By Dr. Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, PhD
Setting people straight about Thanksgiving myths has become as much a part of the annual holiday as turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. But should historians bother? Jane Kamensky, a professor of history at Brandeis, thinks not. She asks on the website "Common-Place" (in 2001) whether it's worth while "to plumb the bottom of it all - to determine, for example, [...] whether Plymouth's 'Pilgrims' were indeed the grave-robbing hypocrites that UAINE describes [i.e. United American Indians of New England]. [...] Was the 'first Thanksgiving' merely a pretext for bloodshed, enslavement, and displacement that would follow in later decades? Combing period documents and archaeological evidence, we might peel away some of the myths [...]
But to do so would be to miss a fundamental point of these holidays. [...] in this new millenium, these sacred secular rites are once again pressed into service - this time by new nations, with new visions of the present, to be reached through new versions of the past. In place of one origins myth, the inventors of Indigenous Peoples' Day [intended to replace Columbus Day] and the National Day of Mourning [intended to replace Thanksgiving Day] invoke another. One in which all Europeans were villains and all Natives, victims. One in which indigenous peoples knew neither strife nor war until the treachery of Columbus and his cultural heirs taught them to hate and fear. To ask whether this is true is to ask the wrong question. It's true to its purposes. Every bit as true, that is, as the stories some Americans in 1792 and 1863 told about the events of 1492 and 1621. And that's all it needs to be. For these holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now."
"And that's all it needs to be"? I disagree. I think that anyone who wants to approach the question of Thanksgiving Day as a historian in the "ever changing Now" will need to ask "the wrong question" - what of all this is true?
Surveying more than two hundred websites that "correct" our assumptions about Thanksgiving, it's possible to sort them into groups and themes, especially since internet sites often parrot each other. Very few present anything like the myths that most claim to combat. Almost all of the corrections are themselves incorrect or banal, and otherwise not germane to the topic of what happened in 1621. With heavy self-importance they demonstrate quite unsurprisingly that what was once commonly taught in grade school lacked scope, subtlety, and minority insight. The political posturing is pathetic.
Commonly the first point scored is that lots of people gave thanks before the Pilgrims did it in 1621. Local boosters in Virginia, Florida, and Texas promote their own colonists, who (like many people getting off a boat) gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Several sites claim that Indians had six thanksgivings every year; at least one says that every day, every act, every thought was carried out with thanksgiving by pre-contact Indians. (My thanksgiving is bigger than your thanksgiving?) Among many examples:
Many sites point out in a rankly naive sort of way that only one brief documentary account records Plymouth Colony's 1621 harvest festivities, the specific descriptive words of Edward Winslow, while additional information can be derived from the seasonal comments of William Bradford, who mentioned that the Pilgrims ate turkey among other things. See, for example, Pilgrim Hall Museum's website, which is consistently informative and of high scholarly quality:
Reporting on the colonists' first year, Winslow wrote that wheat and Indian corn had grown well; the barley crop was "indifferently good"; but pease were "not worth the gathering." Winslow continues: "Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent foure men on fowling; so that we might after a more speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They foure in one day killed as much fowle as, with a little help besid, served the company almost a weeke. At which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deere, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not alwayes so plentifull, as it was at this time, with us, yet by goodnesse of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie."1
Governor William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation, reported that fishing had been good all summer, and, in the fall, "begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached [...] And besides water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, etc."
Archaeologist James Deetz made much of the fact that Winslow did not name the turkeys Bradford mentioned.
This startling revelation (that in this case one should ignore Bradford's general comments and suppose that Winslow was providing a complete menu listing) recurs in various websites, such as the 2002 article posted by the Christian Science Monitor.
More frequently repeated is Deetz's emphatic reminder that Winslow did not use the word "thanksgiving" - drawing the conclusion that therefore the 1621 event was not a thanksgiving but some sort of traditional English harvest festival he characterized as "secular."
I've discussed this oversimplification previously in an previous article.
Further, see "Re-bunking the Pilgrims" [subscribers]
On the one hand, whatever their folk customs may have been, harvest festivals in England with which the Pilgrims had been familiar were not "secular." (The Elizabethan and Jacobean-period Anglican Book of Common Prayer included an obligatory harvest thanksgiving prayer among the prayers whose use was increasingly enforced in the early seventeenth century.) On the other, Winslow's description includes biblical phrases referring to texts whose completion includes thanksgiving (particularly John 4:36 and Psalm 33). Winslow's contemporaries, unlike modern archaeologists, caught the meaning of the full texts to which he alluded. They knew their Bible.
But Deetz's assertion that there was no thanksgiving in 1621 is repeated in numerous websites. Often authors explain that what took place was so unlike later Puritan thanksgivings that it couldn't have been a true thanksgiving (usually citing, for the definition of what that would have been, William DeLoss Love, The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England (Boston, New York: Houghton and Mifflin, 1895), a book whose title alone seems to have inspired the common web article notion that in New England people fasted as an _expression of thanksgiving). For example, in "Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving,' Rick Shenkman announces that Thanksgiving was not about religion.
Had it been, he says, "the Pilgrims never would have invited the Indians to join them. Besides, the Pilgrims would never have tolerated festivities at a true religious event. Indeed, what we think of as Thanksgiving was really a harvest festival. Actual 'Thanksgivings' were religious affairs; everybody spent the day praying. Incidentally, these Pilgrim Thanksgivings occurred at different times of the year, not just in November."
