The Real Story behind the Thanksgiving Day

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Thanksgiving Day is the most observed holiday in the USA, which is celebrated by people of all races, colors, ethnicities and even religions. It is a day in which family members gather to eat turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. According to some estimates, nearly 40 million turkeys are eaten over this long weekend. Thanksgiving holiday falls on the last Thursday of November. There is even a White House event in which the President pardons a turkey on Wednesday. That lucky turkey gets to live –” and fly first class to Disneyland, where it is grand marshal in the Thanksgiving Day parade. Unfortunately, another nameless bird gets slaughtered in his place. Of course, many would find something wrong with this concept, which sounds like "A Tale of Two Cities!" The turkey-pardoning is supposed to be a long-running national tradition, but it officially only dates back to George H. W. Bush and 1989.

Like every other major popular celebration in our world, Thanksgiving has its history, and if I may say, not a pleasant one –” the kind that we often hear which associates it with the "Pilgrims" that landed in the New World. According to a single-paragraph account in the writings of one Pilgrim, a harvest feast did take place in Plymouth in 1621, probably in mid-October, but the Indians who attended were not even invited. Though, it later became known as "Thanksgiving," with giving thanks to God for the harvests of the land, the Pilgrims never called it that.

So, what did really happen in Plymouth in 1621? For that we have to dig deeper into history, away from popular myths and traditions — the imagery of a picnic of interracial harmony — and come to terms with some of the most terrifying bloodsheds in New World history. [In what follows below I summarize some historical accounts. Interested readers may like to read the book – "The Hidden history of Massachusetts: A Guide for Black Folks," by Tingba Apidta and other books that were written by the descendants of Native American Indians.]

We are told that on "September 6, 1620 the Pilgrims had set sail for the New World on a ship called the Mayflower. They sailed from Plymouth, England and aboard were 44 Pilgrims, who called themselves the "Saints", and 66 others, whom the Pilgrims called the "Strangers." The long trip led to many disagreements between the "Saints" and the "Strangers". After land was sighted on November 10, a meeting was held and an agreement was worked out, called the Mayflower Compact, which guaranteed equality and unified the two groups. They joined together and named themselves the "Pilgrims." Although they had first sighted land off Cape Cod they did not settle until they arrived at Plymouth, which had been named by Captain John Smith in 1614." It is worth noting here that in 1614 when a band of English explorers sailed home to England with a ship full of Patuxet Indians bound for slavery, they left behind smallpox which virtually wiped out those who had escaped. 

When the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1620, they landed on the rocky shores of a territory that was inhabited by the Wampanoag (Wam pa NO ag) Indians. It was there that the Pilgrims decide to settle. Plymouth offered an excellent harbor. A large brook offered a resource for fish. The Pilgrims biggest concern was attack by the local Native American Indians. But the latter were a peaceful group and did not prove to be a threat.

Any visitor to a Wampanoag home was provided with a share of whatever food the family had, even if the supply was low. This same courtesy was extended to the Pilgrims when they met.

We can only guess what the Wampanoags must have thought when they first saw the strange ships of the Pilgrims arriving on their shores. But their custom was to help visitors, and they treated the newcomers with courtesy. It was mainly because of their kindness that the Pilgrims survived at all. The wheat the Pilgrims had brought with them to plant would not grow in the rocky soil.

On March 16, 1621, what was to become an important event took place, an Indian brave walked into the Plymouth settlement. The Pilgrims were frightened until the Indian called out "Welcome" (in English). His name was Samoset and he was an Abnaki Indian. He had learned English from the captains of fishing boats that had sailed off the coast. After staying the night Samoset left the next day. He soon returned with another Indian named Squanto (SKWAN toe) who spoke better English than Samoset. Squanto told the Pilgrims of his voyages across the ocean and his visits to England and Spain. It was in England where he had learned English. Squanto’s importance to the Pilgrims was enormous and it can be said that they would not have survived without his help.

The Pilgrims needed to learn new ways for a new world. They were not in good condition. They were living in dirt-covered shelters, there was a shortage of food, and nearly half of them had died during the winter. They obviously needed help. Squanto brought them deer meat and beaver skins. He taught them how to cultivate corn and other new vegetables and how to build Indian-style houses. He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other plants could be used as medicine. He explained how to dig and cook clams, how to get sap from the maple trees, use fish for fertilizer, and dozens of other skills needed for their survival. By the time fall arrived things were going much better for the Pilgrims, thanks to the help they had received. The Pilgrims decided to have a thanksgiving feast to celebrate their good fortune. They had observed thanksgiving feasts in November as religious obligations in England for many years before coming to the New World.

