Saturday, December 05, 2009

Thanksgiving and its Myths

One of the dubious pleasures of the internet is the opportunity it offers for finding endless variations on something one used to call “truth.” The past couple of days have offered me such a variety—“truths” about the “real Thanksgiving,” and how they contrast with the mythology we have all been taught: Pilgrims and Indians sitting down together for a feast of turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, all in thanks for the bounty God had given them. First, there is the truth that this wasn’t a religious thanksgiving at all, but rather a harvest festival, which probably took place in September or October. Second, is the truth that there was no turkey, but rather ducks and geese, and deer supplied by the Indians—the local Wampanoags of the Patuxet area north of Cape Cod (which is where the Separatist Pilgrims actually landed, not at Plymouth Rock), who joined the Pilgrims as a way of offering peace so they could forge an alliance with powerful Europeans, whom they needed in their conflict with the more powerful Narragansett tribe nearby. Third, the truth that the Pilgrims didn’t wear those black outfits with big top hats and buckle shoes, but rather much more humble and colorful garb.

Fourth, and most damaging to the myth of peace and harmony conveyed by the usual image of a festal meal in lovely togetherness, comes the alleged truth that the first real Thanksgiving ceremony took place many years later, around 1637, this one an actual religious ceremony to thank the Christian God for helping the white settlers massacre 700 or so Pequot Indians with whom they had been at war. As William Bradford in his Of Plymouth Plantation described the massacre,

“Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escapted. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prays (praise) thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.”

The next day, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children,” and establishing a law setting aside this day as “a day of celebration for subduing the Pequots.” It is claimed that this day of Thanksgiving, or another one declared more formally in 1676, at the conclusion of yet another Indian “war,” King Philip’s War, was the real precursor of our Thanksgiving Day. Here is what Almon Lauber wrote in 1913, in his Indian Slavery in Colonial Times Within the Present Limits of the United States (Columbia University, 1913):

According to the Massachusetts Records of 1676-1677 a day was set apart for public thanksgiving, because, among other things of moment, "there now scarce remains a name or family of them (the Indians) but are either slain, captivated or fled."

Lauber’s book also recites, in horrifying detail, the common and continuing practice, by all the English settlers, from Maine to Florida, of capturing those Indians they did not kill (mostly women and children), and selling them into slavery—some given to local soldiers and other gentry for their homes, some shipped to slave markets in Spain, some shipped directly to West Indian slave markets in the Caribbean. Here is but one example referring to the practice, by the United Colonies of New England, during King Philip’s War:

During King Philip’s War the various New England governments, with Massachusetts and Plymouth in the lead, again took charge of the disposal of the captive Indians. Various methods were adopted to convert their Indian captives into a source of immediate revenue. One was to sell them outright outside of the colonies, or, on occasion, within the colonies, and thus replenish the exchequer,and, so far as might be, defray the expenses of the war. At a meeting of the Plymouth Court in 1676 to consider the disposal of more than a hundred captives, the conclusion was reached, “upon serious and deliberate consideration and agitation” concerning them, “to sell the greater number into servitude.” A little later, in the same year, several more were sold. In each case the colonial treasurer was ordered to effect the sale for the benefit of the colony. A fiscal report of Plymouth for the period from June 25, 1675, to September 23, 1676, gives among the credits the following, which relates to the sale of the one hundred and eighty-eight Indians already mentioned: “By the following accounts, received in, or as silver, viz.: captives, for 188 prisoners at war sold, £397 13s.” (p. 138)

As noted above, however, there are debunkers of most of the above material, those like Jeremy Bangs, former director of the Plymouth Rock National Monument, and a scholar who has studied the Pilgrims both in Holland and in the United States (see his “The Truth About Thanksgiving is that the Debunkers are Wrong,” Bangs discredits one of the primary debunkers, William Newell, a Penobscot Indian said to be the head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Connecticut. According to Bangs, Newell was 79 years old when the department was founded in 1971, and further, elicited no memories from faculty members when they were asked about him. Newell’s claims thus seem cloaked in doubt—including the main one that the real Thanksgiving Day commemorated the 1637 massacre noted above, and the general idea that a religious holiday for Pilgrims would have included neither feasting, merriment, nor Indians. But Bangs notes that his research in the community of Scituate, MA in 1636 found records of a “religious service followed by feasting.” Others have objected that the debunking material about the 1637 and 1676 “real thanksgivings” referred not to the Pilgrims of Plymouth, but to the Puritans of the later Massachusetts Bay Colony (founded 1631). The idea here is that the Pilgrims were gentle people, ancestors of the later Quakers, and thus unlikely to be engaged in a massacre of Indians.

