to note the pilgrims did not prepare enough food, however, and the Indians ended up providing the majority of the feast. The Indians were just grateful all was going well with the new white visitors, but what they did not realize was how short-lived this friendship would be once the pilgrims regained their strength and were united with their larger Puritan community.
As we know, more Puritans began to arrive not long thereafter. A lot of Puritans. Once they began to reestablish their community and regain their agenda, the agreements and promises made at the dinner table became obsolete. The relationship between the Wampanoags and the pilgrims deteriorated quickly, and some other tribes in the area like the Mohegans began to side with the English while others like the Pequots became increasingly displeased with what they considered an invasion of their homeland.
The tension between the pilgrims and Pequots continued to rise, eventually leading to an ongoing armed conflict between 1634 and 1638 known as the Pequot War. Suffice it to say, the Pequot did not win. In a bloody fruition that would shock even those natives loyal to the English, the Pequot were essentially wiped out as an indigenous people, having been killed or taken into captivity. Hundreds of prisoners were sold into slavery to the West Indies, the only remaining members of a now-extinct tribe.
On May 26, 1637, the Pequot War would see its bloodiest day, now known as the Mystic Massacre. In the dead of night, English forces, along with their Indian allies, surrounded one of two main Pequot villages at the Mistick. Over 700 men, women, and children had gathered there for the annual Green Corn Festival which was the original inspiration for the first Thanksgiving meal. In the predawn hours, the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them outside, shot or clubbed anyone who appeared, and then ceremoniously set fire to all the longhouses containing the Pequot women and children, burning them alive. Anyone who tried to escape was slain by the sword or musket.
The pilgrims were very pleased and felt sure this conquest over the Pequots was God’s will and a divine assurance of their future. The next day, the governor of Massachusetts applauded the event and declared it “A Day of Thanksgiving” because 700 Indians had been permanently dispatched. Cheered by this “victory,” the colonists and their allies continued to attack village after village, selling any women and children over the age of 14 into slavery and murdering the rest.
Boats loaded with as many as 500 slaves regularly left the ports of New England, and bounties were paid for Indian scalps to encourage the “purification” of the new land. The pilgrims were on a tear, and following a particularly successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches announced a second day of “Thanksgiving” to celebrate victory over the heathen savages.
During the feasting, the severed heads of Indians were kicked through the streets like soccer balls. And as for the Wampanoag, the friendly natives who first helped the suffering pilgrims? Their chief was executed and his head impaled on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts–where it remained on display for 24 years.
Soon, the Puritans were frenzied with killing, holding Thanksgiving feasts after each successful massacre of the Indians. George Washington finally suggested the festivities be observed on one special day rather than an ongoing celebration of conquest.
Later in history, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln would declare Thanksgiving Day to be a legal national holiday, most likely in an attempt to unify the nation under a common narrative. Ironically, the decree would be made the very same day he ordered troops to march against the starving Sioux in Minnesota. A sign that perhaps not even he fully recognized the moral corruption behind America’s day of thanks.
And the rest is history.