Celebration or day of mourning? The fascinating true story of the first Thanksgiving

It really happened — and they might have eaten turkey. But the first Thanksgiving was a tense political gambit

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published November 29, 2019 6:00AM (EST)

The First Thanksgiving, 1621 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1863-1930, artist. Published by the Foundation Press, Inc., c1932. Photomechanical print halftone, colour. Pilgrims and Natives gather to share meal. (Photo by:  (Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The First Thanksgiving, 1621 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1863-1930, artist. Published by the Foundation Press, Inc., c1932. Photomechanical print halftone, colour. Pilgrims and Natives gather to share meal. (Photo by: (Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Can you name the Native American tribe with whom the Pilgrims shared America’s first Thanksgiving?

Can you name the country from which the Pilgrims came?

It is more likely than not that most readers here knew the answer to the second question — England — but not the first. Yet to understand the story of the first Thanksgiving, one must understand the political and social conditions that caused the Wampanoag people to rush to the defense of the Plymouth colonists when they believed them to be under attack. On a broader level, it is also essential to recognize that a day which is celebrated by millions of Americans as one for feeling gratitude and honoring peace is, for many Native Americans, felt as a day of mourning. While the Wampanoags and English may have gotten along during that feast, it was one step in a larger process that culminated in the dispossession, exile, oppression and death of thousands of Native American tribes throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Salon reached out to David J. Silverman, a historian who wrote the new book “This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving,” for his thoughts on what every American should know about the first Thanksgiving.

What aspects of the Thanksgiving story does your book illuminate that are not widely known to the general public?

Fundamentally, what I'm doing is I'm placing Wampanoag people at the very center of the story. Typically in the Thanksgiving myth, the identity of the Native people goes unremarked, they're just "the Indians," and they're torn out of their long historical context. They seem like people without a history until the English arrive. What's more is, after the famous feast between the Pilgrims and the Indians, the Indians then somehow disappear, and the entire point of the myth is to make it seem as if Native people voluntarily ceded their country to colonists.

What I'm doing, by contrast, is placing this story within the very broad context of Wampanoag history, both before and after the arrival of the English. One thing I emphasize is that the Wampanoags had a history several thousands of years old before the English arrived, and that history shaped who they were, how they responded to other people, their connections to the land, and fundamentally shaped the history of English colonization and Indian response in southern New England.

What's more, I'm following the history of Plymouth's relationship with the Wampanoags long after the famous Thanksgiving feast. I acknowledge that the myth has some element of truth to it, insofar as it's about the formation of an alliance between the Wampanoags and the English. What I'm telling is the story of the breakdown of that alliance, the story of the Wampanoags and the English nearly coming to war repeatedly before they ultimately did exchange blows in King Philip's War of 1675 and '76.

And then finally, I'm extending the story of the Wampanoags long after King Philip's War, which is where, if history books address them at all, it's where they drop the story. I'm taking the story all the way to the present day to demonstrate how Native people, and the Wampanoags in particular, have struggled with colonialism throughout the centuries, and how this myth of the first Thanksgiving and of Native consent to colonization just hangs around their necks like a millstone.

Are there any Wampanoag people left today?

Many. There are two federally recognized Wampanoag tribes in Massachusetts. One is the Aquinnah or Gay Head Wampanoag, who have a reservation on Martha's Vineyard, the other are the Mashpee Wampanoags, who have a reservation on Cape Cod. And then there are other smaller non-recognized Wampanoag bands throughout the region. So, yeah, there are many thousands of enrolled Wampanoag people throughout the region, and indeed throughout the country.

In terms of the original Thanksgiving feast itself, what can you tell us about the accuracy of the common conception? People imagine it as being this peaceful occasion, in which, of course, they assume that turkey and corn and all these other modern dishes were served. What was actually served? How many people were there? What was its purpose?

Well, I think where our framing of it is wrong is that we treat this event as if it was unmarked by tension, and as if it took place in a vacuum of politics. In fact, leading up to that event, the, and indeed leading up to the arrival of the Mayflower, the Wampanoag had experienced years, and perhaps even several decades, of slaving and raiding by European explorers along the coast, so they were quite wary of the English. Likewise, the English were quite wary of them. The Wampanoags outnumbered the colonists of Plymouth several-fold and represented a real threat to them. At the same time, the English realized that they needed the Wampanoags to supply them with food and protection if they had any hope of their colony succeeding.

It's worth keeping in mind that up to this point in time in history, most colonies had failed. The English, and most other European nations for that matter, didn't have a very good track record of establishing long-term colonies, largely because their relationships with neighboring native people went awry, so there's a great deal of tension in all of this.

But in terms of the dinner itself, what happened was — here the myth gets most of these details right. The English had a really difficult time during their first year on the New England coast. They had lost half their numbers to disease and they were struggling to raise their own food. The power politics of intertribal relations was very difficult for them to get a handle on, so they were very fortunate to make it to the fall of 1621. And when they were finally capable of feeding themselves, and when they finally realized that the large-scale losses of their population to disease had ended, it was cause for celebration, so they did begin the celebration.

When they started firing their guns at that celebration, the Wampanoags were on alert and believed that the colony was under attack, whether from the Narragansett Indians to the west who were hostile both to the Wampanoags and the Plymouth Colony, or from the French or the Spanish who were known to roam the coast. So with that, 90 Wampanoags showed up at Plymouth to defend the place, and at that point the feast begins. This was a moment, by the way, when the Wampanoags arrived, that could have easily degenerated into bloodshed. In most other contexts, it would have. But it didn't in this case. The two groups had established enough of a relationship that they were able to leave their most violent impulses aside, so they did feast together over the course of a couple of days.