At this point, one wants to consult the original documents referring to the Thanksgiving event, and fortunately, two can be found rather easily. The first is from Edward Winslow’s letter in Mourt’s Relation, published in 1622, and it goes like this:

..our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.

The second is found in William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation, written by the governor of Plymouth in 1641, but lost shortly thereafter and not recovered and published until 1854:

They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; For as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which they tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no want. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids, they had about a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports. (both in original 17th century spelling.)

The discovery of this last document by Bradford—who does mention turkeys, giving some support to those who insist that the eating of turkeys was original—actually prompted the first official U.S. sanctioning of Thanksgiving as a holiday. For it stimulated the interest of one Sarah Barbara Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and said to be the 19th century’s Martha Stewart, in the historic celebration. She wrote articles about the alleged original meal, including turkeys, stuffing and pumpkin pie (leaving out waterfowl and deer), and then, in 1858, petitioned the President to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. When he became President, Abraham Lincoln responded positively to the idea (the value of uniting the divided nation via a holiday commemorating its roots was clear to him), and declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1864. It wasn’t until 1941 that Congress established the fourth Thursday in November as the official date for the holiday.

So, then, what do we have? It appears there was some sort of festivity that included eating, though the motive for it remains in question. The Wampanoag Indians, and their chief Massasoit, no doubt brought deer to the feast, and probably were motivated to join the settlers due to the drastic reduction smallpox had wrought in their numbers—the disease brought to them by prior visits of Europeans who had been trading with them for several years. These prior trading trips also aided the communication in 1621, because Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe who had earlier been seized and taken to England, had learned English there; it was also by means of this language ability that he was able to show the desperate Pilgrims how to plant corn and otherwise survive. So for this, and for their survival (52 of the original 102, at least), the Pilgrims celebrated. However, there is no record that the celebration was continued annually in subsequent years. For that, it is necessary to go to the “thanksgivings” of 1637 and 1676, when the English settlers thanked god for aiding them in slaughtering and enslaving the Indians, by now their arch enemies. Nor was such thanksgiving a new sentiment among the allegedly freedom-seeking, religious settlers in North America. I have had occasion before to quote from the New England Charter of 1620, in which it is noted that God’s favor towards English settlers can be discerned in the ‘wonderful plague’—smallpox—which has, even before 1620, so auspiciously dispatched so many of the aboriginal inhabitants:

We have been further given to knowe, that within these late Yeares there hath by God’s visitation reigned a wonderfull Plague, together with many horrible Slaugthers, and Murthers, committed amoungst the Sauages and brutish People there, heertofore inhabiting, in a Manner to the utter Destruction, Deuastacion, and Depopulacion of that whole Territorye…whereby We in our Judgment are persuaded and satisfied that the appointed Time is come in which Almighty God in his great Goodness and Bountie towards Us and our People, hath thought fitt and determined, that those large and goodly Territoryes, deserted as it were by their naturall Inhabitants, should be possessed and enjoyed by such of our Subjects and People as heertofore have and hereafter shall by his Mercie and Favour, and by his Powerfull Arme... (see

From the very outset, that is, and even before landing, the English were thankful that so many potential obstacles—other human beings—to their occupation of North America had been removed. This sentiment, as Lauber documents in his study of slavery, continued unabated throughout the colonies, and for hundreds of years thereafter, until the entire continent was “cleansed.” Of course, it is not exactly polite to give overt thanks for such cleansings these days, but it might be useful to bear them in mind when contemplating that first—whichever one you choose—“thanksgiving.”

Lawrence DiStasi

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