The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue
In truth, massacres, disease and American Indian tribal politics are what shaped the Pilgrim-Indian alliance at the root of the holiday
In Thanksgiving pageants held at schools across the United States, children don headdresses colored with craft-store feathers and share tables with classmates wearing black construction paper hats. It’s a tradition that pulls on a history passed down through the generations of what happened in Plymouth: local Native Americans welcomed the courageous, pioneering pilgrims to a celebratory feast.
But, as David Silverman writes in his new book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, much of that story is a myth riddled with historical inaccuracies. Beyond that, Silverman argues that the telling and retelling of these falsehoods is deeply harmful to the Wampanoag Indians whose lives and society were forever damaged after the English arrived in Plymouth.
Silverman’s book focuses on the Wampanoags. When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, the sachem (chief) Ousamequin offered the new arrivals an entente, primarily as a way to protect the Wampanoags against their rivals, the Narragansetts. For 50 years, the alliance was tested by colonial land expansion, the spread of disease, and the exploitation of resources on Wampanoag land. Then, tensions ignited into war. Known as King Philip’s War (or the Great Narragansett War), the conflict devastated the Wampanoags and forever shifted the balance of power in favor of European arrivals. Wampanoags today remember the Pilgrims’ entry to their homeland as a day of deep mourning, rather than a moment of giving thanks.
We spoke with Silverman, a historian at George Washington University, about his research and the argument he makes in his book.
The Myth of Thanksgiving
How did you become interested in this story?
I've had a great many conversations with Wampanoag people, in which they talk about how burdensome Thanksgiving is for them, particularly for their kids. Wampanoag adults have memories of being a kid during Thanksgiving season, sitting in school, feeling invisible and having to wade through the nonsense that teachers were shoveling their way. They felt like their people's history as they understood it was being misrepresented. They felt that not only their classes, but society in general was making light of historical trauma which weighs around their neck like a millstone. Those stories really resonated with me.
What is the Thanksgiving myth?
The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.
What are the most poignant inaccuracies in this story?
One is that history doesn’t begin for Native people until Europeans arrive. People had been in the Americas for least 12,000 years and according to some Native traditions, since the beginning of time. And having history start with the English is a way of dismissing all that. The second is that the arrival of the Mayflower is some kind of first-contact episode. It’s not. Wampanoags had a century of contact with Europeans–it was bloody and it involved slave raiding by Europeans. At least two and maybe more Wampanoags, when the Pilgrims arrived, spoke English, had already been to Europe and back and knew the very organizers of the Pilgrims’ venture.
Most poignantly, using a shared dinner as a symbol for colonialism really has it backward. No question about it, Wampanoag leader Ousamequin reached out to the English at Plymouth and wanted an alliance with them. But it’s not because he was innately friendly. It’s because his people have been decimated by an epidemic disease, and Ousamequin sees the English as an opportunity to fend off his tribal rebels. That’s not the stuff of Thanksgiving pageants. The Thanksgiving myth doesn’t address the deterioration of this relationship culminating in one of the most horrific colonial Indian wars on record, King Philip’s War, and also doesn’t address Wampanoag survival and adaptation over the centuries, which is why they’re still here, despite the odds.
The Thanksgiving Feast
How did the Great Dinner become the focal point of the modern Thanksgiving holiday?
For quite a long time, English people had been celebrating Thanksgivings that didn’t involve feasting—they involved fasting and prayer and supplication to God. In 1769, a group of pilgrim descendants who lived in Plymouth felt like their cultural authority was slipping away as New England became less relevant within the colonies and the early republic, and wanted to boost tourism. So, they started to plant the seeds of this idea that the pilgrims were the fathers of America.
What really made it the story is that a publication mentioning that dinner published by the Rev. Alexander Young included a footnote that said, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the great festival of New England.” People picked up on this footnote. The idea became pretty widely accepted, and Abraham Lincoln declared it a holiday during the Civil War to foster unity.
It gained purchase in the late 19th century, when there was an enormous amount of anxiety and agitation over immigration. The white Protestant stock of the United States was widely unhappy about the influx of European Catholics and Jews, and wanted to assert its cultural authority over these newcomers. How better to do that than to create this national founding myth around the Pilgrims and the Indians inviting them to take over the land?