Responding to this in reverse order: (1) that Thanksgivings were not limited to November does not mean that the first one held by the colonists in Plymouth (which incidentally was presumably in September or early October) was not a thanksgiving. (2) The modern idea that in a religious thanksgiving "everyone spent the day praying" is inconsistent with the only description of the specific activities of a definitely identified thanksgiving day in early Plymouth Colony - the thanksgiving held in Scituate in 1636 when a religious service was followed by feasting. (See my book The Seventeenth-Century Town Records of Scituate, Massachusetts (Boston: NEHGS, 2001), vol. 3, p. 513.) (3) That "what we think of as Thanksgiving was really a harvest festival" (as if that meant it could not have been a thanksgiving) repeats Deetz's incorrect opinion that an English harvest festival was non-religious or even irreligious. (4) That the Pilgrims "would never have tolerated festivities at a true religious event" presumes a narrow definition of what a true religious event was before arriving through circular argument at a denial that what the Pilgrims did was such an event, because it differed from the axiomatic definition. (Ever been to a midwestern church picnic? Did tossing horseshoes and playing softball make it non-religious?) (5) As is repeatedly demonstrated by the writings of the Pilgrims' minister John Robinson, the Pilgrims attempted to pattern their religious activities according to biblical precedent. The precedent for a harvest festival was the Old Testament Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkoth (Deut. 16: 13-14). This harvest festival (as described in the 1560 Geneva translation of the Bible, used by the Pilgrims) was established to last "seuen daies, when thou hast gathered in thy corne, and thy wine. And thou shalt reioyce in thy feast, thou, and they sonne, and thy daughter, and thy servant, and thy maid, and the Levite and the stranger, and the fatherles, and the widow, that are within thy gates." The biblical injunction to include the "stranger" probably accounts for the Pilgrims' inviting their Native neighbors to rejoice with them, although Winslow does not explicitly say anything about invitation. Besides Sukkoth, the Pilgrims' experience of a Reformed Protestant thanksgiving every year in Leiden probably contributed to what they considered appropriate. Leiden's October 3 festivities commemorated the lifting of the Siege of Leiden in 1574, when half the town had died (an obvious parallel with the experience of the Pilgrims in the winter of 1620-21). Lasting ten days, the first Leiden event was a religious service of thanksgiving and prayer, followed by festivities that included meals, military exercises, games, and a free fair. To summarize, the common assumption that the Pilgrims' 1621 event should be judged against the forms taken by later Puritan thanksgivings - whether or not those are even correctly understood - overlooks the circumstance that the Pilgrims did not have those precedents when they attempted something new, intentionally based not on old English tradition but on biblical and Reformed example.
Shenkman has not invented these views. Attempts to be accurate frequently make the same assumptions. For example, the History Channel states that, "the colonists didn't even call the day Thanksgiving. To them, a thanksgiving was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle. On such a religious day, the types of recreational activities that the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians participated in during the 1621 harvest feast - dancing, singing secular songs, playing games - wouldn't have been allowed. The feast was a secular celebration, so it never would have been considered a thanksgiving in the pilgrims minds."
The identical text is copied without credit on the webpage of the International Student & Scholar Programs of Emory University:
It's worth pointing out that Winslow says nothing about "dancing, singing secular songs, [or] playing games." Those might be intended among Winslow's general term "recreations," but to specify and cite them as proof that the Pilgrims' day was "a secular celebration" is over-reaching.
Assuming the nature of the festival was non-religious, some sites proclaim that there was a thanksgiving, but that the Pilgrims were not thanking God. Instead they were thanking the Indians for the help that had contributed to the colonists survival during the first year. For example, "Rumela Web" says, "The Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock held their Thanksgiving in 1621 as a three day 'thank you' celebration to the leaders of the Wampanoag Indian tribe and their families for teaching them the survival skills they needed to make it in the New World."
A site that provides Thanksgiving Day recipes and menus says, "The Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to a feast to thank them for all they had learned."
Another site [member account required] provides a psychological analysis: "Not only was this festival a way to thank the Wampanoag, but it also served to boost the morale of the remaining settlers."
Such redirection of the thanks is consistent with the modern assessment expressed in "The Truth about the First Thanksgiving," by James Loewen, "Settlement proceeded, not with God's help, but with the Indians'."
We think the Pilgrims should have thanked the Indians. Nonetheless, while most modern historians explain events without dependence on providential intervention, it is still inaccurate to bend the evidence to suggest that the Pilgrims' attitude was not predominantly providential, and did not result in thanks to God for help received from the Indians.
Bending evidence, plus inventing details found in no historical source, is not a monopoly of the secular interpretation. For example, Kathryn Capoccia's online Sunday School lesson, "American Thanksgiving Celebrations," displays an incredibly imaginative disregard for historical evidence:
"Two weeks before the celebration was to take place a proclamation was issued stating that a harvest festival was to be held, which would be preceded by a special religious service and would be open to both Separatist church members and nonmembers. Everyone was urged to publicly offer gratitude for God's provision. The invitation was also extended to chief Massasoit." [...] "In response to the invitation Massasoit appeared in camp with three braves. Two days later he was joined by ninety other braves who provided five deer, a flock of geese, fifteen swordfish and small sweet apples for the celebration. The ceremonies began on the last morning of the festival [sic] with a worship service led by Elder Brewster. Then ground sports, such as foot racing and wrestling were held, as well as knife throwing contests. The settlers demonstrated musket drilling and shot a cannon volley. Then the feasting began in mid-afternoon at the fort. Everyone was seated in the open at long tables. At the end of the meal the settlers toasted the Indians as friends. The adults exchanged gifts with each other: Massasoit was given a bolt of cloth by Bradford, the warriors received cooking pots and colored beads in strings. The Indians reciprocated with a beaver cloak for Bradford and several freshly killed deer that could be smoked and stored for winter. The Indians presented the children with lumps of candy made from sugar extracted from wild beet plants. When the ceremonies were completed Elder Brewster quoted the Bible as a benediction, 'I thank my God upon every remembrance of you'". This level of fabrication is rare. It recalls the oratory of a century ago, that inspired the balloon-pricking emotions of countless would-be debunkers.
Colored Clothes, No Buckled Hats! My Goodness!
Similarly disconnected from Winslow's version are the common corrections to misconceptions about Pilgrim costume. Numerous sites let us know that the Pilgrims did not always wear black, and some even assert excitedly that it is important that we know about this discovery.
Timothy Walch, writing for History News Services, says, "Finally, it's important to dispel one last Thanksgiving myth — that the Pilgrims dressed in black and white clothing, wore pointed hats and starched bonnets and favored buckles on their shoes. It's true that they dressed in black on Sundays; but on most days, including the first Thanksgiving, they dressed in white, beige, black, green and brown." Surprisingly, Walch talks about buckles on shoes, instead of the common cartoon iconography of buckles on hats (itself an anachronism derived from a brief fashion in the 1790's). While Walch's point about color in workday clothing is true, I'm not sure it can come as a surprise to very many people. Nowadays most illustrations show Pilgrims in multi-colored clothing, often using photographs of the colorful actors at Plimoth Plantation. Even children now in their thirties will have learned about the Pilgrims from pictures showing varie-colored clothing. It wasn't always that way (cheaper books once were restricted to monochrome illustrations), but none of the websites gives a good explanation of the origin of the stereotype - the error is paraded simply as yet another example of inherited ignorance.
