Filed under: Who Was at the First Thanksgiving? | Tags: Massasoit, Native Americans, Pilgrims, Thanksgiving
We are so used to the image of Native Americans sitting down with the Pilgrims as one of our national symbols of harmony during the holiday season—complete with grade school reenactments and costumes of Pilgrims and Indians—that few of us have questioned why the Wampanoag were at the meal in the first place. We have always assumed they were gathering with the Pilgrims as good neighbors, rejoicing with them in their good fortune.
But the truth is, they probably weren’t even invited. (At least not the entire retinue.)
No, if you remember Edward Winslow’s description of the event, their arrival is precipitated by something specific: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so we might after a special manner rejoice together…At which time, among 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…”
So, essentially, having guaranteed a famine-free winter for the Pilgrims, Governor Bradford declared there would be a party. And one of the things the Pilgrim men did in celebration—in their infinite wisdom—was to fire off a bunch of guns. In the colonial territories at that time, no doubt, the sound of repetitive firing of multiple muskets must have carried for some distance; hence the arrival of Massasoit with his 90 braves, who were there to investigate the situation (and not necessarily to crash the party.) The Wampanoag were brought to Plymouth that day both by distrust as well as a political pact. They were distrustful—and logically so—because they were concerned about what the discharge of such firepower might mean for them (were the Pilgrims launching an offensive?) And the political pact drew them there because they owed the Pilgrims military support in case other Native American tribes were on the attack. (In return, the Wampanoag had the Pilgrims’ allegiance against the tribe’s sworn enemies, the Narragansett.)
One can only imagine what the Pilgrims must have thought when the Wampanoag arrived among them—quite unexpected and in numbers that dwarfed the colony’s own population (only 52 had survived the winter of 1620-21.) Note that Edward Winslow declares that the Pilgrims “entertained and feasted” Massasoit and his associates for three days—so what has been historically interpreted as celebration, might as readily have been a placation. It was incredibly important for the Pilgrims to keep their new allies happy.
But whether celebration or placation, the moment of unity was not to last. One of Massasoit’s lasting legacies to the Pilgrims was approximately 40 years of relative peace in their new home. However, the newcomers were quick to press their advantage with the Wampanoag. They put lasting pressure on Massasoit for more and more land grants, which quickly began to absorb much of the valuable real estate in key tribal areas, challenging the Wampanoag lifestyle geographically. During his lifetime, Massasoit complied with these requests, keen to keep the good graces of the white man who had previously left so much destruction in his wake. And during the latter years of Massasoit’s life, the Pilgrims and their Puritan cousins in Massachusetts Bay colony also began to actively convert Native Americans to Christianity, threatening the Wampanoag way of life culturally. It was an a symbolic assault on two fronts.
When Massasoit died in 1661, he was succeeded as sachem (chief) by his son, Wamsutta. Wamsutta did not have long to reign, as he died quite suddenly during negotiations at the Plymouth Colony in 1662. The next in the line of power within the family, Metacom, was not so favorable toward the colonists. A witness to the expansion of white power under his father’s reign, and suspicious of his brother’s unexpected passing, Metacom led a rebellion against the colonists that became the bloodiest in American history (as a proportional percentage of the population killed.) The war—called King Philip’s War (Metacom was known as “King Philip” by the Pilgrims) had a lasting impact on the Native American population in southern New England, almost eliminating multiple tribes completely. It also was a profound setback for the colonists’ expansion—many small and outlying towns had been completely destroyed during the 2 year conflict, and hundreds had been killed.
It’s a very unhappy ending to the Thanksgiving story. But it is one we must constantly remember—because it reminds us how frail peace can be, and how quickly greed can destroy alliances. And it reminds us that everything we have now was, in a sense, taken from someone else.
It’s an object lesson we have often forgotten during these 200+ years of our nationhood; even in recent times our political agenda has been about taking, endless taking. But in this season of giving, as we look towards a new President, a new administration, a new foreign policy, let us hope that we can change. Let us hope that we can invite the world to our table and this time, actually endeavor to give.
Filed under: Who Was at the First Thanksgiving? | Tags: Myles Standish, Native Americans, Pilgrims, Priscilla Alden, Thanksgiving
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that while traditionally the role of cooking the turkey on Thanksgiving falls to the woman, the ceremonial role of carving the turkey falls to the man. Of course, I’m sure in our day and age there are many exceptions to this tradition—for instance, my pescatarian husband will never carve a turkey unless it is made of tofu, or unless we replace it with a giant tuna. But despite these changes in the times, the perception of gender roles (at least in terms of who carries the knife) definitely remains.
