The Real First Thanksgiving

Editor’s Note: The original version of this column in the print issue contained unintended similarities to a different op-ed published elsewhere in 2011. It has also been edited for clarity of historical fact and to better reflect the thoughts of the author.

By Alex Hentschel

Let’s leap into a heavy subject with a bit of a joke: If April showers bring May flowers, what do, May flowers bring?

… smallpox.

Get it? No? Maybe wait until the end of the column.

As we prepare to spend Thanksgiving at home with our families this November, many of us can’t help but feel warm and fuzzy about the time-honored American tradition of watching football and eating so much you want to vomit. The historical origins of this holiday are quite important, however, so give this a read before you dig in.

American schoolchildren all learn one story that we sometimes even carry into our adulthood: The Pilgrims fled Europe in an escape from religious persecution, then arrived on Plymouth Rock, where the friendly Native American man Squanto and the Wampanoag Federation taught them how to harvest crops. Then, they all shared food together at the first Thanksgiving table in 1621, in a heartwarming tale of forgiveness and love.

The real story is not as simplistic or lovely as this. In fact, American settlers were breaking bread over feasts several years earlier, and this was probably more of a routine celebration. Though the two communities did come together, this simplistic narrative tends to argue that one dinner outweighs years of betrayal, false treaties and the decimation of a native population.

Contact between the native peoples and the Wampanoag began far before the Mayflower landed. Several years earlier in 1614, British Captain Thomas Hunt brought a ship up the New England coast, kidnapping several Patuxet (a tribe of the Wampanoag federation), including Tisquantum (called Squanto). Captain Hunt sold them to Spain as slaves. Shortly thereafter, an epidemic killed the Native Americans living in the area from 1616-1619. Historians debate whether the cause was smallpox transferred via ships like Captain Hunt’s. A recent proposed cause is a disease known as leptospirosis, transferred to the tribe via black rats on those same European ships. Either way, 90% of all Native Americans in the area died, and it is speculated that Europeans were the cause, according to a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control in February of 2010.

Squanto made his way back to his homeland, now fluent in English because of his capture, and was there to greet the Separatists when they arrived in 1621. The settlers asked why there were the structures of Native American homes and cornfields but no life. Squanto informed them that his tribe had died of a sudden and devastating plague.

The true peace treaty that this feast was supposed to represent had actually been signed seven months earlier. It is also speculated, though not confirmed, that the starving pilgrims raided Native American graves and abandoned storehouses for corn (again, abandoned due to the epidemic from 1616-1619). The Wampanoag entered into a compact with the British from a position of weakness, their resources having been decimated, not of their own free will.

In Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, there are two contrasting Thanksgiving celebrations. One is the Plymouth Parade, in which people dressed like pilgrims march to Plymouth Rock in celebration of the founding of the colony. Another is a day of mourning that has been led by the United American Indians of New England since 1970. According to their official website, they view Thanksgiving day as “a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.” The group gathers on Coles Hill, fasting and praying in observance of their ancestors’ suffering and how it is connected to their present state.

What does all of this mean? The reality of America is that, in many ways, our current traditions are predicated on dark origins. We have to understand the sins committed by our ancestors in things like Native American genocide or the African slave trade necessarily affect our current culture, traditions and institutions. It is not beneficial to erase the past.

However, that does not mean we can’t rename or repurpose things like Columbus Day or Thanksgiving. We just have to engage with them critically and understand that we are not a nation without a past. Thanksgiving is still a very meaningful holiday for many of us, and an integral part of American culture. I, for one, will be enjoying spending time with my family and telling them how thankful I am for them, while hopefully also engaging in meaningful conversation about what it means to celebrate Thanksgiving in our context.

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