Only one genuine portrait of a Pilgrim exists - that of Edward Winslow (now in Pilgrim Hall Museum). Painted in 1651 in London, where Winslow acted as a diplomat representing the interests of New England colonies before various government committees, it shows him dressed appropriately in the very expensive black formal wear that most Pilgrims could not afford. From his portrait, as well as from other 17th-century portraits (that tended to show rich people) history painters of the early 19th century derived some ideas of costume. But they did not restrict their research to portraits of the rich, they also looked at pictures of common people in Dutch genre paintings. In romantic visions of historical scenes, the 19th-century history painters showed Pilgrim leaders in black, but others in a variety of colors. None of the dozen or so history paintings on Pilgrim themes at Pilgrim Hall Museum (the foremost collection) shows the Pilgrims uniformly in black - most wear scarlet, russet, green, ochre, grey, blue, or brown.
However, 19th century Americans became familiar with the Pilgrims through black and white stereoptype engravings, not paintings. At the same time, black clothing had become cheaper to produce and was expected for Sunday-best attire, not just among the wealthy. It was easy to imagine that the Pilgrim leaders as seen in black-and-white engravings were dressed in a way that was nearly familiar.
And, yes, they did call themselves "Pilgrims."
Almost as frequent as remarks about the color of their clothes are the website assertions that these colonists did not call themselves "Pilgrims." James Loewen, in "The Truth About the First Thanksgiving," writes that "no one even called them 'Pilgrims' until the 1870s."
This sort of belief is derived from a common misconception that because the manuscript of William Bradford's journal "Of Plymouth Plantation" was lost from the late 18th until the mid 19th century, no one was familiar, until the rediscovery, with his famous phrase, "They knew they were Pilgrims." The discovery of that phrase is thought to have appealed strongly to the Victorian imagination and to have led to the term "Pilgrims" as a designation for the Plymouth colonists. Bradford, however, was not the first to apply the name in print to these colonists - that was Robert Cushman in 1622 (in the book now called Mourt's Relation). Bradford's own words were excerpted and published by Nathaniel Morton in New England's Memorial, first printed in 1669 (and reprinted in 1721, 1772, and twice in 1826). The term Pilgrim, never forgotten, was used repeatedly in the later 18th century and throughout the 19th century, at celebrations in Plymouth that attracted attention throughout New England if not farther. If Mr. Loewen thinks the word "Pilgrim" was not applied to these people before the 1870's, one wonders what he thinks the local worthies of Plymouth were doing when in 1820 they founded the Pilgrim Society.
The Plymouth colonists considered themselves and all other earnest Christians to be on an earthly pilgrimage to a heavenly goal. Most of them were serious about their faith and puzzled by the presence among them of a few who demonstratively were not. Referring to themselves in that context they used the New Testament image expressed in print by Robert Cushman in 1622: "But now we are all in all places strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners [...]" The full Bible citation, which these people knew and recognized as a text that gave re-assuring self-identification, was this (Hebrews 11:13-16, Geneva translation, 1560):
"All these dyed in the faith, and receiued not the promises, but sawe them a farre of[f], and beleued them, and receiued them thankefully, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrimes on the earth. For they that say suche things, declare plainely that they seke a countrey. And if they had bene mindeful of that countrey, from whence they came out, they had leasure to haue returned. But now they desire a better, that is an heauenlie: wherefore God is not ashamed of them to be called their God: for he hathe prepared for them a citie."
The foregoing unifying phrase - strangers and pilgrims on the earth - is misunderstood as a dichotomy in George Willison's book Saints and Strangers (New York: Reynall & Hitchcock, 1945). Willisons Hegelian analysis of Pilgrim history as a conflict between religious fanatics he calls "saints" and disinterested, economically motivated opponents to them, whom he identifies as "strangers," has become a rarely questioned presumed truth, never doubted on the internet. It is basic to Willison's dismissive interpretation of the Mayflower Compact as an instrument of minority control. For Willison, the dialectical tension was resolved by a happy synthesis that bore similarities to the democratic triumph of the American common man over tyranny at the end of World War II. Willison was speaking to people who saw themselves in his description of the Pilgrims, as people who "were valiantly engaged [...] in a desperate struggle for a better order of things, for a more generous measure of freedom for all men, for a higher and nobler conception of life based upon recognition of the intrinsic worth and dignity of the individual." Stirring words, they introduce Willisons description of the process of conflict that was for him the meaning of being a Pilgrim.
For the Pilgrims themselves, in specific contexts other identifying terms were useful. In their application to move to Leiden, they said they were members of the Christian Reformed religion - thus indicating that they were the sort of people Leiden wanted as immigrants. Distinguishing themselves from Puritans who stayed in the Church of England, they called themselves Separatists. In New England, for legal purposes connected with rights to distribution of the common property and land, the colonists referred to anyone who had arrived before the 1627 division as "Old Comers" or "First Comers." Their general self-identification, however, was "pilgrims" in the New Testament sense. Their first use of the term in America is seen in the name given the first child born in the colony - Peregrine White. "Peregrine" comes from the Latin peregrinus meaning "pilgrim" or "stranger."
The Fake Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1623
The invented secular harvest festival augmented by the redirection of thanks towards the Indians and the assertion that "Pilgrims" was a name not used by the colonists, has become widely accepted. What's to be done? Fake it! Instead of simply pointing out that this version of the past fails to account for the Pilgrims' habitual piety and is thoroughly inconsistent with the documentary evidence, someone has felt it necessary to invent a document that replaces the 1621 purported non-thanksgiving with a celebration that does include all the sentiments and specifications that Winslow's description lacks. Many websites whose authors would like to maintain an emphasis on the Pilgrims' religious attitudes to support their own, quite different convictions now tell a fake story instead.
The cute text, widely circulated on internet sites (or excerpted, for example), is: "William Bradford's Thanksgiving Proclamation (1623)
Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.
Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.
— William Bradford
Ye Governor of Ye Colony"
["Ravages of the savages" indeed! Ye, ye, ye, ye!]