This mythmaking was also impacted by the racial politics of the late 19th century. The Indian Wars were coming to a close and that was an opportune time to have Indians included in a national founding myth. You couldn’t have done that when people were reading newspaper accounts on a regular basis of atrocious violence between white Americans and Native people in the West. What’s more, during Reconstruction, that Thanksgiving myth allowed New Englanders to create this idea that bloodless colonialism in their region was the origin of the country, having nothing to do with the Indian Wars and slavery. Americans could feel good about their colonial past without having to confront the really dark characteristics of it.
Can you explain the discrepancies in English and Wampanoag conceptions of property?
It's incorrect as is widely assumed that native people had no sense of property. They didn't have private property, but they had community property, and they certainly understood where their people's land started and where it ended. And so, when Europeans come to the Americas and they buy land from the Wampanoags, the Wampanoags initially assume the English are buying into Wampanoag country, not that they're buying Wampanoag country out from under their feet.
Imagine a flotilla of Wampanoag canoes crosses the Atlantic and goes to England, and then the Wampanoags buy land from the English there. Has that land now passed out of the jurisdiction of England and become the Wampanoags’? No, that's ridiculous. But that's precisely what the English were assuming on this side of the Atlantic. Part of what King Philip's War was about is Wampanoag people saying, ‘Enough, you're not going to turn us into a landless, subjugated people.’
Did all Wampanoags want to enter into alliance with the English?
From the very beginning, a sizable number of Wampanoags disagreed with Ousamequin's decision to reach out to [the English] and tried to undermine the alliance. Ousamequin puts down multiple plots to wipe out the colony and unseat him. Some Wampanoags say, ‘Let's make an alliance with the Narragansetts and get rid of these English. They've been raiding our coast for decades, enslaving our people, carrying them off to unknown fates and they can't be trusted.’ Some Wampanoags believed they caused epidemics and there were prophecies that this would be the end of the People.
When the English arrived, they entered a multilateral Indian political world in which the internal politics of the Wampanoag tribe and the intertribal politics of the Wampanoag tribe were paramount. To the degree the Wampanoags dealt with the English, it was to adjust the power dynamics of Indian country.
You write that during King Philip’s War, efforts to unify different tribes against the settlers weren’t always successful. Why was that?
The politics of Indian country are more important to native people than their differences with colonists. There were no ‘Indians’ when the English arrived. Native people didn't conceive of themselves as Indians—that's an identity that they have had to learn through their shared struggles with colleagues. And it takes a long time—they have been here for 12,000 plus years, and there are a lot of differences between them. Their focus is on their own people, not on the shared interests of Indians and very often, what's in the best interest of their own people is cutting deals with colonial powers with an eye towards combating their native rivals.
How does your telling of these events differ from other existing scholarship?
The main difference has to do with King Philip's War. The question is whether native people, led by Metacomet, or Philip as the English call him, were plotting a multi-tribal uprising against the English. I think they were. Some of my historian colleagues think it's a figment of paranoid English imagination. But I see a lot of warning signals building during the 1660s and 70s from Englishmen who lived cheek-by-jowl with Wampanoag people and were terrified of what they were seeing on the ground. I see a pattern of political meetings between native leaders who hated each other. And yet, they were getting together over and over and over again—it all adds up to me.
There's this tendency to see the English as the devils in all of this. I don't think there's any question they’re in the wrong, but it doesn't let them off the hook to say that native people wouldn't take it anymore. And regardless of that, I think the evidence shows that native people had reached their limit and recognize that if they didn't rise up immediately, they were going to become landless subordinates to English authority.
This is about as contrary to the Thanksgiving myth that one can get. That's the story we should be teaching our kids. They should be learning about why native people reached that point, rather than this nonsense that native people willingly handed off their country to the invaders. It does damage to how our native countrymen and women feel as part of this country, it makes white Americans a lot less reflective about where their privilege comes from, and it makes us a lot less critical as a country when it comes to interrogating the rationales that leaders will marshal to act aggressively against foreign others. If we're taught to cut through colonial rhetoric we'll be better positioned to cut through modern colonial and imperial rhetoric.
A Note to our Readers
Smithsonian magazine participates in affiliate link advertising programs. If you purchase an item through these links, we receive a commission.