Sunday, 14 November 2010

The First Thanksgiving

Most Americans think of Pilgrims and Indians peacefully sitting down to a feast. Schools recreate the event with stereotypical Indian feathers and fake Pilgrim hats, and images of turkeys and pumpkin pie enter people's heads. Before I continue, Virginia disputes this scene as being the first Thanksgiving as Berkeley plantation had a similar gathering in 1619, more than a year before the often recreated harvest celebration in Massachusetts. There are also a couple of places in the former Spanish colonies that claim the first Thanksgiving in the 16th century, and those of us who study history are generally aware that many of the indigenous people, commonly called Indians, had feasts giving thanks for thousands of years before the arrival of any colonists.

What most people regard as the "first" Thanksgiving was created as an official holiday in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. The original feast was a three-day affair in the autumn of 1621. First off, the Pilgrims weren't called by that name until the 18th century. They were Puritans. Some say they came in search of religious freedom. Others say they knew full well there was land in the "New World," free for the taking. Hundreds of Indians had already been to England as slaves, and my experience with the history of Virginia makes me tend to believe the latter statement.

The Puritans had set out to claim their Holy Kingdom in the Americas. Few went to Virginia, and they were essentially banned from settling there due to their extreme ideas of wanting to overthrow the English government. Enter Tisquantum, better known as Squanto. Tisquantum was originally from the town of Patuxet (later named Plymouth by the Puritans) and was kidnapped by sailors around the age of fourteen in 1614. Captain John Smith, from Jamestown fame, was on the voyage and even he admitted to the inhumane conditions of the captives.

While Tisquantum made his way to England, his tribe was annihilated by smallpox. He learned English and made a difficult journey back to his homeland where he would arrive in time to serve as an interpreter between the Puritans and Wampanoag people. There are several different accounts concerning how the three-day feast came about. Some say the Wampanoag were invited, others say they weren't. In any case, the group got together with the Wampanoag bringing most of the food, which included deer and most likely turkeys. Pumpkin and corn were likely, but not the traditional pie and cornbread. Those food items didn't yet exist in the 17th century. The two groups came together to negotiate. Neither side trusted the other. The Puritans believed the Wampanoag were heathens, and the Wampanoag had experienced their corn being stolen, after they had shown the settlers how to survive (sounds a lot like Virginia!).

The greatest myth surrounding the idyllic scene is that the Pilgrims and Indians became great friends. Less than a generation later in 1637, English and Dutch mercenaries attacked and killed 700 Pequot men, women, and children, burning many of them alive. Others were clubbed to death or shot. The governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared the victory "a day of thanksgiving."

In 1675, Metacom, son of the sachem who helped the original starving settlers, led a rebellion, commonly called King Philip's War, against the "New Englanders." By the end, most of the Native people were dead, sold into slavery, or had fled to Canada. The Colony again declared the victory as a thanksgiving.

Kim Murphy


Catherine/Suburban Vampire said...

What a great, eye-opening article, Kim. I knew Thanksgiving wasn't originally the peaceful feast we make it out to be, but it's even worse than I suspected. I also didn't know the first modern version of the holidays started in the 1860s. Fascinating info!

Kim Murphy said...

What's even worse is George Washington also declared a thanksgiving, but in both (Washington and Lincoln) cases, it was declared after a victory against some Indian tribe.

Anonymous said...

One thing, the pilgrims were not Puritains. They were a mixed group, but primarily Seperatists.

Second, they never claimed to come for religious freedom, though that was a part of it. They knew they could have land and that was not anything they could do in England, where they were considered criminals.

The first "Tahnksgiving" wasn't. It was a traditional English harvest festival. The Natives arrived, and ate for 3 days out of the colonist's supplies. Eventually, one realized that the food was runnign low, and sent several men out to hunt game. The Native hunters returned with several deer to aid the feast.

The corn incident happened BEFORE the pilgrims met the. natives, not after they were shown how to grow it. It was when they first struck land that they discovered & took the corn, which they later made payment for.

As for the later native relations. The Pequot were NOT the Wampanoag, and at the time of King Phillips War, many Wampanoag refused to fight the English because they consdered them ( the pilgrim descendents) more friend to them than Phillip was.

There is MUCH primary documentaion, if you look for it. Spreading rumor and misinformation doesn't help us understand history at all.

Kim Murphy said...

Interesting... but they were not Pilgrims. Agreed, they came for land. Land that already belonged to the Native people.

I thought I pointed out that there was no such thing as a "first" Thanksgiving. If that wasn't clear, I apologize.

There are several variations as to how the 3 day feast came about. It was as much of a harvest feast that the native people celebrated as an English feast.

I did not say the Pequot were Wampanoag. The governor declared a "thanksgiving" for a massacre.

Yes, there is primary documnentation, but there are also two sides to every story. The Native story is often left out. It is no more rumor than the biased documentation.

Anonymous said...

No single explanation ever serves history well. "They came for the land" included. In fact, those who settled Jamestown, were, in fact, seeking material prosperity. Many who settled at Plymouth, however, were devoted to their religious ideas (there were others, however, who were not religiously motivated as the pilgrims needed financing).

The pilgrims and those particularly indians, in fact, enjoyed amiable relations (until a generation later as you note). The indians were not a monolithic group, though, and the reason those indians who befriended the pilgrims were driven mostly by the need for powerful allies against a much larger tribe.

In short, any presentation that makes the pilgrims perfect, or the indians for that matter, will be simplistic and ignore many inconvenient facts.

Kim Murphy said...

I definitely agree that no single explanation serves history well, and thank you for pointing that out. It's not black and white, but many shades of gray. Which tribes do you refer to as I totally agree that Indians were not a monolithic group? They are and were as diverse as the number of tribes.

And yes, I'm very aware those who settled Jamestown were looking for wealth. They were searching for gold and looking for a route to the Pacific. They discovered neither. When they failed to discover gold, they found a profit in tobacco, a plant they learned to cultivate through the native tribes.

Kim Murphy said...

The National Museum of the American Indian says it far better than I can.