The false proclamation does not appear in any 17th-century source - not in Bradford, not in Winslow, not in Morton's New England's Memorial, not anywhere. Internal evidence suggests it is a 20th-century fraud. No mention of Plymouth Rock exists before it was pointed out in the mid-18th century, and the term "great Father" (for God) is a 19th-century romantic quasi-Native term that Bradford never used in his acknowledged writings. There are further anachronisms. For example, in 1623 there was no pastor in Plymouth Colony. Pastor John Robinson was still in Leiden, so services were led by the deacon, Elder William Brewster. William Bradford never referred to himself as "your magistrate" in years when he was governor. Bradford dated documents "in the year of our Lord" - sometimes adding the year of the monarch's reign. He never referred to landing on Plymouth Rock (not even as "Pilgrim Rock") and certainly did not use it as a date-base. The Pilgrims did not imagine themselves as seeking "freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience." They wanted freedom to worship according to their interpretation of biblical commands, which they thought was exclusively correct - and correct externally to any dictates of their own consciences. Finally, it's amusing that the 29th of November 1623 (Old Style) was not a Thursday but a Saturday (according to the tables in H. Grotefend's Taschenbuch der Zeitrechnung des Deutschen Mittelalters und der Neuzeit (ed. Th. Ulrich, Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1960).
While it is often impossible to locate the ancient origin of such internet myths, this fraud is relatively recent. Samuel Eliot Morison was unaware of it when editing Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation (New York: Knopf, 1952); Eugene Aubrey Stratton does not mention it in his Plymouth Colony, Its History & People, 1620-1691 (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1986). I have not discovered whether it appears anywhere before it made its way into William J. Federer's America's God and Country: An Encyclopedia of Quotations (Coppel, TX: Fame, 1994) and the source Federer gives - David Barton's The Myth of Separation (Aledo TX: Wallbuilder Press, 1991), p. 86. The text has been dropped from recent editions of Barton's book, but that doesn't put an end to repetition of the nonsense, especially on internet sites. A request to David Barton for information on this remains unanswered. On Barton's historical inventiveness, see:
Rob Boston, "Sects, Lies and Videotape: Who Is David Barton, And Why Is He Saying Such Awful Things About Separation of Church And State?" (Originally published in Church & State, 46, Nr. 4, April 1993, pp. 8-12).
Rob Boston, "David Barton's 'Christian Nation' Myth Factory Admits Its Products Have Been Defective." (Originally published in Church & State, 49, No. 7, July/August 1996, pp. 11-13).
Jim Allison, "An Index to Factual Information About David Barton And His Books".
Nicholas P. Miller, "Wallbuilders or Mythbuilders".
That people stressing the religious attitude of the Pilgrims use this invented 1623 "Thanksgiving Proclamation" is ironic. They might have been satisfied with the truth. The 1621 event did express the Pilgrims' religious attitude of thankfulness for God's providence and therefore should be adequate for their modern purposes. Moreover, in the summer of 1623 the Pilgrims held another special day of thanksgiving to God when they considered that their prayers for rain were answered, a drought ended, and their crops were saved. It wasn't in November and no stirring proclamation is preserved. Yet the "secular" interpretive ignorance that denies that the 1621 event was a thanksgiving had triumphed to the extent that someone from among the fundamentally disgruntled must have thought it clever to fight back. It is another question entirely, what the relation of the Pilgrims' religious attitude bears to modern understanding, that would make it urgent to use faked evidence to prove the Pilgrims were thanking God. Obviously the Pilgrims were religious - but what has this to do with anything other than an honest understanding of the past? Their religiosity scarcely provides support for any particular doctrinal viewpoint now; and no one is likely to become religious because it has been proven that the Pilgrims were.
Bartonis interest is to paint a picture of America as a particular sort of Christian nation since the beginning of its colonization. To make the Pilgrims even more religious than is indicated by their own words is dishonest. Removing the spurious quotation is a commendable step in the right direction. Considering that the Pilgrims interpreted their religion to mean that the Christian community bore responsibility to treat the Indians with respect and legal equality (see my book Indian Deeds, Land Transactions in Plymouth Colony, 1620-1699 (Boston: NEHGS, 2002)); noticing that the Pilgrims' laws proclaim that the community bore responsibility for the care of widows, orphans, the poor, and the infirm; and discovering that the Pilgrims' minister John Robinson argued in favor of cautious religious toleration and asserted that the church had no special authority over the magistrate, which he said was required to deal equitably with non-believers as well as believers, I'd be happy to see such Christian principles applied to modern America. Good luck to Mr. Barton and his colleagues in ensuring this happens!
The Libertarian's First Thanksgiving
Fred E. Foldvary has picked up the false 1623 date eagerly and given it a different twist. "The rains came and the harvest was saved. It is logical to surmise that the Pilgrims saw this as a sign that God blessed their new economic system, because Governor Bradford proclaimed November 29, 1623, as a Day of Thanksgiving." That's the opinion of Foldvary, Editor (1998) of The Progress Report and Lecturer in Economics, Santa Clara University.
So - the Pilgrims weren't thankful to God for a bounteous harvest as such, nor were they expressing gratitude to the Indians for help received. They were congratulating themselves on the discovery of the benefits of individualist capitalism!
The Ludwig von Mises Institute in 1999 published Richard J. Maybury's article "The Great Thanksgiving Hoax" (originally seen in The Free Market, November, 1985). Maybury (self-styled business and economic analyst) wants to correct our idealized view of the Pilgrims: "[T]he harvest of 1621 was not bountiful, nor were the colonists hardworking or tenacious. 1621 was a famine year and many of the colonists were lazy thieves." [...] "they refused to work in the fields. They preferred instead to steal food." [...] "The prevailing condition during those years was not the abundance the official story claims, it was famine and death. The first 'Thanksgiving' was not so much a celebration as it was the last meal of condemned men." Then it all changed: "in 1623 Bradford abolished socialism. He gave each household a parcel of land and told them they could keep what they produced, or trade it away as they saw fit. In other words, he replaced socialism with a free market, and that was the end of famines." [...] "Before these free markets were established, the colonists had nothing for which to be thankful." [...] "Thus the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them." So there you have it - neither God's providence nor helpful Indians, just materialistic private profit.
