Thanksgiving, on the fourth Thursday of November, is a harvest festival that is the main family celebration in the United States. It’s the time of year when many Americans travel to visit family. The day before Thanksgiving and the long weekend are some of the busiest travel days of the year.
Thanksgiving is also the traditional start of the Christmas Holidays. Some of the traditions were created by New York City merchants.
Most Americans are taught that Thanksgiving commemorates a lovely 1621 Thanksgiving feast shared by the Native American Wampanoag and English Pilgrim colonizers in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. That’s a great story, but it wasn’t that simple. The traditional Thanksgiving story is a bit of a cover-up for the Indigenous genocide committed by European colonizers and later the U.S. Army.
The first European Thanksgiving in what became the United States actually took place in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. It was a mutually shared feast with Spanish colonizers and the Native American Seloy people. It also included Africans who were free and respected members of the colonizing party. In reality, that Spanish Thanksgiving was much closer to the fictional story of the Pilgrim one.
Since 2009, the day after Thanksgiving is the Native American Heritage Day national holiday.
Another thing we didn’t understand growing up in the United States is that some of the traditional Thanksgiving meal is based on West African cuisine.
The Thanksgiving Story
It is supposed to commemorate a feast of thanks for survival and a good harvest that was shared by early English immigrants in Massachusetts with the Wampanoag people, the Indigenous Americans in the area, in 1621.
The feast really happened, but the details are part of the United States creation story. We are a diverse nation of immigrants. The purpose of the Thanksgiving story is to bind may people into one. That is a noble cause, but wouldn’t you rather be bound together in truth, than in lies?
What Really Happened
History is written by the victors. What we are taught as children is often not true. It is just a story, a fiction designed to cover up past evils.
The Puritans were a Fringe Religious Group
First of all, the Puritans or “Pilgrims” were a fringe religious group. The only reason they were allowed to leave England is because the English were glad to be rid of them. Good riddance.
They had a tough journey because they weren’t prepared for it.
The Puritans Found Land Cleared for Farming Without People
The pilgrims were headed to the mouth of the Hudson River, but had the good luck to crash land in a place that had already been cleared for habitation and farming, but was mostly abandoned. They basically walked into land that had already been developed.
The development was mostly empty because early travels of French and English explorers had introduced European diseases such as smallpox that devastated Native Americans who had no immune resistance. Most epidemics last a year or two, so the change was sudden. There are contemporaneous reports of travelers finding piles of bodies being eaten by wild animals in otherwise empty Native American villages.
We are talking about tens of millions of deaths with a 90-95% depopulation rate. So in a community of twenty, there might be only one or two people left. The average death rate of Covid-19 is 3-4%. Imagine what our lives would be like if the Covid dead survived, but everybody else died.
Pre-contact population estimates range from 50-100 million so that’s in the league of World War II. Back in the day, English colonizers were proud of the plague they brought.
The “Indians” were Not Friendly or Subservient
Depictions of the first Thanksgiving usually show many pilgrims and a few grateful and subservient “Indians.”
Actually the Wampanoag at the celebration far outnumbered the pilgrims. A proud people in a dominant position would never be subservient. They were probably just curious.
Wouldn’t you be curious if a band of “little green men” landed in your backyard? You would probably gather your friends and family and go check it out in numbers for safety, just like the Wampanoag did.
Some individuals helped the Pilgrims, but relations were generally tense. The Pilgrims began taking over trade that had always belonged to the tribes, and started a cycle of escalating acts of retribution for real and imagined insults.
Things blew up less than twenty years later in the Pequot War of 1636. It featured incidents like the murder of 500 men, women and children in retaliation for the murder of 1 pilgrim. That’s not exactly the Biblical eye for an eye.
It was just the beginning of a cycle of aggression, false promises and betrayal of Indigenous peoples in the Americas – the American genocide finished by the US Army.
So this is what we are actually celebrating. Binding us together is a good thing. Celebrating lies, betrayal and genocide is less so.
As an American of the United States, I was born and raised to believe that we stand for truth and fairness. I still believe it, but we have to swallow our history whole, with all the good, the bad and the ugly.
Accepting our mistakes makes us a better people. Truth, fairness and opportunity is the light of the American Dream. By acknowledging our past, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”