Five Things You Didn’t Know About American Thanksgiving


I say American Thanksgiving because there’s also Canadian Thanksgiving on the second Monday of November. I can’t really write intelligently on the subject because I get the feeling that not even Canadians care that much about it, considering the holiday is optional in several of their provinces. But yes, there is a Canadian Thanksgiving. I sort of assume it’s the holiday where Martin Frobisher rides through town on a moose and gives hockey sticks and weird candy to all the good little children.

And if that’s not what happens, I’m going to pretend anyway.

That being said, let’s turn to America, which is always much more exciting and adept at historical revisionism. And when it comes to historical revisionism, Thanksgiving takes the cake. Or the turkey. We all know the story. The Pilgrims came over from England to escape religious persecution and landed at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. After a devastating first winter where half of the settlers died, they struggled to survive with the aid of the surrounding native peoples, particularly a generous Indian named Squanto. After the first successful harvest in 1621, they all sat down together and had a feast of remembrance, tolerance, and thanks. It’s a testament to the power of teamwork.

Or the power of capitalism and Holy Scripture, according to Rush Limbaugh.

This is the story most American children hear growing up, and it’s the same one I heard in Ireland on those rare occasions when American history came up in primary school. Like so many things, it wasn’t until I got to America that I found out that the story was, essentially, bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

So many of my childhood illusions were destroyed in America. See my earlier post on Martin Luther.

The specifics of the First Thanksgiving are hotly debated by scholars, and it’s very likely that anything I post here will be seized upon by a dozen or so blogistorians eager to tell me how inaccurate and wrong I am. I am prepared for this onslaught. But that being said, here are five things about Thanksgiving that they didn’t teach you in primary school.

1. The Pilgrims weren’t actual pilgrims.

Nor did they call themselves such. A pilgrim is someone who takes a journey for a religious reason, usually to a holy site. This is not what the Pilgrims were doing. In fact, they were not even trying to escape religious persecution. The Puritans who boarded the Mayflower already had religious freedom in Holland, where they originally fled to. And only a third of the passengers aboard the Mayflower were actually Puritans. The rest were businessmen, debtors, and others who wanted a new life and opportunity that they couldn’t find in Europe.

The voyage of the Mayflower wasn’t a religious journey. It was a business venture. And as they proceeded to capitalise on that business venture on someone else’s land, they were what all the rest of the European explorers and settlers were. Invaders and conquerors.

2. The Native Americans needed the settlers as much as the settlers needed them.

Remember that part of the story where the Wise and Kind Indians saved the poor, starving, desperate Pilgrims from certain death by showing them how to grow corn, hunt, and fish? There’s a major factor that’s usually left out. Smallpox. Also, measles.

By the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the native tribes had endured several years of literal hell. Earlier European settlers had already encountered the natives and exposed them to the smallpox virus, mainly through infected cattle. By 1620, a staggering ninety percent of the Wampanoag and surrounding tribes had been completely wiped out. Even more were taken into slavery by the European invaders, including Squanto. As the Pilgrims struggled through their first terrible winter, the native tribes were dealing with the utter destruction of their people, their way of life, and everything they had ever known.

It was the perfect opportunity for two groups of different people to recognise each other’s worth and set aside differences to make a new life together.

Which of course didn’t happen because one side had guns.

3. The Wampanoag weren’t actually invited to the First Thanksgiving.

They had to gate-crash.

After the Wampanoag saved the Pilgrims’ collective frozen arses from starvation, the settlers (or the ones who were left) decided to celebrate with a three day feast. To which there is no evidence that they actually invited their saviours. According Edward Winslow, one of the participants in the first Thanksgiving, Chief Massasoit and ninety of his warriors showed up and were included in the feasting. But why were they there in the first place?

Most likely, some of the rowdier Pilgrims (obviously not the Puritan ones) fired a few shots into the air in celebration and the Wampanoag came rushing over under the silly impression that, you know, something was actually wrong.

Thus setting the stage for millions of awkward Thanksgiving dinners in the centuries to come. Some traditions are just worth keeping.