The theme recurs in numerous imitative articles online. In 2004, Gary M. Galles, professor of economics at Pepperdine University, ended his praise of Pilgrim property with a political admonition: "Though we have incomparably more than they did, we can learn much from their 'way of thanksgiving.' But we should also remember that our material blessings are the fruits of America's system of private-property rights and the liberties they ensure, including the freedom to choose our employment and spend money as we see fit. Those rights are under constant assault today, from limits on people's ability to contract as they wish, especially in labor relationships, to abuses of government's eminent domain." Robert Sheridan, who teaches constitutional law at the San Francisco Law School, quotes the full text (from the San Francisco Chronicle) and expertly dissects Galles' underlying assumptions about modern society, in his own article "Thanksgiving Nonsense and Propaganda".
A slightly abbreviated version of Galles' remarks is published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
The Independent Institute's website has a similar article that was published for Thanksgiving in 2004 in the Charlotte Observer and in the San Diego Union-Tribune. "The economic incentives provided by private competitive markets where people are left free to make their own choices make bountiful feasts possible," says Benjamin Powell, professor of economics at San Jose State University. "That's the real lesson of Thanksgiving."
Elaborating on Maybury's view of Thanksgiving, Newsmax columnist Geoff Metcalf becomes even more definite: "[A]n economic system which grants the lazy and the shiftless some 'right' to prosper off the looted fruits of another man's labor, under the guise of enforced 'compassion,' will inevitably descend into envy, theft, squalor, and starvation. Though many would still incrementally impose on us some new variant of the 'noble socialist experiment,' this is still at heart a free country with a bedrock respect for the sanctity of private property - and a land bounteous precisely because it's free. It's for that we give thanks - the corn and beans and turkey serving as mere symbols of that true and underlying blessing - on the fourth Thursday of each November."
True history? Does it make any difference? As Kamensky says, "It's true to its purposes."
For the purposes of historical accuracy, nevertheless, I think it's worth mentioning that the Pilgrims' initial system of working the land by changing field assignments each year had nothing at all to do with socialism - it was the consequence of an early and unrestrained form of capitalism whereby the colony, its products, and the colonists' productive labor were absolutely and entirely mortgaged to the London investors, whose loans had to be paid off before any of the Pilgrim colonists could own free-hold property. The colony as a whole and its colonists were indentured. Their contract is now lost; probably it was among the missing first 338 pages of William Bradford's letter-book. The shift away from rotating field assignments did not result in private property, just a modification of the organization of the indentured labor. Private real property came for these colonists in 1627 when a small group among the colonists - the "Purchasers" - bought the debt and the responsibility to pay it off. A temporary monopoly on the fur trade was reserved to them as compensation for their higher personal responsibility and financial exposure.
A Cornucopia of Grievances
So if Thanksgiving was not about the discovery of private property's profitability, not about help offered to the colonists by the Wampanoag Indians, not about God's providence - what was it?
"The first day of thanksgiving took place in 1637 amidst the war against the Pequots. 700 men, women, and children of the Pequot tribe were gathered for their annual green corn dance on what is now Groton, Connecticut. Dutch and English mercenaries surrounded the camp and proceeded to shoot, stab, butcher and burn alive all 700 people. The next day the Massachusetts Bay Colony held a feast in celebration and the governor declared 'a day of thanksgiving.' In the ensuing madness of the Indian extermination, natives were scalped, burned, mutilated and sold into slavery, and a feast was held in celebration every time a successful massacre took place. The killing frenzy got so bad that even the Churches of Manhattan announced a day of 'thanksgiving' to celebrate victory over the 'heathen savages,' and many celebrated by kicking the severed heads of Pequot people through the streets like soccer balls." So says Tristan Ahtone, at http://cowboykiller.com/journalismpages/thanksgiving.htm. There were preliminary events before this celebration of atrocity, according to Ahtone. Although the 1621 harvest festival in Plymouth was not in his opinion a thanksgiving, he informs us that "Two years later the English invited a number of tribes to a feast 'symbolizing eternal friendship.' The English offered food and drink, and two hundred Indians dropped dead from unknown poison." This echoes the words of James Loewen (quoted by Jackie Alan Giuliano in "Give Thanks - Un-Turkey Truths"): "The British offered a toast 'symbolizing eternal friendship,' whereupon the chief, his family, advisors, and two hundred followers dropped dead of poison." Loewen places this event in Virginia.
Ahtone's remarks connecting the "First Thanksgiving" with the Pequot War are frequently copied or excerpted, with slight variations. Sometimes it's not Massachusetts Bay responsible, but the Pilgrims. "The next day, the English governor William Bradford declared 'a day of Thanksgiving', thanking God that they had eliminated the Indians, opening Pequot land for white settlement." That proclamation was repeated each year for the next century." This was posted by "Ecuanduero" on the Discovery Channel.com, in 2003.
William Loren Katz, author of Black Indians, A Hidden Heritage, writes that, "In 1637 Governor Bradford, who saw his colonists locked in mortal combat with dangerous Native Americans, ordered his militia to conduct a night attack on the sleeping men women and children of a Pequot Indian village. To Bradford, a devout Christian, the massacre was imbued with religious meaning."
Clearly we should realize that these people were not nice, but just exactly how bad? "Not even Charles Manson and Jim Jones combined could compare with that murderous Doomsday cult — the Pilgrims," says a website article called "The Pilgrims, Children of the Devil: Puritan Doomsday Cult Plunders Paradise." The site calls itself the Common Sense Almanac, Progressive Pages (and claims to be a project of the Center for Media and Democracy).
The story forms the foundation for stirring generalizations. "It is a serious mistake to practice holidays based on a false history," one site admonishes us. "The young people find out on their own that they are involved in a lie, and it makes them rage with fury and contempt. [...]It should surprise no one that after raising children honoring the memory of the Pilgrim fathers, that they grow up to hate freedom as much as the Forefathers did. It should surprise no one that a society that worships the Pilgrims — who ruthlessly scalped the Indians (teaching them how to do it), who indiscriminately torched Indian villages, and murdered their women, children and elders in the precursors of total war, and holocaust — should produce children who grow up to join street gangs, and who seek the experience of murdering other human beings for kicks."
