The First Thanksgiving
The story of the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 is familiar to most of us. A couple of English speaking natives named Squanto and Samoset befriend the Pilgrims of Plymouth. Squanto teaches the Pilgrims how to plant corn and, after the harvest comes in, the natives and the Pilgrims join together for a feast. It’s a heartwarming story, really, but most historians would agree that it never happened that way.
For starters, it certainly wasn’t the first. There had been Thanksgiving celebrations in North America well before 1621 among Spanish explorers and settlers in Texas and Florida and among the Jamestown settlers in Virginia. Second, the Pilgrims weren’t much for feasting and merrymaking. They were Puritans, and to them a Thanksgiving was primarily a day of prayer and religious observance declared to express thanks to God for some specific event. While there are records of many days of Thanksgiving being declared in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies in the 17th century, hardly any of them involved a feast. And there’s no clear record of one in 1621.
Many historians, in fact, believe that traditional Thanksgiving story is a historical myth that for a variety of reasons President Abraham Lincoln seized on when he was trying to unify the North during the Civil War.
But does that mean that Squanto, Samoset, and all the other natives, are just a figment of our historical imaginations? Hardly. These were real people and their story is more complex than most Americans realize.
For starters, there’s Squanto. His name in the Wampanoag language was Tesquantum, which translates roughly to “divine rage.” How did he just happen to speak English, and why did he approach the Pilgrims so readily? Tisquantum was born in a Patuxet village in what is now southeastern Massachusetts. But as a young man, he was taken captive by English explorers and brought back to England as a slave. He learned English and eventually gained his freedom. Close to fifteen years later, as a member of a British expedition, he finally returned to his homeland, only to discover that the Patuxet had been completely wiped out years earlier by an epidemic of smallpox or a similar disease of European origin.
Tisquantum became friendly with Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag people. The Wampanoag, like the Patuxet, had been devastated by disease, and they were being increasingly threatened by the Narragansett people of what is now Rhode Island. Along with another English-speaking native named Samoset, Tisquantum acted as the intermediary between Massasoit and the pilgrim leaders as they forged a political alliance.
A treaty between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, signed on March 22, 1621, committed both sides to a mutual defense alliance against their common enemies. The alliance benefited both sides for a while, but the long term consequences were not so felicitous. Relations between the natives and the settlers began to fray as more Englishmen, both Puritans and non-religious settlers, arrived in New England, tipping the balance of power in favor of the English. Massasoit kept the Wampanoag neutral in the Pequot War of the late 1630s, in which hundreds of natives were killed and hundreds more were taken captive and sold into slavery. But many other Wampanoag were outraged by English atrocities.
After Massasoit died, his son Metacomet, often known by his English name King Philip, became leader of the Wampanoag. In 1675, after the English executed three Wampanoag for the murder of another native, Metacomet struck back. In an alliance with their former enemies, the Narragansett, the Wampanoag enjoyed some early battlefield successes in what became known as King Philip’s War. But the alliance between the Wampanoag and Narragansett soon unraveled, and by 1676 the war, the bloodiest confrontation between natives and settlers in the history of New England, was all but over. Metacomet was killed in June of that year. By the end of the war, the native population of southern New England had been reduced by half, and the Wampanoag and Narragansett had virtually ceased to exist.
In late June of 1676, after a series of military successes by the English, the governing counsel of the Puritan town of Charlestown, Massachusetts, decided to celebrate the coming end of “the present war with the heathen natives of this land.” To mark the occasion, of course, they declared a day of Thanksgiving.
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