4. Actual Thanksgiving Dinners were celebrations of Indian massacres

Yes, you read that right.

The first actual “Thanksgiving Dinner” was held in 1637 by Governor William Bradford and it commemorated the annihilation of hundreds of men, women and children. The Pequot tribe had been reduced by disease to less than 2,000 individuals. In the summer of 1637, an Englishman from Massachusetts Bay Colony was killed by a Pequot warrior. Bradford was, of course angered, because how dare the Pequot kill people who were trampling what land remained the them. He resolved to take swift and devastating action.

A group of Englishmen led by John Underhill tracked down the Pequot tribe. As the Pequot celebrated their traditional Green Corn Dance, the English came down upon them from all sides, burning, hacking, and slaughtering all of them they could find. Those who escaped were later hunted down until the Pequot people were all but extinct.

Jesus says "Happy Thanksgiving!"

Jesus says “Happy Thanksgiving!”

Bradford describes the massacre in the “History of the Plymouth Plantation.”

“Those that scraped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escapted. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.”

Bradford estimates that 400 were killed, but the more accurate number is around 700.

After the Englishmen returned to the colony victorious, Bradford ordered a celebration feast, a Thanksgiving dinner to commemorate how the Lord had given the Indians over to the hands of their exterminators. The law he signed proclaimed that “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.” The Puritans were very adamant about following the Bible in every way. Unlike most modern Christians, this included all the Old Testament commands about massacring your enemies down to the last child. At least no one can say that the Puritans weren’t good Christians.

Following this incident, every celebration of a government ordained “Thanksgiving Dinner” was a celebration of a victory over one Indian tribe or another until Lincoln made it a federal holiday in 1863.

5. Thanksgiving Day is annually commemorated by many native tribes and their supporters as a national ‘Day of Mourning.’

Starting in 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) has protested the traditional celebrations of Thanksgiving from atop Cole’s Hill in Plymouth Massachusetts. UAINE involves itself with campaigns that seek to educate people on the racist stereotypes and historical revisionism that still permeates American education and social thought. They adamantly oppose the use of Native American references for sports teams and mascots, as well as involving themselves in protests for political prisoners such as Leonard Peltier.

In 2001, a plaque was set atop Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate the American Indians part in Thanksgiving and acknowledge that the history of European expansion is not as black and white as our schoolbooks make it out to be.

So what should we do?

What’s the point of all this? Many of you are most likely wondering if I’m using this article as a basis to advocate not celebrating Thanksgiving. Truthfully, no I am not. It would be intellectually dishonest of me to say that one should not celebrate a holiday if its roots are less than pristine. After all, I celebrate Christmas even though it’s a historically pagan holiday appropriated by the Christians. By celebrating Christmas I’m not celebrating the forceful conversion by the sword of millions of people to Christianity . In the same way, by celebrating Thanksgiving I am not condoning or glossing over the prolonged genocide of the American Indians.

I am celebrating what the holiday has evolved to mean. A time to give thanks for the many, many good things in my life. A time to be grateful for the people and loved ones I cherish and cannot replace. A time to look to the future and strengthen my resolve to show more compassion and love to those who are less well off than me. There are those who say we should spend every day like Thanksgiving. I disagree. There are some days I have to be selfish, or isolated, or focused on business. That’s part of human survival. To have a day set aside as a selfless day is not only a good reminder of what really matters, it’s a necessary recharge to get me through the rest of the holiday season and into the new year. For that reason, I love Thanksgiving.

But I am against whitewashing and misrepresenting history so that Thanksgiving is a pro-European expansionist propaganda celebration. I am against making it a celebration of American exceptionalism when in truth it’s a rather dark part of the nation’s history. And I’m absolutely against diminishing the sorrowful history of a real and fascinating group of individuals by reducing their history down to a caricature of ‘the noble savages.’

Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you celebrate with joy, with honesty, and with an open heart.

Enjoy your turkey. And afterwards, consider skipping the football game in favour of volunteering for the needy.

6 thoughts on “Five Things You Didn’t Know About American Thanksgiving

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