There’s no doubt in my mind that back in 1621, Myles Standish would have been the one to carve the turkey. No, he was not the leader of the colony—that privilege fell to William Bradford, who became governor after the death of John Carver in the spring of 1621. But in some ways, Standish was the symbolic leader—he was the alpha male, the top soldier, the one Native Americans would soon learn to fear.
Standish came from a distinctly military background. He had served in the Elizabethan army on the European continent; in fact, it was there where he met and fell in with the English Separatist enclave in Leiden, Holland (the group that eventually formed the Pilgrims.) These Separatists had first moved to Holland in 1608, avoiding the discrimination they suffered under James I in England. So they had been in Holland a full twelve years before they departed for the Americas.
While he was purportedly hired as a military liaison for “defense” (against the French, Dutch, Spanish and Native Americans) in the New World, Standish’s presence with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower should leave no doubt that the purpose of their journey was not the religious freedom many now suppose it to be. No, the Pilgrims had a much grander intent: they wanted land. They wanted prosperity. They wanted to preserve their language and culture. They wanted to raise their children in a place that was free from the corruption they had found in urban Holland. They wanted to colonize in the grandest sense of the word—to capture, to proselytize, to profit. And they wanted to accomplish this in their own name, not necessarily that of England.
Standish set about to help them meet those ends, accompanying trade missions throughout what is now New England, going on scouting expeditions, representing the Plymouth colony in talks with English investors, as well as defending colonial interests from raids by Native Americans. A small man with a very large temper, Standish became well-known for his policy of pre-emptive attack when, early in the colony’s existence, he acted on a tip from the Wampanoag tribe that the English colony in Wessagussett (now Weymouth, MA) was under threat from the nearby Massachuset tribe. Standish took a handful of men to a meeting with the tribe’s chief, Witawumet. During the meeting, Standish was openly mocked about his height by one of the warriors of the tribe, Pecksuot, who was quoted to have said “though you are a great Captain, you are but a little man.” (Oh, how many leaders this comment could be applied to today.) When the conference was moved to the chief’s hut the next day, Standish ordered an ambush which killed most of the Native Americans present; he himself was said to have murdered Pecksuot by killing the Indian with his own knife. Chief Witawumet’s head was then hewn from his body and brought to display on the front gate of the Plymouth plantation.
Standish’s actions had a long-term impact on the area, as his violence inspired many local tribes to flee in fear of his wrath. This, in turn, impacted the fur trade that the Plymouth colonists had engaged in with the Native Americans, seriously damaging their profits for some years. Yet this is never the story we hear about Myles Standish. Instead, we have a romantic vision of the “hero,” the would-be suitor of Priscilla Alden (made famous by Longfellow’s poem “The Courtship of Myles Standish” written in the mid-19th century.) While there is some speculation as to the truth behind the poem, it is known there was definitely a longstanding bond between the Aldens and Standish, as they moved to what is now Duxbury together later in life.
With all we know about him, then, the image of Myles Standish standing over the Thanksgiving turkey becomes more interesting. He’s not just the man with the knife. He’s the short guy with the fearsome reputation, deftly slicing off the drumstick, staring longingly at Priscilla Alden across the table. And all the while, around him, ninety Native Americans protectively rub their necks.
Filed under: Who Was at the First Thanksgiving? | Tags: Massasoit, Mayflower, Native Americans, Pilgrims, Plymouth, Squanto, Thanksgiving, Tisquantum, Wampanoag
He has been called the Ulysses of his day, an epic figure who was carried back and forth across the Atlantic many times, but who only ever wanted to get home. A man who was, for better or for worse, at the whim of the fates, and who was a pivotal pawn in the strategic colonization of North America. And his story has never been told properly; we have only seen him as the helper, the guide, the plant whisperer, the translator, the means to an end. The man who unlocked the door for the Pilgrims.
That simplistic portrait ends here.
The man we know as Squanto—or, more properly, Tisquantum–was born into the Patuxet tribe in the Wampanoag confederation, which occupied the area that is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. As a young man, he and several other members of his tribe were taken from their home by Captain George Weymouth, as “show and tell” pieces to bring before English society. Tisquantum, from what records show, then became affiliated with Sir Ferdinando Gorges (Weymouth’s employer) while in London, from whom he learned English—and was enlisted by Gorges to act as a translator and guide for explorers of the New World.
On an expedition with John Smith (of Pocahontas and Jamestown fame), Tisquantum was again abducted, this time by one of Smith’s own associates, and sold as a slave in Spain. Rescued by Spanish friars, he managed to make his way to Newfoundland, where he was discovered by an a friend of his former owner (Ferdinando Gorges), and he was taken back into custody. Upon his return to England and to Gorges, he was promised that after one last surveying mission of New England, he could go back to his tribe.