The story told by Ahtone, Katz, and others is derived from a report that surfaced in the 1980's. "According to William B. Newell, a Penobscot Indian and former chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, the first official Thanksgiving Day commemorated the massacre of 700 Indian men, women and children during one of their religious ceremonies. [...]"
This version in First Nations News is from an article by Karen Gullo that first appeared in Vegetarian Times, 1982. Newell's material is quoted over and over. Newell, who is described in one site as having degrees from two universities [wow! Fancy that!], was convinced about the solidity of his research: ""My research is authentic because it is documentary," Newell said. "You can't get anything more accurate than that because it is first hand. It is not hearsay." http://www.s6k.com/real/thankstaking.htm
What's not authentic is the claim that William Newell was head of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, whose faculty cannot recall him at all. When the department was founded in 1971, Newell was 79 years old. See the letter by department chair Jocelyn Linnekin. And what is completely untrue is the idea that the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony participated in the 1637 Pequot massacre. Although asked to send military assistance, the Plymouth court did not respond until two weeks after the slaughter had been carried out by a mixed force of soldiers from Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, and the Narragansett tribe (no "Dutch and English mercenaries"). As Bradford himself reports, the Pilgrims were told their aid was too little, too late; they could stay home. (See my book, Pilgrim Edward Winslow: New England's First International Diplomat (Boston: NEHGS, 2004), pp. 164-168.)
Is this important? Or is the lie "true to its purposes"?
The National Day of Mourning
The purposes can best be understood as fitting in with the description of the Pilgrims that animates the so-called National Day of Mourning sponsored by the United American Indians of New England. "The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims)" [yes, that again] "did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. They introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod — before they even made it to Plymouth — was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians' winter provisions of corn and beans as they were able to carry. [...] The first official "Day of Thanksgiving" was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who had gone to Mystic Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men."
This characterization of the Pilgrims was written in 2003 by UAINE leaders Mahtowin Munro and Mooanum James, whose father Frank James (Wamsutta) made the 1970 protest speech that started the Day of Mourning at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Wamsutta spoke out against decades of inequality in words historically vague and not entirely accurate. He clearly announced the continued presence of Wampanoag Indians to a society that he thought had too often treated them as bygone relics. But his measured anger at real injustice bore little of the demonizing divisiveness championed by UAINE in later years.
From the repetition of Mahtowin Munro's and Mooanum James' remarks in countless websites associated with Native American interests, it would appear that the Wampanoag tribes consider themselves best represented by the UAINE protests. The words of Russell Peters published by Pilgrim Hall Museum contradict this.
Russell Peters, A Wampanoag leader, died in 2002. Who was he? "Mr. Peters [M.A., Harvard] has been involved in Native American issues at a state, local and national level. He [was] the President of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1976 to 1984, a member of the Harvard Peabody Museum Native American Repatriation Committee, a member of the White House Conference on Federal Recognition in 1995 and 1996, a board member of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, a board member of the Pilgrim Society, and the author of Wampanoags of Mashpee (Nimrod Press), Clambake (Lerner Publications), and Regalia (Sundance Press)." Russell Peters expressed regret at the deterioration of the social potential of the Day of Mourning. "While the day of mourning has served to focus attention on past injustice to the Native American cause, it has, in recent years, been orchestrated by a group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England. This group has tenuous ties to any of the local tribes, and is composed primarily of non-Indians. To date, they have refused several invitations to meet with the Wampanoag Indian tribal councils in Mashpee or in Gay Head. Once again, we, as Wampanoags, find our voices and concerns cast aside in the activities surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday in Plymouth, this time, ironically, by a group purporting to represent our interests."
The 1970 event at which Wamsutta spoke was organized by the American Indian Movement, whose leader Russell Means wrote, in his autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread (with Marvin J. Wolf, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), "Americans today believe that Thanksgiving celebrates a bountiful harvest, but that is not so. By 1970, the Wampanoag had turned up a copy of a Thanksgiving proclamation made by the governor to the colony. The text revealed the ugly truth: After a colonial militia had returned from murdering the men, women, and children of an Indian village, the governor proclaimed a holiday and feast to give thanks for the massacre. He also encouraged other colonies to do likewise - in other words, every autumn after the crops are in, go kill Indians and celebrate your murders with a feast. In November 1970, their descendants returned to Plymouth to publicize the true story of Thanksgiving and, along with about two hundred other Indians from around the country, to observe a national day of Indian mourning."
One of the odder results of the "Day of Mourning" is the appearance in a couple of Thanksgiving Day sermons of the unfounded claim that some Pilgrims considered having a day of mourning to commemorate those who had died the previous winter, but that instead they chose to thank God for their continued preservation. This colonization of the protest rhetoric can be seen at Presbyterian Warren [excerpted at] Trinity Sermons.
That's a mild contrast to Mitchel Cohen's "Why I Hate Thanksgiving" (2003), now re-duplicated incessantly. "First, the genocide. Then the suppression of all discussion about it. What do Indian people find to be Thankful for in this America? What does anyone have to be Thankful for in the genocide of the Indians, that this 'holyday' commemorates? [...] all the things we have to be thankful for have nothing at all to do with the Pilgrims, nothing at all to do with Amerikan history, and everything to do with the alternative, anarcho-communist lives the Indian peoples led, before they were massacred by the colonists, in the name of privatization of property and the lust for gold and labor. Yes, I am an American. But I am an American in revolt. I am revolted by the holiday known as Thanksgiving. [...] I want to go back in time to when people lived communally, before the colonists' Christian god was brought to these shores to sanctify their terrorism, their slavery, their hatred of children, their oppression of women, their holocausts. But that is impossible. So all I look forward to [is] the utter destruction of the apparatus of death known as Amerika not the people, not the beautiful land, but the machinery, the State, the capitalism, the Christianity and all that it stands for. I look forward to a future where I will have children with Amerika, and ... they will be the new Indians." See, for some sanity, Guenter Lewy's "Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?"
Mr. Cohen is co-editor of "Green Politix," the national newspaper of the Greens/Greens Party USA. He's annoyed. (Who wouldn't be - loving nature and living in Brooklyn?) He's also a romantic with an ideal view of Natives living in a pristine environment, rather like the peaceful, ecologically wonderful place imagined by Plimoth Plantation's Anthony Pollard (known as Nanepashemet). "The Wampanoag way of life fostered a harmonious relationship between the People and their natural environment, both physical and spiritual. [...] fighting was just part of the search for harmony when conditions had become intolerable or justice was denied."