Captain Miles Standish, the leader of the Pilgrims, invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit (the leader of the Wampanoags), and their immediate families to join them for a celebration, but they had no idea how big Indian families could be. As the Thanksgiving feast began, the Pilgrims were overwhelmed at the large turnout of ninety relatives that Squanto and Samoset brought with them. The Pilgrims were not prepared to feed a gathering of people that large for three days. Seeing this, Massasoit gave orders to his men within the first hour of his arrival to go home and get more food. Thus it happened that the Indians supplied the majority of the food.

For three days the Wampanoags feasted with the Pilgrims. It was a special time of friendship between two very different groups of people. A peace and friendship agreement was made between Massasoit and Miles Standish giving the Pilgrims the clearing in the forest where the old Patuxet village once stood to build their new town of Plymouth.

Contrary to the fabricated lore of storyteller generations no Pilgrims prayed at the meal. What’s more, they consumed a good deal of home brew. In fact, each Pilgrim drank at least a half gallon of beer a day, which they preferred even to water. This daily inebriation led their governor, William Bradford, to comment on his people’s "notorious sin," which included their "drunkenness and uncleanliness" and rampant "sodomy".

Later as the pilgrims grew in number they started showing intolerance to the Indians and their religion. The relationship deteriorated. Any Indian who came within the vicinity of the Pilgrim settlement was subject to robbery, enslavement, or even murder. The Pilgrims further advertised their evil intentions when they mounted five cannons on a hill around their settlement, constructed a platform for artillery, and then organized their soldiers into four companies – all in preparation for the military destruction of the Native American Indians.

Pilgrim Miles Standish went to the Indians, pretended to be a trader, and then beheaded an Indian man named Wituwamet. He brought the head to Plymouth, where it was displayed on a wooden spike for many years, according to Gary B. Nash, "as a symbol of white power." Standish had the Indian man’s young brother hanged from the rafters for good measure. From that time on, the whites were known to the Indians of Massachusetts by the name "Wotowquenange," which in their tongue meant cutthroats and stabbers. A monument in Weymouth, rededicated in 1923 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of settlement, still bears testimony to the encounter between the natives and the white settlers under Miles Standish that killed Indian chiefs Pecksuot and Wituwamet in March, 1623.

By the mid 1630s, a new group of 700 even holier Europeans, calling themselves Puritans, had arrived on 11 ships and settled in Boston, which only served to accelerate the brutality against the Indians.

In one incident in 1637, a force of whites trapped some seven hundred Pequot Indians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, who had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival near the mouth of the Mystic River, near present day Groton, Connecticut. Under the leadership of Englishman John Mason, in the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them to come outside.  Those who came out were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouse were burned alive. Only a handful escaped and few prisoners were taken-to the apparent delight of the Europeans: To see them frying in the fire, and the streams of their blood quenching the same, and the stench was horrible; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared "A Day of Thanksgiving" because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered. This event marked the first actual Thanksgiving.

According to Susan Bates (who writes on Native American issues), "Cheered by their "victory", the brave colonists and their Indian allies attacked village after village. Women and children over 14 were sold into slavery while the rest were murdered.  Boats loaded with a many as 500 slaves regularly left the ports of New England. Bounties were paid for Indian scalps to encourage as many deaths as possible.  Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now  Stamford, Connecticut, the churches announced a second day of "thanksgiving" to celebrate victory over the heathen savages.  During the feasting, the hacked off heads of Natives were kicked through the streets like soccer balls.  Even the friendly Wampanoag did not escape the madness. Their chief was beheaded, and his head impaled on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts — where it remained on display for 24 years."[1]

In just 10 years, 12,000 whites had invaded New England, and as their numbers grew they pressed for all-out extermination of the Indian. Euro-diseases had reduced the population of the Massachusetts nation from over 24,000 to less than 750; meanwhile, the number of European settlers in Massachusetts rose to more than 20,000 by 1646.

By 1675, the Massachusetts Englishmen were in a full-scale war with the great Indian chief of the Wampanoags, Metacomet. Renamed "King Philip" by the white man, Metacomet watched the steady erosion of the lifestyle and culture of his people as European-imposed laws and values engulfed them.

In 1671, the white men had ordered Metacomet to come to Plymouth to enforce upon him a new treaty, which included the humiliating rule that he could no longer sell his own land without prior approval from whites. They also demanded that he turn in his community’s firearms. Marked for extermination by the merciless power of a distant king and his ruthless subjects, Metacomet retaliated in 1675 with raids on several isolated frontier towns. Eventually, the Indians attacked 52 of the 90 New England towns, destroying 13 of them. The Englishmen ultimately regrouped, and after much bloodletting defeated the great Indian nation, just half a century after their arrival on Massachusetts soil. Historian Douglas Edward Leach describes the bitter end: "The ruthless executions, the cruel sentences…were all aimed at the same goal-unchallengeable white supremacy in southern New England. That the program succeeded is convincingly demonstrated by the almost complete docility of the local native ever since."

