Thanksgiving or A Day of Mourning?

There are always two sides to every story.

Artist = Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930)

Children are taught in school that Thanksgiving was a friendly gathering of “Pilgrims” and “Indians” coming together to celebrate a bountiful harvest. We have visions of tall black hats with shiny golden buckles and Native people in loin cloths sharing turkey and pumpkin pie — this is a cheerful and picturesque notion, however, most of what we think we know of “the first” Thanksgiving is far from reality.

First of all, the descriptor, ‘Pilgrim’ wasn’t coined until nearly a century after the original colonists appeared at Massachusetts Bay. These European immigrants referred to themselves as Saints, Puritans or Separatists.

Secondly, the “Indians” that were allegedly giving thanks with these colonists in 1621, were called the Wampanoag or “People of the Dawn”. These native people were already familiar with Europeans and had been acquainted with Captain Thomas Hunt several years prior to the arrival of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

During Capt. Hunt’s visit, dozens of people from the Patuxet and Narragansett tribes were captured, taken hostage and transported back to Spain to be sold as slaves. Many other European expeditions also imprisoned and enslaved native people from this region and transmitted diseases like small pox and typhus to the tribes — before our Pilgrims ever arrived.

In fact, the land that was settled by our Pilgrims at Plymouth was essentially a grave site, originally a Patuxet village which was wiped out by enslavement and the plague from the previous European visitors.

Historical documents also show that these immigrants were not fleeing Europe in search of religious freedom as we were taught to believe. This was a commercial venture established to collect resources from this “new” land — and which started out on a dishonorable note. Before they ever arrived in Plymouth, this particular band of Europeans robbed Native American graves at Corn Hill near Cape Cod, and stole away with “as much of the Indians’ winter provisions as they were able to carry”.

Once at Plymouth Plantation, the settlers met one remaining Patuxet tribesman named Squanto. He had survived slavery in England and had been transported back to his homeland with a good grasp of the English language. It was he who helped develop a peace treaty between the Wampanoag Nation and the Colonists. He also taught the white settlers to grow corn and to fish and hunt in these wild new lands.

So as far as a Thanksgiving feast shared between the Plymouth settlers and the Wampanoag people, it was a cautious gathering at best. We have one sentence in one letter from colonist, Edward Winslow, in 1621 which speaks of this shared celebration:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us…”

Documents show that after receiving word about this newfound paradise, more Europeans began flooding into this new land. These new immigrants upheld no peace treaty and immediately began capturing Native People and shipping them to Europe to be sold as slaves. Boats loaded with as many as 500 “Indians” regularly left the New England ports.

This behavior led to the Pequot War, which was one of the bloodiest wars ever fought against the Native Americans. In 1637 hundreds of men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival at their village called Mistick — which was, ironically, their harvest festival — or what today’s Americans would call a Thanksgiving celebration.

In the dark hours before dawn, the village was surrounded by European mercenaries lead by John Mason, the Commander of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Militia. Many tribesmen were shot or clubbed to death. Others were taken into custody to sell into the West Indian slave trade, and terrified women and children who had huddled inside a longhouse were burned alive. Over 500 Pequots were killed that day.

Afterwards John Mason declared his success was an act of his God who “laughed at his enemies and the enemies of his people” and the proof that the Lord judged these Natives as “heathen” was in “his filling of Mistick with dead bodies”.

Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop proclaimed: “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots”.

During the feasting, the disembodied heads of Natives were kicked through the streets like balls. The head of the friendly Wampanoag chief was impaled on a pole in Plymouth — where it remained on display for 24 years.

An estimated 90,000 people lived in southern New England before contact with Europeans. One hundred years later, their numbers were reduced by 80%.

For many Indigenous People, America’s Thanksgiving is a National Day of Mourning — of remembering how the gift of their ancestors’ generosity was rewarded with the theft of their seed and resources, the plundering of their loved one’s graves, death from new and unknown diseases, the enslavement of their people — and eventually, the loss of the entirety of their home land.

Plaque on Cole’s Hill at Plymouth, MA

So why have we made up a story about a peaceful gathering during this holiday, instead of reciting a more truthful history? Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin, in Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgivingask:

“Is it because as Americans we have a deep need to believe that the soil we live on and the country on which it is based was founded on integrity and cooperation? As good people, can we be strong enough to learn the truths of our collective past? Can we learn from our mistakes? This would be our hope.”

Our modern day Thanksgiving, although it has evolved into a noble celebration, is based upon myths. These myths, however, do provide an important glimpse of our cultural heritage. Learning, and teaching, the true history of this holiday can make the celebration more meaningful as we, as a people, continue to cultivate our tolerance of others.

We should also keep in mind that there is no one true “first” Thanksgiving. Most all primitive cultures, including Indigenous Americans, gathered in periodic feasts of thanksgiving to honor the Creator for their harvests and well being. These were tradition well before recorded history. The truth is that people — from all the lands of our world — have been coming together to give thanks for as long as people have existed.

Another truth is that this land we live on once belonged to others — and we should respect their moral right to observe a day of mourning for the suffering that took place throughout their history. Simple remembrance and respect are the least we can do.

Although the beginnings of this traditional holiday are steeped in destruction and darkness, we can, however, use this time to think about what the term “thanksgiving” really means and aspire to rise above the sins and intolerance of our past.

We can also extend this season of thanks beyond one meal, a parade and a football game. We can look to the true historical significance of this time to give thanks to the Creator from which we ALL obtain life, to the Earth for her bounty, and to all races of humans who think and live and love — and also mourn — just like we do.