This holiday does not have as friendly a history as many people believe. Quite the contrary: the dark history of Thanksgiving is surrounded by tales of blood, brutality and slaughter.
We all know that Thanksgiving is an American holiday meant to celebrate and be grateful for our blessings and the friendship of others. What many ignore, however, is that behind this seemingly joyous occasion lies a dark story full of conflict, blood, and genocide.
The origins of Thanksgiving, like with most other traditional festivities, are rooted in old pagan rites. The holiday has its earliest source in ancient customs found throughout the globe that allocated a day of giving thanks for a successful harvest and the fortunes or blessings of the previous year. More specifically, however, it is often said that the current American tradition of Thanksgiving dates back to the establishment of the Plymouth Colony in what today is Massachusetts, in 1620.
Problems with the official story
Most schools teach that Thanksgiving was born when some English religious dissenters, the pilgrims, were struggling to settle in Plymouth and were warmly received by friendly, local Native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe, who taught them how to survive in the New World. To celebrate their success and to honor each other, everyone got together and threw an affectionate feast in which the pilgrims showed their gratitude. That sounds like a lovely story! But, it falls way short of showing the whole picture.
As we mentioned before, celebrations meant to give thanks for the harvesting season (which mostly fall around the same dates) were plentiful and varied much before the pilgrim story, and it’s hard to pinpoint a single event as the actual birth of the contemporary version of the holiday. Other settlers in Virginia celebrated their arrival with an annual Thanksgiving day since 1619, for example. Decades before, some Spanish settlers in the colonies got together yearly with the Seloy tribe for a friendly feast. Yet others believe Thanksgiving truly began when, in 1637, Massachusetts colony governor John Winthrop declared a day to give thanks for the fact that colonial soldiers had recently slaughtered over seven hundred members of the Pequot tribe, including women and children, in Connecticut.
This is not a history of friendship
It is fairly well-documented that the English, and later Americans, didn’t in fact get along with their native neighbors. Actually, that’s an understatement. Native Americans were driven out of their land, hunted and virtually exterminated by the settlers during the centuries following the latter’s arrival, so it’s hardly surprising that the story surrounding Thanksgiving involves a bloody conflict.
Though it is true that initially the Plymouth settlers held rather good relations with the Wampanoag tribe—in fact, they had an official alliance against the French and other rivals—, this friendship eventually eroded. Little by little, the colonists of Plymouth, though indebted to the Wampanoag, took over their land, straining the locals’ way of life. If that was not enough, disease, spread by the newcomers, decimated the native population.
The Sad Truth: King Philip’s War
After enduring much oppression and injustice, a new leader rose to power among the Wampanoag. Metacomet, son of Massasoit, knew his people had had enough, and was willing to fight back. Known by the English as “King Philip,” the new leader ordered raids against the colonies after many of his men were executed for murdering a Punkapoag interpreter.
In 1675 the conflict led to a calamitous, all-out war. And the consequences, surely enough, were catastrophic.
On top of famine and disease, raids grew increasingly common. Abductions, slaughter, razing, and pillaging became everyday affairs, and on both sides the casualties were high. But whereas the colonists had the privilege of relocating to more fortified settlements, the Wampanoag were simply forced to leave their villages and flee to distant regions.
On August 12, 1676, Metacomet was returning home after a failed attempt to recruit allies in New York. A group of rangers under the command of Captain Benjamin Church had been hunting him for a while, and when he was traveling through the Miery Swamp in Bristol, he was finally shot dead. His body was quartered and hung from trees, and his head was mounted on a pike at the entrance of Plymouth, where for over twenty years it served as a warning for those who would rise against the conquering ambition of the colonies. The chief’s wife and nine-year-old son were subsequently sold into slavery. In the end of what has become known as “King Philip’s War,” colonists lost around 30% of their people, while nearly half of the Native American population was annihilated. A heavy toll indeed.
Thanksgiving as an ode to immigration
To say Native Americans suffered greatly with the arrival of ambitious conquerors is putting it mildly. Their homes were obliterated, their way of life was basically destroyed, and their community was massacred. There are no merits to this colonial genocide other than a tale of warning against the greed of a technologically superior civilization immigrating into exploitable land, where vulnerable communities have little chance against such foreign power. If there’s anything to learn from this tale, it’s that immigration by itself can be a great thing: the problem arises when those who pretend to settle in a new land are so greedy and powerful that they will do anything to get what they unduly want.
Be that as it may, Thanksgiving is, at its core, an ode to the wonders of migration, of human kindness and mutual friendship. Even more than celebrating the impersonal fortune of a good harvest, American Thanksgiving is about celebrating humanity itself. After all and above anything else, it intrinsically commemorates immigrants and immigration as a whole. Now more than ever, we must keep that in mind.
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