When Captain Benjamin Church tracked down and murdered Metacomet in 1676, his body was quartered and parts were "left for the wolves." The great Indian chief’s hands were cut off and sent to Boston and his head went to Plymouth, where it was set upon a pole on the real first "day of public Thanksgiving for the beginning of revenge upon the enemy."

As the Native American Holocaust continued, several official Thanksgiving Days were proclaimed. Governor Joseph Dudley declared in 1704 a "General Thanksgiving"- not in celebration of the brotherhood of man – but for [God’s] infinite Goodness to extend His Favors…In defeating and disappointing… the Expeditions of the Enemy [Indians] against us, And the good Success given us against them, by delivering so many of them into our hands.

Just two years later one could reap a £50 reward in Massachusetts for the scalp of an Indian-demonstrating that the practice of scalping was a European tradition. According to one scholar, "Hunting redskins became…a popular sport in New England, especially since prisoners were worth good money…" [The Hidden History of Massachusetts: A Guide for Black Folks ©Dr. Tingba Apidta; ISBN 0-9714462-0-2]

At the end of that conflict most of the New England Indians were either exterminated or made refugees among the French in Canada, or they were sold into slavery in the Carolinas by the Puritans. So successful was these early trade in Indian slaves that several Puritan ship owners in Boston began the practice of raiding the Ivory Coast of Africa for black slaves to sell to the proprietary colonies of the South, thus founding the American-based slave trade.

The killings became more and more frenzied, with days of thanksgiving feasts being held after each successful massacre. Susan Bates writes, "George Washington finally suggested that only one day of Thanksgiving per year be set aside instead of celebrating each and every massacre. Later Abraham Lincoln decreed Thanksgiving Day to be a legal national holiday during the Civil War — on the same day he ordered troops to march against the starving Sioux in Minnesota."

Mary Shaw writes in the Philadelphia Freedom Blog: "In 1830, as the "settlers" pushed westward, the 23rd Congress of the United States passed the "Indian Removal Act", legitimizing the land greed of the white "settlers" and resulting in the death or displacement of countless Native Americans. This legislation was signed into law by none other than all-American action hero President Andrew Jackson himself…The Native Americans who survived were herded onto reservations, where they faced their own set of challenges. This form of apartheid separated Native Americans physically, socially, and economically from the world outside the reservation. Traditionally, nomadic hunter societies were forced to learn to farm for their subsistence. Disenfranchised and disillusioned, the Native American population came to face the highest rates of poverty, suicide, alcoholism, and teen pregnancy amongst ethnic groups in the U.S. — a trend that continues to this day. All because of the selfish, imperialistic dreams of the white man." [2]

Before I close this sad saga of thanksgiving, we need to understand the "Pilgrims." So who were these European Pilgrims? We are told that the "Pilgrims" were a sub sect, or splinter group, of the Puritan movement. They came to America to achieve on this continent what their Puritan brethren continued to strive for in England; and when the Puritans were forced from England, they came to New England and soon absorbed the original "Pilgrims."

According to Chuck Larsen (who is a teacher and a Native American), "The Puritans were not just simple religious conservatives persecuted by the King and the Church of England for their unorthodox beliefs. They were political revolutionaries who not only intended to overthrow the government of England, but who actually did so in 1649.

"The Puritan "Pilgrims" who came to New England were not simply refugees who decided to "put their fate in God’s hands" in the "empty wilderness" of North America. Mainstream Englishmen considered the Pilgrims to be deliberate religious dropouts who intended to found a new nation completely independent from non-Puritan England. In 1643 the Puritan/Pilgrims declared themselves an independent confederacy, one hundred and forty-three years before the American Revolution. They believed in the imminent occurrence of Armageddon in Europe and hoped to establish here in the new world the "Kingdom of God" foretold in the book of Revelation. They diverged from their Puritan brethren who remained in England only in that they held little real hope of ever being able to successfully overthrow the King and Parliament and, thereby, impose their "Rule of Saints" (strict Puritan orthodoxy) on the rest of the British people. So they came to America not just in one ship (the Mayflower) but in a hundred others as well, with every intention of taking the land away from its native people to build their prophesied "Holy Kingdom." [See Blitzer, Charles, "Age of Kings," Great Ages of Man series, references to Puritanism, pp. 141, 144 & 145-46. Also see Jennings, Francis, "The Invasion of America," references to Puritan human motives, pp. 4-6, 43- 44 and 53.]

