As you savor that last bite of pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving, here’s some food for thought that may cause, well, some indigestion. The first Thanksgiving? Where was it exactly? Plimoth Plantation? San Elizario? Where? In grammar school, most of us were taught that it was Plimoth, spelled Plymouth. But who decided that history? Where’s the paper trail? We’ve come to accept these truths, but really, whose truth is it? When I began writing this post, I decided not to address the hypocrisy of the Thanksgiving story, which conjures a bucolic scene of Pilgrims (colonists) and Indians joined together in a hearty meal that symbolized peace on earth and good will. This was going to be an East Coast-West Coast, well, Southwest discussion of whether Thanksgiving was first “celebrated” in Texas. But, the more I researched and thought about it, I just couldn’t ignore the myth that continues to be told this time of year. I feel compelled to delve into the myth that covers a campaign of genocide against this country’s first peoples.
Many historians agree that the source work for the Thanksgiving story was borne out of passages from letters of two contemporaries who were present at the feast. Edward Winslow’s letter to England and the writings of Governor William Bradford are referenced as the smoking gun for this pleasant meal amongst friends:
And God be praised we had a good increase . . .Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a 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, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation: D.B. Heath, ed. Applewood Books. Cambridge, 1986. p 82
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which is place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation: S.E. Morison, ed.
Knopf. N.Y., 1952. p 90
I have read and reread these passages and have trouble reading into them, the story of brotherhood and good will toward the Indians. The good increase, or harvest that is referred to was due to Squanto, a former kidnapped member of the Wampanoag tribe, who served as a translator and guide to the colonists on how to plant and maintain crops on the fertile land. Most historians agree that the exercise of arms was the shooting of guns in celebration, much like people do on New Year’s in some parts of the U.S. The colonists were shooting to celebrate a bountiful harvest that would sustain them through winter. Prior to this day in 1621, Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief had entered a mutual treaty of protection and land sharing, so when the Wampanoags heard the gunfire, Massasoit assembled 90 men to investigate and render aid, if necessary. I have found no writings that indicate that Indian women and children were at this gathering. It is clear from the passage that there was not enough food for everyone, so the Wampanoags went out and killed game and presented it to Governor Bradford as a gift. Wampanoag historians say that the Indians camped nearby, and likely never sat and ate with the Pilgrims. It doesn’t sound like they were invited guests. “…many of the Indians came amongst us.” It stands to reason, if relations were so harmonious, the writer would have said that they invited them to share in their good fortune, right? The continuation of the passage indicates that a tolerant relationship existed at some point.
We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us: we often go to them, and they come to us; some of us have been fifty miles by land in the country with them; the occasions and relations whereof you shall understand by our general and more full declaration of such things as are worth the noting, yea, it hath pleased God so to possess the Indians with a fear of us, and love unto us, that not only the greatest king amongst them called Massasoit, but also all the princes and peoples round about us, have either made suit unto us, or been glad of any occasion to make peace with us, so that seven of them at once have sent their messengers to us to that end, yea, an Fle at sea, which we never saw hath also together with the former yielded willingly to be under the protection, and subjects to our sovereign Lord King James, so that there is now great peace amongst the Indians themselves, which was not formerly, neither would have been but for us; and we for our parts walk as peaceably and safely in the wood, as in the highways in England, we entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as friendly bestowing their venison on us. They are a people without any religion, or knowledge of any God, yet very trusty, quick of apprehension, ripe- witted, just, the men and women go naked, only a skin about their middles; for the temper of the air, here it agreeth well with that in England, and if there be any difference at all, this is somewhat hotter in summer, some think it to be colder in winter, but I cannot out of experience so say; the air is very clear and not foggy, as hath been reported.
Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation
While the colonists seemed to make nice, the writer’s attitude toward the Indians is stunningly paternalistic and condescending. Governor Bradford’s own words are even more instructive of the attitudes toward the Indians, just months before.
“All this while the Indians came skulking about them, and would sometimes show themselves aloof off, but when any approached near them, they would run away; and once they stole away their tools where they had been at work and were gone to dinner.”
He later talks about Sachem (Massasoit) and Squanto, who assisted the colony in planting, fishing trading, not with any thanks to Squanto or the Indians, but to God, and, rather with a sense of entitlement.
Squanto continued with them and was their interpreter and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.
William Bradford: History of Plymouth Plantation, c. 1650.
By some accounts the colonists were 50 in number, by others, 25. It is dubious that 90 Indian males would be welcomed for dinner with only enough fowl to last a week. Our collective amnesia or blindness, however, allows us only to remember a bucolic scene, which turned out to be the calm before the storm of genocide exacted upon the Indians across the colony and New England, just a few years later.
I even visited the Plimoth Plantation website to see what story the curators of this living museum tell of arguably, their most important day. It is revealing that the writer for the site tries hard not not perpetuate this myth. The site does not explicitly state that the Winslow or Bradford writings were the retelling of the first Thanksgiving, but instead, focus on the evolution of the holiday into what we know today. In fact, the website mentions that in the early 20th century, a shift occurred in talking about the Pilgrims, and it became a teaching tool for good citizenry. The writer is careful to sidestep the topic, but the proverbial, “elephant in the room” is implicit in the article’s tone. I was most impressed with the children’s interactive feature that walks the amateur historian through audio recordings in the voices of the colonists and the Indians.