It had been 15 years since he had last been with his family.
During that final mission, however, Tisquantum discovered a terrible tragedy: that his entire tribe had been decimated by a plague. He had become the last of his kind.
I should pause here to mention that these “plagues” among the Native Americans (the illnesses the Europeans brought over with them) were both known and celebrated by colonizing countries—they were seen as a useful tool in the conquest of the New World. Before the Mayflower made its fateful journey, King James of England even praised the “Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us” for “this wonderful plague among the savages.” (see James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong)
In 1616-17, a great plague (speculated to have been smallpox) struck what is now New England, killing approximately 30-80% of Native American tribes living in the area. The plague was, apparently, idiosyncratic, wiping out entire villages in some cases and leaving others relatively untouched (such as Massasoit’s tribe, which was relatively close to Tisquantum’s.)
Who can know what Tisquantum thought when he was sent as an emissary to the colonists by Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag, and encountered these Englishmen and women upon the land of his people (for the colonists had, of course, settled in “Plymouth”–what was formerly Patuxet)? Nevertheless, regardless of his own feelings, he negotiated peace on that March day in 1621, guaranteeing that neither Wampanoag nor colonist would attack one another, and that they would come to one another’s aid should there be an outside threat.
Tisquantum then stayed among the colonists, befriending them and becoming their most pivotal associate. It was his help that allowed them to survive, and even thrive, after their first very difficult winter in New England. That First Thanksgiving would not have been possible without his mentorship. As William Bradford (Plymouth Colony governor) described, Squanto 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.” (Loewen, 84).
But for Tisquantum, playing the middle between two uneasy neighbor/foes was not a safe place to be. For despite their pious and hardworking image, the Pilgrims were no angels. For years after their arrival, they were known to steal seed and tools from Native American graves, even when they understood they were desecrating the sacred spaces of their neighbors. They were also known to steal occasionally from the living among the tribes; and regarded such actions as God simply intervening for their benefit. And this only contributed further to the distrust the Wampanoag had in the Pilgrims–Pilgrims who were, after all, white people. And white people left disease and destruction in their wake.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Tisquantum was ultimately regarded as a traitor by the Wampanoags and other Native American tribes because of his close associations with the Pilgrims. As the “enabler” of the settlers, he was helping them to gain a foothold in the New World. But neither was Tisquantum entirely guiltless in earning such a reputation; apparently, he used his strength as an interpreter and ally of the Pilgrims to his own gain, increasing his power and prestige by threatening other Native Americans with the Pilgrims’ plague (he claimed the Pilgrims had it stored under their homes in barrels.)
Such acts, and other suggested betrayals, may have cost him his life. He died, quite suddenly, in 1623, from an acute fever that featured heavy bleeding from the nose—some have even speculated that he may have been poisoned.
But regardless of how he met his end, it is important to see Tisquantum beyond the simple portrait that has been painted of him in the history books: as a humble sidekick to the Pilgrims, or as the great betrayer of the Native Americans. The truth is, he was neither. Instead, he was a product of his life circumstances: a former slave; a linguist; an international traveler; a loner; an orphan; and a citizen of the world in a way that no Pilgrim ever could have been (or, for that matter, in a way that few of us are now.) And there is no doubt that these circumstances must have shaped his personality and world view. For there was absolutely no one like him: while he spoke English, knew English custom, and had lived in London for years, he did not look English, and would never be an Englishman. And although he looked like his Native American neighbors, and spoke their language and knew their customs, because he knew the ways of the white man and had lived among them, he would never be completely of the tribe.
Strangely enough, it was by occupying this in-between place, by serving as the ultimate “other,” that Tisquantum made all things possible for the Pilgrims. For he, too, had been a stranger in a strange land; he had lived among the Europeans for a great part of his life–and perhaps that allowed him to understand the colonists a bit better than his Native American kin.
So as you tuck in to your Turkey dinner on Thursday, unlatch your belt, and go back for seconds, spare a thought for Squanto. And raise your glass to a misunderstood man; a man who was alone; a man whose fate collided with history; a man in the middle.
Filed under: Who Was at the First Thanksgiving? | Tags: Abraham Lincoln, Native Americans, Pilgrims, Sarah Josepha Hale, Thanksgiving, Turkey
A typical Thanksgiving in my family: my mom slaves over the dinner. Sometimes Dad will suggest a prayer or words of thanks as we gather around the table, and we all giggle a bit—my siblings and I are not the serious types who meditate on such things (because hey, the food might get cold, or someone else might get the drumstick.) So we eat, and eat, and eat. Then some of the family retires to the living room to watch football while the rest of us clear the table and get dessert ready. Then we eat again. Then it’s over.
