The First Thanksgiving
"Stools of stumps made good seats for the Pilgrim population. The Indians sat on the ground, gnawing on deer bones, tearing fowl apart, and lapping up the very ancient and rancid butter with grunts of appreciation. It is a pretty picture to think of."
- from Old Glory, by Samuel Eliot Morison
A harvest feast did take place in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, probably in mid-October and the Indians who attended were not even invited. It later became known as "Thanksgiving" but the Pilgrims never called it that. The pilgrim crop had failed miserably that year, but the agricultural expertise of the Pilgrims’ Indian friend Squanto had produced 20 acres of corn without which the Pilgrims would have surely perished. The Pilgrims invited Massasoit, and it was he who then invited 90 or more of his Indian brothers and sisters to the affair to the chagrin of the indignant Europeans. No turkey, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie was served, no prayers were offered and the Indians were not invited back.
The Pilgrims did, however, consume a good deal of home brew. In fact, each Pilgrim drank at least a half gallon of ale a day which they preferred even to water.
Contrary to popular mythology, the Pilgrims were no friends to the majority of local Indians. Just days before this alleged Thanksgiving communion, a company of Pilgrims led by Myles Standish actively sought the head of a local chief.
They deliberately caused a rivalry between two friendly Indians, putting one against the other in an attempt to obtain "better intelligence and make them both more diligent." An 11-foot-high wall was erected around the entire settlement for the purpose of keeping the Indians out.
Standish eventually got his bloody prize. He beheaded an Indian brave named Wituwamat and brought the head to Plymouth where it was displayed on a wooden spike for many years. Just a few years later, in about 1636, a force of colonists trapped some 700 Pequot Indian men, women, and children near the mouth of the Mystic River. English Captain John Mason attacked the Indian camp with "fire, sword, blunderbuss, and tomahawk." Only a handful escaped and few prisoners were taken, to the great delight of the Pilgrims:
Renamed "King Philip" by the White man, Metacomet watched the steady erosion of the lifestyle and culture of his people as European laws and values engulfed them. Forced into humiliating submission by the power of a distant king, Metacomet struck out in 1675 with raids on several isolated frontier towns. The expedient use of the so-called "Praying Indians," natives converted by the colonists to "Christianity," ultimately defeated the great Indian nation, just half a century after the arrival of the European historian Douglas Edward Leach describes the bitter end:
When Captain Benjamin Church tracked down and assassinated Metacomet, his body was quartered and parts were "left for the wolves." The great Indian chief’s hands were cut off and sent to Boston and his head went to Plymouth where it was set upon a pole on Thanksgiving Day, 1676. Metacomet’s nine-year-old son was destined for execution, the Puritan reasoning being that the offspring of the devil must pay for the sins of their father. He was instead shipped to the Caribbean to serve his life in slavery. In the midst of the Holocaust of the Red Man, Governor Dudley declared in 1704 a "General Thanksgiving" not to celebrate the brotherhood of man but for:
The model of the Indian reservation system in North America had its origin in Massachusetts. A series of legislative acts "for the better regulation of the Indians" established Indian settlements throughout the state. A White overseer was appointed and white Christianity was imposed. Historian George F. Weston wrote that demand was great for rope maker John Harrison, what with "the need for rigging for all the ships and a new rope every time an Indian was hanged." Bon Appetite!
- Dr. Tingba Apidta is author of The Hidden History of Massachusetts: A Guide for Black Folks and also The Hidden History of Washington, DC