The First Thanksgiving: What really happened.
November 14, 2007
THE WAY AMERICA envisions that first Thanksgiving, goes something like this: Civilized European pilgrims set out across the Atlantic Ocean, and were rewarded with an entire continent of untold wealth. Oh sure there were a few unclothed savages already there, but they were not a problem that couldn’t be dealt with. Journals and letters written by those first settlers contain accounts of plundering native stores of food, tools and furs. If the Pilgrims found it, they took it.
After working, praying and surviving a bitter winter, the Pilgrim Fathers brought in a bountiful harvest produced by careful tending of seeds that they had brought from home. Inviting their heathen neighbors to join them, the Pilgrims gave thanks for their New World and its riches at a meal consisting of turkey, squash, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Afterwards, the men sat around smoking and telling stories while the women cleaned up.
Now for the Native American side of the story:
What really happened was more like this: After two months and two deaths on the Mayflower crossing in 1620, the Pilgrims landed on the coast of Massachusetts, where an Algonquin-speaking group, the Wampanoags, lived. Clad in leather garments (adding furs during the winter) these native peoples skillfully cultivated corn, beans, squashes and pumpkins; hunted the woods for deer, elk and bear; and fished for salmon and herring. Like other members of what anthropologists now call the Woodland Culture, the Wampanoags looked upon deer, fish and turtle as totemic siblings, and had deep respect for every natural creature. When they hunted, they left offerings for other forest inhabitants, and they would never think of planting or harvesting without giving thanks for the fertility of Mother Earth.
From where the natives sat — especially one named Squanto, who’d learned English after having been sold into slavery a few years earlier, these Pilgrims were in deep buffalo chips. The wheat brought from Europe was completely unsuited to the New England soil and failed to germinate. Half the settlers died during the first winter. Squanto and his friends took pity on this sorry situation and brought venison and furs to these unfortunate white men. He taught them how to plant corn using fish as fertilizer, how to dig clams, how to tap maple trees for syrup.
The Algonquin tribes already had the custom of celebrating six different thanksgiving festivals during the year, and one of those happened to coincide with a dinner party thrown by Miles Standish and company. Standish invited Squanto and a few of his friends and their families to come on down and share a meal. More than 90 Indians showed up. The Pilgrim menu wasn’t going to cover that many guests. So a few of the Algonquin men went out and came back with five deer, enough for three solid days of cross-cultural feasting. Here’s what was actually on that menu: venison, wild duck, wild geese, eels, clams, squash, corn bread, berries and nuts.
That meal was one of the last untroubled moments the whites and natives spent together. Within 50 years, most of the Woodland peoples had been killed, claimed by European diseases or — if lucky — disappeared into the woods. Today, there are still 500 Wampanoags living in New England. They do not celebrate the American Thanksgiving.