In all these years of Thanksgivings I’ve celebrated (and I’m talking decades’ worth), my family and I have never discussed where the celebration came from, or what it has meant to us. Of course, I was raised with the stories about the “First Thanksgiving” I’d heard in school about the Pilgrims coming to Plymouth, surviving a winter, and then celebrating the bountiful harvest by inviting the Native Americans to sit down with them for a big turkey dinner. (And the Pilgrims wore their hats and funny black and white outfits, and the Native Americans had their feathers and whatnot.) But the important thing about the story was that, for a moment, the world stopped and all were united in a single emotion: gratefulness.
Of course, you know, that really never happened.
Only a version of it did, with much more complicated purposes, settings and feelings involved than we’ve typically been taught. And it wasn’t even the first meal of thanksgiving that was celebrated in the New World by Europeans fixed upon conquering territory and making their fortune here. In fact, there were multiple versions of colonial thanksgivings to choose from: there was the celebration of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his 1500 men in the Palo Duro Canyon (now Texas) back in 1541 when they were looking for gold; French Huguenot colonists ate a meal of praise in 1564, outside of what is now Jacksonville; English settlers held a harvest feast with the Abnaki Indians in Maine near the Kennebec River in 1607; and, of course, the English colonists at Jamestown held their meal of thanksgiving after a year of terrible famine in 1610, when supplies arrived from England by sea.
So Thanksgiving as we know it today was less tradition than it was invention—the invention of a plucky, industrious and patriotic 19th Century writer and editor, Sarah Josepha Hale.
Hale was, herself, a rather remarkable person. At age 34, she was left widowed and penniless to raise five children by her own means. So she took up her pen, and wrote a novel, Northwood, with strong abolitionist messages, as well as verses of poetry for children (the most famous of which we know as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”) The success of this writing led to an offer from a British publisher to serve as editor of The Ladies Magazine, and then ultimately to the editorship of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the biggest publication of its kind, which by 1850 under her leadership had a massive distribution of 150,000 throughout the United States. Hale used her power to promote up-and-coming American women writers, and her editorship as a literary pulpit to promote causes in which she believed.
And one of these causes, of course, was Thanksgiving. Hale had seen various permutations of the holiday recognized in several Northern states through the years—but all with different dates (anywhere from October to January) and different themes. What Hale envisioned was in the power of a single, symbolic holiday—a truly national Thanksgiving—to bring disparate elements of the country together as it was facing unrest (and ultimately, Civil War.) To her, the holiday would triumph the values of hearth and home, and bring the celebration soundly into the sphere of women. As she wrote in 1857: “”Our busy, wealth seeking people require to have days of national festivity, when the fashion and the custom will call them to the feast of love and thanksgiving.”
Hale tirelessly petitioned various state and national representatives for decades to achieve her dream. And she filled the pages of her magazine with ideas for this potential holiday, listing recipes for turkey preparation (yes, she’s the one we have to thank for it) as well as pumpkin pie and the like. And while she took a certain amount of inspiration from colonist Edward Winslow’s brief description of that first celebration in Plymouth, she expanded liberally from her own imagination when constructing the menu. (Pies, for instance, would have been impossible in colonial Massachusetts due to the lack of staples such as flour and sugar.) In that sense, the holiday is hers as much as it is anyone’s.
The irony is, of course, that while Hale longed for a day that would unite Americans in a spirit of thanks and plenty—to take Americans from disparate countries, backgrounds, and philosophies and give them a common celebration—she ignored the fact that Thanksgiving was based on the suffering of another people. For the pilgrims and colonists that came to the New World at Plymouth survived largely due to the sacrifice of the Native Americans whose land they occupied. (We’ll explore that in another post.)
Ultimately, Hale lived to see her dream realized in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared that the 4th Thursday of November would be held as a national day of thanks. And it has been a tradition since then.
So it seems appropriate that we seat Sarah Josepha Hale at the head of our symbolic table this week, as honorary hostess of this little exploration of the First Thanksgiving. Because without her we wouldn’t necessarily have Thanksgiving–at least as we know it today. Or the hallowed holiday turkey. Or cranberry sauce. Or pumpkin pie. Or even the quiet, “Norman Rockwell” picture of the celebration that we cherish in our minds (how conveniently we forget all the indigestion, arguments and anxiety we have from year to year.)
It’s entirely possible that if the Texans had started this whole thing (like the Texas Society Daughters of the American Colonists did in 1959), we’d be prospecting for gold in our backyards, drinking tequila, shooting off guns to mark the holiday, and eating rice and beans.
Hmm. Come to think of it, that doesn’t sound so bad. (Note to self for shopping list: Cuervo. Salt. Limes.)