Lies My Teachers Telling Me Now
The annual clamor of the aggrieved finds significant expression in website materials aimed at providing school teachers with a balanced (meaning non-colonial) view of Thanksgiving. One of the most important and widely copied articles is an introduction to "Teaching About Thanksgiving" written by Chuck Larson of the Tacoma School District.
Originally issued in 1986 by the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Washington, "Teaching About Thanksgiving" is no longer available from that State. It continues to be distributed by the Fourth World Documentation Project and the Center for World Indigenous Studies, among others. I hope it has been withdrawn by the state in response to the withering criticism it received from Caleb Johnson, whose Mayflower topics website presents much documentary material about the Pilgrims.
"The author of the 'Fourth World Documentation Project' lesson plan on Thanksgiving, published all over the internet as well as distributed in printed form, claims to have a strong background in history," writes Johnson. "But nearly every sentence of the entire lesson plan has a significant factual error, or is simply story-telling (making up stories and details to fit within a set framework of given historical facts)." Johnson's detailed, devastating line-by-line corrections attracted the attention of the New York Times. I have seen only one website for teachers that carries the Larson material and that also includes a reference to Johnson's work, and then only as if to provide an alternative to the nonsense they continue to present as the main material. But Johnson definitively destroyed the credibility of the lesson plan - why keep on providing it? Are the lies true to some purpose?
Mentioning that Johnson's work is worth looking at is, nonetheless, at least more generous than the ad hominem attack on Johnson that was mounted by Jamie McKenzie of the Bellingham, Washington, School District.
McKenzie complained in 1996 that Caleb Johnson did not list his own academic credentials that would suggest his website should be considered authoritative. Johnson had, after all, cast doubt on the value of Larson's "strong background in history." McKenzie, on the other hand, did not take the time to compare Johnson's careful quotations of source materials with the slipshod work of his academically qualified colleague down in Tacoma. (Although Johnson's essays are typically not footnoted, having only a source list at the end, Johnson has taken the trouble to re-publish the texts of many of the original documents on his site.) But McKenzie's major complaint in 1996 was that the internet in general did not provide much information about Thanksgiving, and that scholars with credentials were not creating the sites. There's certainly more now, and some of it is provided by professors. If one has doubts about the professor of anthropology William B. Newell, who's been forgotten by the University of Connecticut, there's the University of Colorado's Professor of Ethnic Studies, Ward Churchill, asking us, "what is it we're supposed to be so thankful for? Does anyone really expect us to give thanks for the fact that soon after the Pilgrim Fathers regained their strength, they set out to dispossess and exterminate the very Indians who had fed them that first winter? Are we to express our gratitude for the colonists' 1637 massacre of the Pequots at Mystic, Conn., or their rhetoric justifying the butchery by comparing Indians to 'rats and mice and swarms of lice'"?
And there's the late Professor James Deetz, who thought Thanksgiving only became associated with the Pilgrims around 1900, evidently disregarding the implications of Winslow Homer's famous Thanksgiving Day illustrations in Harper's Weekly, Nov. 27, 1858, Dec. 1, 1860, Nov. 29, 1862, and Dec. 3, 1864, as well as Thomas Nast's "Thanksgiving Day, 1863" (published as a double-page center illustration in Harper's Weekly, Dec. 5, 1863). Nast includes a vignette in the lower right corner labelled "country," whose main praying figure is recognizably derived from the representation of the Pilgrims' minister John Robinson in Robert Weir's painting "The Embarkation of the Pilgrims," completed in 1843 in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington.
Despite its filiopietistic motivations, the huge desert of misinformation has left Caleb Johnson's work as one of a small number of oases of calm study, equalling the level of the so-called Plymouth Colony Archive Project established by James Deetz, Patricia Scott Deetz, and Christopher Fennell (which, however, despite valuable information about the colony, says nothing significant about Thanksgiving).
McKenzie also objects to Johnsons "failing to mention some of the information which other sites provide about the Pilgrims taking the Native American corn and digging up and taking things from grave sites." In fact, Johnson publishes all the evidence there is about those issues. Because no evidence supports the inflated claims, McKenzie thinks that the Pilgrims have been "sanitized."
Unsanitized would be the word for Brenda Francis's version. She says that she "read on Binghamton University's website that the Pilgrims were starving and even went so far to dig up some remains of the Wampanoag people and eat them as a means to survival."
This directly contradicts William Bradford, who, after repeating the second-hand rumor that some Spanish colonists had been reduced to eating "dogs, toads, and dead men," proclaims that "From these extremities the Lord in his goodness kept these his people [the Pilgrims], and in their great wants preserved both their lives and healths; let his name have the praise." (Bradford's History "Of Plimoth Plantation" (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1901), p. 165: [subscribers].
The Binghamton site that is Brenda Francis' source has a student newspaper article (Nov. 21, 2003) by Rachel Kalina, who relays that the "Pilgrims were able to survive their first winter partially because of guidance by the natives and because they dug up the deceased Wampanoags to eat the corn offerings in the graves." That's not quite the same as necro-cannibalism.
Quoting from James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 91, the teacher of a course in "Debunking and Dissent" - Colby Glass of Palo Alto College (TX), maintains that "...the Pilgrims continued to rob graves for years."
There are three points of interest here: first, Winslow's description of examining graves (our only source of information) does not support these assertions; second, the corn found by the Pilgrims was not found in graves; third, I'm unaware of any evidence so far found to indicate that corn was included in graves on Cape Cod at all. Let alone that the Pilgrims were cannibals!