"The Pilgrims were not just innocent refugees from religious persecution. They were victims of bigotry in England, but some of them were themselves religious bigots by our modern standards. The Puritans and the Pilgrims saw themselves as the "Chosen Elect" mentioned in the book of Revelation. They strove to "purify" first themselves and then everyone else of everything they did not accept in their own interpretation of scripture. Later New England Puritans used any means, including deceptions, treachery, torture, war, and genocide to achieve that end. They saw themselves as fighting a holy war against Satan, and everyone who disagreed with them was the enemy. This rigid fundamentalism was transmitted to America by the Plymouth colonists, and it sheds a very different light on the "Pilgrim" image we have of them. This is best illustrated in the written text of the Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623 by "Mather the Elder." In it, Mather the Elder gave special thanks to God for the devastating plague of smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians who had been their benefactors. He praised God for destroying "chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth", i.e., the Pilgrims."[3]

Thus, we know that the Pilgrims were no saints; far from being God-fearing individuals they were savages bent on colonizing America for the "good" white soul at the exclusion of their hosts –” the Native Americans — who had settled in the New World hundreds of years ago! So how and why this contemporary mix of myth and history about the "First" Thanksgiving at Plymouth developed? According to Chuck Larsen, it developed "in the 1890s and early 1900s. Our country was desperately trying to pull together its many diverse peoples into a common national identity. This was the era of the "melting pot" theory of social progress, and public education was a major tool for social unity. It was with this in mind that the federal government declared the last Thursday in November as the legal holiday of Thanksgiving in 1898."

Today, the town of Plymouth Rock has a Thanksgiving ceremony each year in remembrance of the first Thanksgiving. There are still Wampanoag people living in Massachusetts. In 1970, they asked one of them to speak at the ceremony to mark the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s arrival. Frank B. James, president of the Federated Eastern Indian League, prepared a speech. But he was not allowed to deliver it; the Massachusetts officials told him to write another. James declined to speak, and on that Thanksgiving Day hundreds of Indians from around the country came to protest. It was the first National Day of Mourning for them.

Here is part of what James wrote: "Today is a time of celebrating for you — a time of looking back to the first days of white people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them. Let us always remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white people. Although our way of life is almost gone, we, the Wampanoags, still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed. But today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important."

We are told that President Obama did not seem all that thrilled about the Turkey event. He said, "There are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office. And then there are moments like this, where I pardon the turkey and send it to Disneyland." I don’t know whether President Obama ate Turkey this Thanksgiving Day. But if he did, can you blame him for upholding a tradition in the White House that says you can pardon your turkey and eat it, too? Or, may be that he ate Turkey for the right reason –” to renew our commitment to building a more peaceful and prosperous future that every American family can enjoy, echoing the passionate call by Frank James some 39 years ago!

Notes:

[1]. http://tinyurl.com/ykqmpge

[2]. Shaw, Mary, “What’s Thanksgiving all about?” Philadelphia Freedom Blog, November 22, 2009, http://tinyurl.com/yfkdwrw

[3]. http://tinyurl.com/5eoqg6

Some other good references (External):

(1) Berkhofer, Jr., R.F., "The White Man’s Indian."

(2) Jennings, Francis, "The Invasion of America."

(3) Blitzer, Charles, "Age of Kings," Great Ages of Man series.

(4) See "Chronicles of American Indian Protest," pp. 6-10. Also see Armstrong, Virginia I., "I Have Spoken."

(5) See Larsen, Charles M., "The Real Thanksgiving," pp. 3-4. Also see Graff, Steward and Polly Ann, "Squanto, Indian Adventurer." Also see "Handbook of North American Indians," Vol. 15, the reference to Squanto on p. 82.

(6) See Benton-Banai, Edward, "The Mishomis Book," as a reference on general "Anishinabe" (the Algonkin speaking people’s) religious beliefs and practices.

(7) See Graff, Stewart and Polly Ann, "Squanto, Indian Adventurer." Also see Bradford, Sir William, "Of Plymouth Plantation," and "Mourt’s Relation."

(8) See "Handbook of North American Indians," Vol. 15.

(9) Manataka American Indian Council, (see Bates, Susan, “The Real Story of Thanksgiving,” Larsen, Chuck, “Introduction for Teachers,” and “The Plymouth Thanksgiving Story,” http://tinyurl.com/yle9wkr

(10) Paul, Daniel N., “First Nations History: We Were Not the Savages,” 3rd Ed., Fernwood Publishing, September (2006); www.danielpaul.com

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