The True Story Of Thanksgiving
by Richard Greener
The idea of the American Thanksgiving feast is a fairly recent fiction.
The idyllic partnership of 17th Century European Pilgrims and New
England Indians sharing a celebratory meal appears to be less than 120
years-old. And it was only after the First World War that a version of
such a Puritan-Indian partnership took hold in elementary schools across
the American landscape. We can thank the invention of textbooks and
their mass purchase by public schools for embedding this "Thanksgiving"
image in our modern minds. It was, of course, a complete invention, a
cleverly created slice of cultural propaganda, just another in a long
line of inspired nationalistic myths.
The first Thanksgiving Day did occur in the year 1637, but it was
nothing like our Thanksgiving today. On that day the Massachusetts
Colony Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed such a "Thanksgiving" to
celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, all
colonial volunteers. They had just returned from their journey to what
is now Mystic, Connecticut where they massacred 700 Pequot Indians.
Seven hundred Indians - men, women and children - all murdered.
This day is still remembered today, 373 years later. No, it's been long
forgotten by white people, by European Christians. But it is still fresh
in the mind of many Indians. A group calling themselves the United
American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on
Cole's Hill for what they say is a Day of Mourning. They gather at the
feet of a stature of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember the
long gone Pequot. They do not call it Thanksgiving. There is no football
How then did our modern, festive Thanksgiving come to be? It began with
the greatest of misunderstandings, a true clash of cultural values and
fundamental principles. What are we thankful for if not - being here,
living on this land, surviving and prospering? But in our thankfulness
might we have overlooked something? Look what happened to the original
residents who lived in the area of New York we have come to call
Brooklyn. A group of them called Canarsees obligingly, perhaps even
eagerly, accepted various pieces of pretty colored junk from the
Dutchman Peter Minuet in 1626. These trinkets have long since been
estimated to be worth no more than 60 Dutch guilders at the time - $24
dollars in modern American money. In exchange, the Canarsees "gave"
Peter Minuet the island of Manhattan. What did they care? They were
living in Brooklyn.
Of course, all things - especially commercial transactions - need to be
viewed in perspective. The nearly two-dozen tribes of Native Americans
living in the New York area in those days had a distinctly non-European
concept of territorial rights. They were strangers to the idea of "real
property." It was common for one tribe to grant permission to another to
hunt and fish nearby themselves on a regular basis. Fences, real and
imagined, were not a part of their culture. Naturally, it was polite to
ask before setting up operations too close to where others lived, but
refusal in matters of this sort was considered rude. As a sign of
gratitude, small trinkets were usually offered by the tribe seeking
temporary admission and cheerfully accepted by those already there. It
was clearly understood to be a sort of short-term rental arrangement.
Sad to say, the unfortunate Canarsees apparently had no idea the Dutch
meant to settle in. Worse yet for them, it must have been unthinkable
that they would also be unwelcome in Manhattan after their deal. One
thing we can be sure of. Their equivalent of today's buyer's remorse
brought the Canarsees nothing but grief, humiliation and violence.
Many Indians lived on Long Island in those days. Another Dutchman,
Adrian Block, was the first European to come upon them in 1619. Block
was also eager to introduce European commercialism and the Christian
concept of "real estate" to these unfortunate innocents. Without
exception, these Indians too came out on the short end in their dealings
with the Dutch.
The market savvy unleashed by the Europeans upon the Indians constituted
the first land use policies in the New World. In the 17th Century it was
not urban but rather rural renewal. The result was of course the same.
People of color with no money to speak of got booted out and the
neighborhood which was subsequently gentrified and overrun by white people.
Not far from Manhattan, one tribe of about 10,000 Indians lived
peacefully in a lovely spot on a peninsula directly along the ocean.
There they fished in the open sea and inland bay. They hunted across the
pristine shoreline and they were quite happy until they met a man -
another Dutchman - named Willem Kieft. He was the Governor of New
Netherland in 1639. These poor bastards were called the Rechaweygh
(pronounced Rockaway). Soon after meeting Governor Kieft, they became
the very first of New York's homeless.
The people of New Netherland had a lot in common with the people of
Plymouth Colony. At least it appears so from the way both of these
groups of displaced and dissatisfied Europeans interacted with the local
Indians. The Pilgrims in Plymouth had a hard time for the first couple
of years. While nature was no friend, their troubles were mostly their
own doing. Poor planning was their downfall. These mostly city dwelling
Europeans failed to include among them persons with the skills needed in
settling the North American wilderness. Having reached the forests and
fields of Massachusetts they turned out to be pathetic hunters and
incompetent butchers. With game everywhere, they went hungry. First,
they couldn't catch and kill it. Then they couldn't cut it up, prepare
it, preserve it and create a storehouse for those days when fresh
supplies would run low. To compensate for their shortage of essential
protein they turned to their European ways and their Christian culture.
They instituted a series of religious observances. They could not hunt
or farm well, but they seemed skilled at praying.
They developed a taste for something both religious and useful. They
called it a Day of Fasting. Without food it seemed like a good idea.
From necessity, that single Day became multiple Days. As food supplies
dwindled the Days of Fasting came in bunches. Each of these episodes was
eventually and thankfully followed by a meal. Appropriately enough, the
Puritans credited God for this good fortune. They referred to the fact
they were allowed to eat again as a "Thanksgiving." And they wrote it
down. Thus, the first mention of the word - "Thanksgiving." Let there be
no mistake here. On that first Thanksgiving there was no turkey, no
corn, no cranberries, no stuffing. And no dessert. Those fortunate
Pilgrims were lucky to get a piece of fish and a potato. All things
considered, it was a Thanksgiving feast.
Did the Pilgrims share their Thanksgiving meal with the local Indians,
the Wampanoag and Pequot? No. That never happened. That is, until its
inclusion in the "Thanksgiving Story" in 1890.
Let the Wampanoag be a lesson to us especially in these troubled
economic times. These particular Indians, with a bent for colorful
jewelry, had their tribal name altered slightly by the Dutch, who then
used it as a reference for all Indian payments. Hence, wampum. Contrary
to what we've been shown in our Western movies, this word - wampum - and
its economic meaning never made it out of New England.
Unlike wampum, Thanksgiving Day has indeed spread across the continent.
It would serve us well to remember that it wasn't until the victorious
colonial militia returned from their slaughter of the Pequot that the
New Americans began their now time-honored and cherished Thanksgiving.
Enjoy your turkey.