In the book now called Mourt's Relation, Edward Winslow wrote that the Pilgrims, exploring, found a path that took them to "certain heaps of sand, one whereof was covered with old mats, and had a wooden thing like a mortar whelmed on the top of it, and an earthen pot laid in a little hole at the end thereof. We, musing what it might be, digged and found a bow, and, as we thought, arrows, but they were rotten. We supposed there were many other things, but because we deemed them graves, we put in the bow again and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransack their sepulchres." Passing through several fields recently tended, they came upon a house, from which they removed a European ship's kettle. Next to the house was a heap of sand, which when excavated yielded two baskets filled with Indian corn. One contained thirty six ears, "some yellow, and some red, and others mixed with blue [...] The basket was round, and narrow at the top; it held about three or four bushels." Filling the kettle with loose corn, two of the Pilgrims suspended it on a stick and carried it away. The rest of the corn they re-buried. Two or three days later, they returned for the remaining corn, also finding and taking some beans and more corn, totaling around ten bushels. The following morning they found a much larger mound, covered with boards. It turned out to be the grave of a man with blond hair, whose shroud was a "sailor's canvas cassock" and who was wearing a "pair of cloth breeches." The body was accompanied by a "knife, a packneedle, and two or three iron things." Clearly this was the body of a European. An infant's body was buried together with this man. Reburying the bodies (as was customary in Europe), they continued to look for corn but found nothing else but graves, which, considering their desire not to "ransack their sepulchres," they presumably did not disturb once it was clear the mounds did not contain baskets of corn. Having learned to recognize graves, three days later the Pilgrims avoided disturbing a cemetery. They "found a burying place, one part whereof was encompassed with a large palisade, like a churchyard [...] Within it was full of graves [...] yet we digged none of them up, but only viewed them and went our way." Mourt's Relation (1622) has been republished numerous times. Caleb Johnson has made it available online at Mayflower History.com.
Winslow's words are our only evidence. Nothing impels us to doubt his information that the Pilgrims opened the grave of a European sailor and his child, reburying them after removing from the grave a few items that to a European would not have been considered grave offerings having any symbolic significance. The Pilgrims exhibited memorable sensitivity in refraining from disturbing Indian graves, once they learned to recognize them. They did not dig up graves in order to eat corn buried as grave offerings. There is no indication they removed corn from any graves. The corn was found in baskets whose shape when packed in earth would result in domed pit spaces. There is nothing to support the idea that corn was placed in graves as offerings, although small gifts of corn have been found in graves excavated by archaeologists working hundreds of miles away (the American southwest and Peru, for example).
The amount the Pilgrims found in storage baskets - two or three bushels in the first, and three or four in the second - is a large, bulky quantity. From 1986-1991, I was Chief Curator of Plimoth Plantation. The collections at that time included all the archaeological material from excavations of burial sites in the Plymouth Colony area carried out by Harry Hornblower II and James Deetz, and others with whom they worked. I carried out a detailed examination of the thousands of items in the collections, specifically looking for corn - in hopes of having it studied scientifically so we could replicate the exact type of corn growing in the area in the early 17th century. Although some floral remains had been saved from excavations that included burial sites, there was no corn, not a single kernel. Had it been the practice to bury bushels of corn as grave offerings, surely there would have been some in the materials carefully excavated from these ten Native burials. There was nothing. Neither was any discovery of corn recorded in the careful notebooks kept by Hornblower (there were no Deetz notebooks present, and no published reports). This absence is consistent with the absence of corn among grave goods from several Cape Cod Native burials, recently transferred to Native authorities for reburial, from the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.
Throughout the accounts of these discoveries of storage baskets of Indian corn, Winslow repeats the intention to try to meet the Indian owners and negotiate repayment for the corn that had been taken That was an intention to provide compensation for what the Pilgrims understood would be considered theft if no payment were made. (During the first year, Pilgrims stole corn; Indians stole abandoned tools.) Establishing that neither side would steal from the other was an important part of early negotiation between them. Attempts to locate the specific owner of the corn were ultimately successful and repayment was made (see Pilgrim Edward Winslow, p. 36).
In "Deconstructing the Myths of 'The First Thanksgiving,'" Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin contradict the documentary evidence. They base their comments largely on information provided to them by Margaret Bruchac, an "Abanaki scholar" working in collaboration with Plimoth Plantation's Wampanoag Indian Program. "There is no record that restitution was ever made for the stolen corn, and the Wampanoag did not soon forget the colonists ransacking of Indian graves, including that of Massasoit's mother."
One may surmise that Bruchac was confused in making the reference to the grave of Massasoit's mother, which is undocumented. Probably what is meant is the removal later of two bearskin rugs from over the grave of the mother of Chickatabut, sachem of the Massachusetts (see my book Indian Deeds, p. 13). It is meretriciously clever, nonetheless, to turn Winslow's statement of respect for the Indians and their graves into a pronouncement about the Wampanoags' long memory of "the colonists' ransacking of Indian graves." The up-to-date construction of "memory" and "oral history" to fit the needs of current political concerns is blatant.
Dow and Slapin end their deconstruction with the remark that "As currently celebrated in this country, "Thanksgiving" is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship."
Alternatively, Russell Peters said, "The time is long overdue for the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags to renew a meaningful dialogue about our past and look towards a more honest future."
Does it matter what of this is true? Was that the wrong question? Who do we want to be in the ever-changing Now? Intrepid demolishers of straw-man myths? Inventors of new myths to serve new political purposes? Historians?
Jeremy Bangs (Ph.D., Leiden University), a Fellow of the Pilgrim Society, is Director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, having previously been Visiting Curator of Manuscripts at Pilgrim Hall Museum, Chief Curator at Plimoth Plantation, and Curator of the Leiden Pilgrim Documents Center. Among his books are "Pilgrim Edward Winslow: New England's First International Diplomat" (2004); "Indian Deeds, Land Transactions in Plymouth Colony, 1620-1691" (2002); and "The Seventeenth-Century Town Records of Scituate, Massachusetts" (3 vols, 1997-1999-2001), all published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He has written many articles about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony, and is currently completing the manuscript of a book about the Pilgrims and Leiden. He was awarded the Distinguished Mayflower Scholarship Award by the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the Commonwealth of PA in 2001. Bangs is among a small, select number of historians of the Pilgrims (those who have no family relation to them whatsoever!). He has also published articles and books on Dutch history and art history of the 16th and 17th centuries.
1. Mourt's Relation, published in cooperation with Plimoth Plantation by Applewood Books, Bedford MA, Edited by Dwight B. Heath from the original text of 1622 and copyright 1963 by Dwight B. Heath, p. 82.
2. Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647 by William Bradford. A new edition by Samuel Eliot Morison; First published Sept. 19, 1952; 21st printing Jan. 2001, p. 90.