By 1622, the book “Mourt’s Relation” records a rich compendium of Pilgrim life which includes a visit from the Massisoit, Ousa Mequin, of the Pokanokets then having difficulties with the neighboring Narragansetts.
However, the harsh winter caused the Pilgrims to rob winter corn stores and take Indian grave goods that provoked hostilities; and in 1623, Captain Myles Standish chopped off the head of a local sachem and posted the first Indian head at Plymouth as a warning to others. The colonists received his head “with joy.” Thus, the much noted first “Thanksgiving” of 1621 must be contextualized.
According to the “Journal of John Winthrop (1630-1649),” the first official day of “thanks” was celebrated on Oct. 12, 1637, when the Massachusetts Bay governor proclaimed “A day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequots. …”
Captains John Underhill and John Masson, with 400 fighting men, including Narragansett and Mohegan allies conducted a full scale “ethnic cleansing” of the Pequots by setting fire to the sleeping village shortly before dawn. English sources estimated that 400 – 700 people were killed in the Mystic fort attack. The men “had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings,” according to the journal.
The favorable issue of the Pequot War (1636-1637) was in large measure due to Roger Williams’ intelligences, aided by Canonicus, and his knowledge of the Indian language, customs and character. Williams sent word to Gov. John Winthrop from Massachusetts Bay Colony “To assault at night, by which the English, being armed, may enter their [Pequot] houses and do what execution they please.”
In 1638, John Winthrop’s journal also notes the earliest recorded account of Negro trafficking in colonial New England. On a return trip to Boston, Captain William Pierce, who piloted the Salem ship “Desire,” the first slave ship to start the trade and lead Massachusetts to economic independence, had gone to Providence and Tortugas in the West Indies with a cargo including Pequot combatants captured in the Pequot War to be sold as slaves. According to John Winthrop, Pierce brought back “salt, cotton, tobacco and Negros. …” Some anthropologists assert that the arrival of African slaves would help assure the survival of some Indian communities into the 21st century – while also setting the stage for some of the racial tension today. English troops would later repeat the approach learned at the Pequot Massacre against the Narragansetts.
Narragansett sachem Canonicus and his successor Miantinomo gifted Williams land to establish the tiny New English settlement, Providence Plantations. Their generosity and kindness would soon be forgotten. On June 24, King Philip’s War broke out at Mount Hope and Swansea and swept across that area and on to Rhode Island where Providence, Cranston and Warwick were all attacked including Roger Williams’ house and papers. Many towns were burned, such as Taunton, Middleborough, Brookfield, Deerfield, Northampton, Springfield, Groton, Medfield and 16 houses in Plymouth. More than half the 90 towns of New England were attacked in this campaign in the bloodiest war in America until that time.
Colonists decided to make a punitive strike against the neutral Narragansetts for fear of uprisings. A culminating event was on Dec. 19, 1675 during the Great Swamp Fight, when 700 Narragansetts, mostly women and children were killed near Kingstown, Rhode Island by English forces of 1,500 soldiers from Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony and Connecticut Colony lead by General Winslow and Indian fighter Benjamin Church. English losses numbered 93 and some 500 Indians were killed or captured for sale as slaves in New England for exportation to the Caribbean, Spain, Portugal, and in some cases Africa to refill coffers drained by military costs and rebuild Providence.
Later, under the authority of Gov. Josiah Winslow of Plymouth, 1,000 men attacked a defending force of 2,000 Narragansetts in their palisade fort at Mount Hope; and on Aug. 12, 1676, Philip fled to the Miry Swamp where he was assassinated by one of Captain Benjamin Church’s Indian Rangers, John Alderman. Upon inspection of Philip’s body, Church is quoted as saying “a doleful, great, naked, dirty beast.”
Philip was then butchered in a manner standard with English punishment for treason by drawing and quartering. He was left unburied and beheaded. His head was put on a pike and left there for 20 years at Plymouth, his hand was nailed up in Boston. King Phillip’s War was officially over.
In the fall of 1676 the sailing ship “Seaflower” departed from Boston Harbor for the Caribbean, its cargo hold filled with nearly 200 “heathen Malefactors men, women and children” sentenced to “Perpetual Servitude & slavery.”
The essential mythology of the contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is based on what appeared to be amicable relationships between the Wampanoags led by the Massasoit and the first generation of Pilgrims in Plymouth. The realities of the first encounter and the long history of subsequent violence and discrimination suffered by Native people across this Great Turtle Island (what is now called the United States of America) has been ignored or inaccurately represented.
America has attempted to right some of these wrongs, as have the other nations whose indigenous peoples suffered the same or similar fates, such as Canada and Australia. Canada has ceded to its indigenous population a huge autonomous territory, Nunavit, while Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has formally apologized to its aboriginal population. In 1998, President William J. Clinton signed an official proclamation designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month. The proclamation urges Americans, as well as their elected representatives at the federal, state, local and tribal levels to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities.
American Indians and their allies who commemorate Thanksgiving as a “Day of Mourning” do not advocate abolishing the cherished American holiday. It was after the declaration of a war of independence by General George Washington and his comrades that really nudged this forward as an expression of national unity and purpose to rally the American troops against the English king. And with a war to fight, constitution to write and a busy nation-building agenda he did not get around to declaring it a holiday until 1789; 168 years after the “first” Thanksgiving.
Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War was so desperate to win that he “freed the slaves” and declared Thanksgiving both in the same year right in the middle of the war. His Thanksgiving Proclamation said that forever more, the last Thursday of November would be devoted to this celebration that was, by that time fairly confounded about date, place and purpose. Then it was World War II and the depression that brought Thanksgiving close to its present status. We were again in the middle of a major war and an economic collapse when in 1939, 1940 and 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt tried to unify the nation (and extend the Christmas shopping season to get the economy rolling) proposed that Thanksgiving should be on the third Thursday in November, Congress approved but designated the fourth Thursday instead.
American Indians do ask that America face its history with a candor and compassion that admits and honors the truth of what really happened to the New England Indians, the first who encountered the Europeans in North America.
Myths as powerful as that on which Thanksgiving rests are hard to confront and deconstruct. But, in reconstructing the reality of that historic meeting, based on the words of the actors themselves, the holiday is freed to offer thanks for the real legacy of the Indian-European encounter and exchange. The contributions, influences and legacies of American Indians can be seen in all aspects of our lives, and all over the continent of America – from democratic government, place names, loan words, conservation, child rearing, warfare, clothing, to the foods we eat; much thanks is owed to American Indians.
Julianne Jennings is a Nottoway Cheroenhaka artist and educator. She is an adjunct professor at Eastern Connecticut State University.