One of the ways that the myth of the first Thanksgiving gets the story wrong is that it attributes a great deal of importance to this event. In fact the political alliance between the Wampanoags and the English was forged through a series of other episodes that are less subject to myth-making, that are awash in power politics and even violence. Neither side in this first Thanksgiving appears to have put an awful lot of stock in that actual event.

In terms of what they ate, it was mostly wild foods: venison, which the Wampanoags contributed, eel, various fish. It's quite possible that they ate turkey but we're not sure about that. What we do know is that they were eating fowl. There's one mention later that the English had managed to bag a number of turkey that season, but it's hard to know. My guess would be that they were eating turkey, duck, goose and the like. And then there would have been some basic crops that the English raised; corn and beans, fundamentally Indian crops rather than English crops. There was no sugar, so there were no desserts. There might have been some root vegetables; that's probably about it in terms of vegetables.

This was not a Thanksgiving as we imagine it today. I should note too that there was a lack of furniture and even lack of buildings in which to have an indoor dinner. So most of this feasting took place outside in very rudimentary conditions.

Why did the Wampanoags show mercy toward the English colonists? Why were they willing to forge this alliance, given that they had sound political reasons for being suspicious, or even hostile?

Well this is one of the critical questions that I think we as a society need to pose to this myth, because what the myth posits is that the Indians, again not identified as Wampanoags, the Indians were just friendly. Well, of course that's not the case, people aren't just friendly or just hostile. People normally have reasons for their approach to foreign groups. As I mentioned, the Wampanoags had experienced years of raids, slaving, and for that matter, also mutually profitable trade with European explorers along the coast. So they had realized that the best approach to these newcomers was often to shoot first and ask questions later. Had the English arrived in 1614 or 1615, that might very well have been the Wampanoags' response.

But something happened just before the Mayflower arrived off Cape Cod, and that is that the Wampanoags and many of their neighbors to the north were utterly devastated by an epidemic disease. And we don't know what that disease was. It could have been smallpox. Contemporaries identified it as a "plague" — not "the plague" but a plague, which was a general term for a terrible disease. We just don't know what it was. But what we do know is that it utterly eviscerated a number of village-sized communities along the coast from southern Maine all the way to Cape Cod. It did not spread to the Wampanoags' rivals to the west, the Narragansetts.

So what happens in the wake of this disease, which knifes through coastal communities between 1616 and 1619, is that the Narragansetts began raiding the Wampanoags, trying to reduce them to tributary status. And then all of a sudden the English arrive, and the Wampanoag sachem, or chief, sees an opportunity to ally with the English, gain their trade and metal tools and weapons and cloth and beads and the like, and gain their military alliance to use to offset the Narragansett threat. So in other words, it's fundamentally intertribal politics that's driving the Wampanoag response to these newcomers.

That sort of puts into perspective a point I've often made in private conversations, which is we tend to think of Native American history as this monolith, but there were thousands of tribes who existed in the American continents before Europeans arrived. I mean, it sounds like there's this rich history of political intrigue that is analogous to the histories that existed in Europe or Asia, but that has been mostly lost to history. Am I wrong?

I think that's absolutely right. The fact of the matter is, none of the Native people in 1620 conceived of themselves as "Indians." There were no Indians then. That's a category of human difference that Europeans invent and then impose on indigenous people. It's going to take a long time, in some cases even centuries, for Native people to appropriate that identity as something meaningful for them, and that organizes them on a large scale.

In the short term, intertribal and even intra-tribal politics is what's driving Native American responses to Europeans. A better way to think about this period is not in terms of Indian-colonial relations, but rather to think of European colonies as just another tribe in a dynamic, highly competitive, intertribal environment.

What contribution do you think your book can make toward modern politics? Because we certainly live in an era where racism seems to have made a resurgence. We have an American president who openly admires Andrew Jackson as being his hero, even though Jackson committed genocide against Native American tribes. What would your thoughts be on that?

I think there are a couple of ways in which the story that I'm telling here can contribute to a more compassionate, thoughtful politics today. One is that by asking readers to recognize that Native people are our fellow Americans, they are still very much with us, that they are part of modern society, and that in many cases, particularly in the case of the Wampanoags, they mourn on Thanksgiving Day. They mourn the impact of colonization on their peoples, they mourn their losses over generations. What I hope bringing that story to light will do is make non-Native Americans more compassionate, understanding and thoughtful, toward Native Americans.

Many Native people lament that non-Native people assume that they've disappeared, assume that the adjustments they have made to modern life somehow makes them inauthentically Indian. And in turn, non-Native Americans don't recognize that many of these native communities have rights to their sovereignty, to their land, to their cultural self-determination, that need to be regularly renewed and acknowledged.

So I think in that respect I'm making a contribution, but there's another way that I think this book makes a contribution. What I don't think many people recognize, as we ask our grade school children to participate in Thanksgiving pageants and to celebrate this mythical Native American consent to colonialism — what we're asking them to do is identify with English colonists as "we" and to think of the Native historical actors as "them.” In other words, it's really a way of trying to convince Americans, especially those of European descent, to identify with the pilgrims as fellow white people and to think of them as the proprietors of the country.

One of the points I make in the book is that I am descended neither from pilgrims nor from Wampanoags, and yet the descendants of both groups are my fellow Americans. The descendants of both groups contributed deeply to this country's history, and neither group has a monopoly on claims to be the founders of this country. I think we need to recognize the many ways that we teach history, including the ways that we memorialize Thanksgiving, sends a message that white Christians are the proprietors of this country.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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