Accordingly, my reading of those passages revealed this: There was a harvest festival where food was divided among the colonists, and stored for the winter. In celebration, the colonists killed fowl and fired their guns, causing the Indians to respond to render possible aid. Once they arrived, they needed food, so they went out and killed deer and other game. They presented their spoils in good will to the Governor, but it was used to feed everyone for three days. If there was a “feast” it seems that it came about organically, not as a planned event with invitations conveyed to the Indian families. The Wampanoag accounts reveal that the Indians didn’t live close by (in a passage referring to Massasoit, Bradford indicated that he lived 40 miles away. There was another Indian settlement 20 miles away), so the Indian men would have needed to eat and rest after their journey. From Bradford’s writings in History of Plimoth Plantation, we do know that the colonists were never entirely comfortable among the Indians, so the iconic painting of a female colonist serving an Indian man is pure fancy of the artist, J.L.G. Ferris.
But why do some cling to this myth? Do you think that Mr. Bradford’s and Mr. Winslow’s accounts support such a view? Are the colonists really conveying any sense of friendship with the Wampanoags? Were their words a forewarning of how people diffent from themselves would be encountered and tolerated? Weren’t these religious people, the separatists? Later, in History of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford mentioned the return of the stolen tools along with other gifts from the Indians. Was it an afterthought, or less important than reporting the “theft?”
While a relative peace lasted for between the Wampanoags and the Bradford Colony, other Indian bands did not enjoy the same treatment. In fact, 17 years later, “the governor of Bay Colony declared a day of thanksgiving for the safe return of those who had been dispatched and participated in the annihilation of over 700 men, women and children.” According to Professor William B. Newell, formerly of the University of Connecticut, “a massacre of men, women and children was perpetrated by the colonists during the Pequot holy days when they assembled in the long house. Gathered in this place of meeting, they were attacked by mercenaries and English and Dutch. The Indians were ordered from the building and as they came forth were shot down, the rest were burned alive in the building. The very next day the governor declared a Thanksgiving Day." The Pequotwar.org website reports a similar history of what befell the Pequots.
In the last hours of moonlight, May 26, 1637, English Puritans, with Mohegan and Narragansett allies, surround the fortified Pequot village at Missituck (Mystic). Within an hour, 400-700 men, women, and children are put to the sword or burned to death as the English torch the village. Unfamiliar with war targeted at civilians, for the first time Native Tribes experience the total devastating effects of warfare practiced by Europeans. The Mystic massacre turned the tide against the Pequots and broke the tribe's resistance. Many Pequots in other villages escape and hide among other tribes. After the massacre, Governor John Winthrop proclaimed the first official "Day of Thanksgiving" in 1637 to celebrate the return of men that had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to fight against the Pequot.
On the bright side, there is an alternative story of Thanksgiving being floated. It is the story of San Elizario, Texas in 1598, some 23 years before the Plimouth shindig. It actually had nothing to do with Indians, good will or peace on earth. It was about conquest, and claiming land for the Spanish Crown. Don Juan de Onate, the Spanish Conquistador, marched into the area with 500 Mexican and Spanish colonists, their livestock and supplies, stretching over a mile wide. The exhausted colonists enjoyed a repast of fowl, fruit and water on April 28, 1598, after Onate took possession of the territory for King Phillip of Spain. He requested the Catholic friars to say a high mass of Thanksgiving, which was a special Catholic worship service. They left the area the next day to press on to present-day Santa Fe. Although they called it El Paso del Norte, the area was divided by the Rio Grande River, where the southern bank would eventually remain in Mexico as Ciudad de Juarez, and the northern bank would become present day El Paso, Texas after changing "many hands." The Spanish erected the Nuestra Senora de Guadelupe Mission on the southern bank in 1659. In 1680, after the Pueblo Revolt, the village of El Paso became the Spanish seat of government when the Puebloans drove them from Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1692, the Spanish seat returned to Santa Fe, after the Don Antonio Otermin reclaimed the territory in a bloody genocide of the Ysleta and Sandia Pueblo Indians.
El Paso was in New Mexico territory, and was the largest New Mexican Settlement until its cession to the United States in 1848. Then, it was declared part of the state of Texas in 1850. Straight forward enough? Well, this story is not without controversy. In January, 2014, the El Paso Times was reporting that the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society called this first Thanksgiving story into question. They claim it was the brainchild and marketing campaign of Sheldon Hall, a founder of the El Paso Mission Trail Association. For its successful promotion, the campaign apparently translated into funding from the state government. If that is so, why does the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society website, at this writing, still provide a page for the “1st Thanksgiving and Don Juan de Onate?”
