One of the most cherished American holidays is Thanksgiving, a day that Abraham Lincoln officially declared in 1863, in praise of “our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” In the early 1900s, Gimbels and Macys saw dollar signs and commandeered the celebration, evicted the heavenly Father altogether, added a parade with Santa Claus, and the rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?
Every American school child learns of the harvest feast where the friendly local Indians broke bread and shared turkey with the black-hatted, big-buckled European Pilgrims in a festival of interracial harmony and mutual respect. Yet, there is almost nothing true about this idyllic scenario—not even the turkey. This comforting mythology has concealed some of the bloodiest acts of race hate in American history. Let us pull the stuffing out of this Thanksgiving myth and get down to the bones of the Thanksgiving idea, which has some harsh and disturbing truths.
As soon as the Europeans set foot upon the shore (there actually never was a Plymouth Rock), and before the whites even saw their first Indian, they set about to pillage their surroundings:
• They found an Indian food storehouse and ransacked it, stealing the corn and a trap for hunting game.
• They desecrated the gravesite of an Indian child, stealing the valuable contents and throwing the body back.
• They broke into two Indian homes when the families were gone and stole their belongings.
To the Indians this was frighteningly familiar. Still, they tried to make peace with these strange and violent people from across the sea. The Indian Squanto had been kidnapped in an earlier British invasion and forcibly taken to Europe. Somehow he made his way back to America, and, having learned English, he was sent out to “greet” the newcomers.
Despite the assistance of the Indian farmers the Pilgrim crop had failed miserably in 1621, but the Indians produced twenty acres of corn without which the colonists would have surely perished. They held a feast and invited the Indian leader Massasoit, and it was Massasoit—not the Pilgrims—who then invited ninety or more of his fellow Indians. 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 beer. In fact, each Pilgrim drank at least a half gallon of ale a day, which they preferred even to water. It may be about the only Thanksgiving tradition that has survived intact to this day.
But there is more troubling reality behind this interracial gathering. The Europeans erected an 11-foot-high wall around their entire settlement for the purpose of keeping the Indians out. Just days before the “feast,” a gang of Pilgrims actively sought to murder a local Indian leader. They eventually killed and beheaded an Indian, brought the head to their Plymouth compound, where they impaled it on a wooden spike, and displayed it for many years.
By 1636, these Pilgrims had been joined by many more even “holier” European colonists known as Puritans, and their thirst for Indian blood could only be described as insatiable. They trapped some 700 Pequot Indian men, women, and children near the mouth of the Mystic River and attacked them with unrelenting military force. Only a handful escaped and few prisoners were taken. They wrote proudly of the massacre: “To see [the Indians] frying in the fire, and the streams of their blood quenching the same, and the stench was horrible; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave praise thereof to God.” This event marked what was most likely the first actual Thanksgiving.
Soon, the European intruders were in a full-scale war with the Indians. A people who had for thousands of years been peaceable farmers were now forced into humiliating submission. They struck out in 1675 with raids on several isolated frontier towns but the unrelenting aggression of the white man was too much to overcome. It took only a half a century for the Europeans to annihilate the Red nation—it must have been a record even for them. Historian Douglas Edward Leach describes the bitter end: “The ruthless executions, the cruel sentences…were all aimed at the same goal—unchallengeable white supremacy in southern New England.”
In the midst of the Holocaust of the Red Man, Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley declared in 1704 a “General Thanksgiving”—not to celebrate the brotherhood of man, but for “[God’s] infinite Goodness to extend His Favors…In defeating and disappointing…the Expeditions of the Enemy [Indians] against us, And the good Success given us against them, by delivering so many of them into our hands…”
Just two years later one could reap about a $100 reward in Massachusetts for the scalp of an Indian. According to one scholar, “Hunting redskins became…a popular sport in New England, especially since prisoners were worth good money…”
If this is the first time you have heard any of this history, don’t get mad at the Final Call. Ask your teachers why they didn’t tell you. Ask them what’s behind their other cherished holidays and traditions.
Enjoy your turkey.
[Much of this information with references can be found in the book The Hidden History of Massachusetts: A Guide for Black Folks (2003)]