The ‘First Thanksgiving’ Story Covers Up the All Too Real Violence in Early America
It is a time when the 17th century has a moment. The world witnessed the 400th anniversary in 2019.ThAn anniversary of Virginia’s first slaved Africans arriving in the United States. The 400th anniversary of the arrival in Virginia by English Pilgrims, Wampanoags is this year. These historic events are attracting a lot of public attention. But each only makes sense when seen in the context of a century that defined enduring aspects of American life, especially European colonists’ efforts to take possession of Indigenous lands.
American legend has it that a Wampanoag group joined the English colonists to share a meal during the fall of 1621. In the 19th century, that feast became the focal point for celebration even though Pilgrims, according to William Bradford, their governor and primary historian, seem to have actually declared their first day of thanksgiving in 1623—two years later—when mid-summer rains soaked drought-parched fields. Abraham Lincoln made the fourth Thursday in November a national day of thanksgiving, but his proclamation didn’t mention either the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. (The next year his proclamation, which also ignored the colonists, took note of divine assistance in “many and signal victories over the enemy, who is of our own household,” a reference to the Civil War.) The U.S. Presidents began to remind the country about the Pilgrims throughout the twentieth century. They also remembered to mention the Native Americans at the end of the century. In 1984, Ronald Reagan even quoted a Seneca saying to demonstrate that “the native American Thanksgiving antedated those of the new Americans.”
The focus on 1621 is a distraction from our historical understanding. The annual Thanksgiving celebrations emphasize peaceful coexistence among newly arrived English migrants as well as settled Wampanoags. This has, possibly unintentionally minimized colonization’s violence. New York 1619 Project TimesThe harrowing realities of slavery and their legacy have been exposed. Similar to the above, one might wonder: How does understanding early American history change if conflicts between Indigenous people and those who are newcomers is central? It might seem comforting that Indigenous Americans and European colonists lived together in peace at times. However, violence was all too common in the area that would become the U.S.
Before 1607 when the English founded a Jamestown community, European relationships with Native American peoples were hostile. The Pueblo inhabitants of Acoma in New Mexico rebelled against Spanish efforts to force them into submission to a distant monarch. After the town’s residents killed a dozen Spaniards, a larger contingent of soldiers invaded the town, which had been occupied since the 12th century. After three days’ brutal fighting, hundreds of Pueblos were dead. Under orders of their commanders, the Spanish soldiers cut off every male foot over 25 years old and slaved all men and women. Two Hopis were cut off by the Spanish soldiers in the hope that they could be used as walking ads for colonization.
In the following decades, other European emissaries arrived in North America. The emissaries of other European nations travelled across the Atlantic in the belief that they were entitled to American territory by virtue of the act. They claimed they discovered lands that no Christian princes ruled, and so they asserted ownership for their monarch. This was a strategy established by Pope Alexander VI 1493 to protect the Americas.
Europeans were often surprised to find that Native Americans did not believe this doctrine was legitimate. Many resisted the temptation to allow foreigners to drive them off their land. European colonists and soldiers had fierce reactions to indigenous men and women who stood firm against incursions on their land.
An example of this was the Pequot War in 1637 that occurred on the Mystic River. This conflict might be better known as The Anglo-Pequot War. In fear that the Pequots might form an alliance against the Narragansetts nearby and force the Pilgrims from Plymouth and Puritans into the sea, colonists made an alliance for the Narragansetts. William Bradford, the Plymouth governor said that armed soldiers invaded the Pequot village to set it ablaze. The flames destroyed the Pequots’ weapons, homes and families. Colonists fired on those trying to flee. Bradford thought that 400 soldiers were killed. John Winthrop (the governor of Massachusetts) estimated that 700 people were killed or taken into slavery during the conflict. “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same,” Bradford memorably wrote of that terrible night, but the deaths were a “sweet sacrifice,” a phrase from Leviticus, for which the colonists “gave the praise thereof to God.”
Six years later warfare decimated the Dutch colony New Netherland, making it (modern New York) a shattered entity. Willem Kieft was determined to eliminate Indigenous resistance, and ordered attacks on Munsee-speaking communities that had been seeking refuge. One colonial witness claims that 80 Pavonia refugees were murdered by Dutch soldiers in one night. Some of their victims were also reported to have had their hands or legs slit by the soldiers, echoing the violence at Acoma. Near Stamford, an English veteran of the 1637 military war, who had offered his support to the Dutch, directed soldiers to light a Tankiteke settlement on fire, killing 700 within an hour.
Wherever European colonists were eager to increase their holdings and come into conflict with Indigenous peoples, violence was born. A confederation made up of Native peoples from southern New England, led by Metacomet (or Pometacomet to the English, King Philip), tried to stop colonial expansion by forging an alliance between Native communities. His rebellion spread to modern Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. It even reached Maine. Metacomet was hunted by armed colonists and some Native allies. Colonial soldiers arrived in South Kingston, Rhode Island, after a string of Native attacks on colonial villages. Over 100 colonial soldiers were killed in a pitched battle that is now called the Great Swamp Massacre. However, colonists set ablaze a Narragansett Campment. This killed at least 100 Native fighters and hundreds more non-combatants within a single night.
Metacomet was found by colonists in August 1676. The colonists decapitated Metacomet and cut off his head so they could show it to the public. It was a tactic that English officials used for years to discourage people from pirates. Massachusetts colonists sold the Natives they captured into slavery in West Indies.
In the face of such well-documented horrors, the legend of a single feast of turkey and venison in a small colonial town hardly seems the most important story we should be telling about America’s 17th century. Although Thanksgiving is often associated with acts of generosity, it might be a good idea to seperate the celebration from the reassuring tale that hides the horrific violence Native communities endured during the period of colonization and conquest.