What we do know is that the account that Onate entered El Paso and took the soil for the crown is true. Does it really matter if we call the feast after that Thanksgiving? Both events represent an invasion of the territory. Ironically, both events represent the eventual genocide of the American Indian. Read your history on what led to the Pueblo revolt to know how many Puebloans were lost to the conquistadors through enslavement and murder. What flies in the face of reason is the false notion that the meals that were shared, were with people the colonists considered equals and, for the purpose of spreading good will. History simply doesn’t support this view, as heartwarming as it may be.
Some in academia, like sociologist and professor, Dan Brook believe that we should reflect on what we are really celebrating. ”We do not have to feel guilty, but we do need to feel something. At the very least, we need to reflect on how and what we feel. We should also review our history and what it means to us and others, while we must rethink our adopted traditions, including our Thanksgiving High Holy Day.” (Celebrating Genocide, Dan Brook, Counterpunch, November 26, 2002). Professor Robert Jensen from the University of Texas at Austin has suggested that the holiday be replaced with a national day of atonement.
I propose that while we’re giving thanks with our families and friends this Thursday, we should genuinely reflect on these initial contacts, and all who suffered in its wake. The bondage, sexual exploitation, removal, starvation, disease and genocide should never be forgotten, nor celebrated. The story of the colonists is not a fairy tale where we all live happily ever after. For the Indians, Africans, and the women who resisted subjugation and were branded witches it was a story of sorrow and disquiet. It is important to remember that the “discovery” of America; the landing on these shores by the explorers, the colonists, both Pilgrim and Puritans, the specters of manifest destiny, and westward expansion exacted a heavy toll on everyone in its path, especially the Indians. The Wampanoags and other native peoples mourn on the fourth Thursday in November every year at Plymouth. Why don’t we? When will we collectively mourn the sins of the colonists and the founding fathers instead of making up a cartoonish holiday to make it all feel right? When will it feel okay to tell the truth about our history? When will the victors stop arguing that these events happened a long time ago, so they shouldn’t have to feel anything about what their ancestors did? Does the passage of time erase our history? Should history be written in disappearing ink? It has been said that we are doomed to repeat history if we never acknowledge the sins of the past, yet we are outraged and sometimes moved to action when we see a story on the evening news about pit bulls forced to fight. Yes, of course, we should abhor animal cruelty, but we should also be moved by the effect of a legacy of colonization, subjugation and the forced removal of people in the quest for independence and democracy. Especially when the effects continue to manifest today. The truth of these interactions in 1621 should be acknowledged, shared, and lamented around the roast turkey, along with our individual blessings. Let’s embrace this proposal and not yawn. (The vanquished are still here, and in this moment are throwing off the cloak of defeat). Perhaps then, the animus, suspicion and injury can gradually remove, and a healing history can be written in indelible ink.
Reflect on this Turkey Day!
References not listed above:
For those who want to underscore the fact that these references are largely from the internet, yes, you are correct. This is not abstract for a thesis; it’s not even a book report. It’s a blog post composed largely of my opinion, so on this subject, I didn’t feel compelled to read a bunch of books that perpetuate the myth. That list is reported below. Reading the original source work by Winslow and Bradford was probably all that I needed to consult. How instructive those entries are! Some of the articles and sources reflect a Native American perspective as well as some open-minded academicians who have researched this subject. I hope that if you, reader, do not begin a dialogue on this issue with me, you will with your friends and family, especially your children. It’s time to hear all voices so that we can reconstruct our fractured history.
Texas Beyond History. www.texasandhistory.com
San Elizario Genealogical Society and Historical Society. http://www.epcounty.com/sanelizariomuseum/history_thanksgiving.htm
Plimoth Plantation website. http://www.plimoth.org/learn/MRL/read/thanksgiving-history; http://www.plimoth.org/learn/MRL/interact/thanksgiving-interactive-you-are-historian
“The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story” http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/11/22/wampanoag-side-first-thanksgiving-story-64076
Exploring the Economics of the First Thanksgiving: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business-july-dec13-plantation_11-28/
Battlefields of the Pequot War. http://www.pequotwar.org
Source: Documents of Holland, 13 Volume Colonial Documentary History, letters and reports form colonial officials to their superiors and the King in England and the private papers of Sir William Johnson, British Indian agent for the New York colony for 30 years. Researched by William B. Newell (Penobscot Tribe) Former Chairman of the University of Connecticut Anthropology Department.
 Just as the religious celebration of the birth of Christ (Christmas) has been coopted into a secular, commercial holiday, the modern thanksgiving traditon has suffered the same fate by adoption of feel good Pilgrim story, celebrated through turkey, stuffing, and Black Friday. (A day of Thanksgiving in the Catholic tradition is a day of high praise to the Lord, God through celebration of the Eucharist; the Jewish tradition celebrate Sukkot. William Bradford, a hebraist studied these traditions extensively, and arguably incorporated them into the separatist religious traditions; the Church of England from which the Puritans separated, celebrate the Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of the Holy Communion. Some of these traditions find roots in the pagan harvest festivals.)
Painting by J.L.G. Ferris