Most of us picture the first Thanksgiving with Pilgrims and Indians meeting as friends and sharing a big feast - a happy time with the harvest in and everything positive about this day, and it did happen that way once. The Pilgrims held the feast to honor Squanto and the Wampanoags.
In 1863 during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. But Thanksgiving is a mixture of truth and myths that developed in the 1890s and early 1900s when our country was desperately trying to pull together its many diverse peoples into a common national unity. In 1898, the federal government declared the last Thursday of November to be the official Thanksgiving, and what started as an inspirational bit of folklore, grew to the Thanksgiving we know now.
It was in 1614 that a band of English explorers sailed home to England with a ship full of Patuxet Indians bound for slavery. They left behind smallpox which killed all those who escaped. By the time the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts Bay, there was only one living Patuxet Indian – Squanto, who we’ve all heard of. He had been a slave in England, who had been given his freedom so he knew their language. Because Squanto had a very real love for the English explorer, John Weymouth, who became a second father to him after he discovered his tribe had all died while he was gone, he considered the Pilgrims who arrived in 1620 to be like Weymouth. So that first year he taught them to grow corn, something they knew nothing about and how to fish, since they didn’t have the proper hooks. He also negotiated a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Nation. The Wampanoag Indians were not the “friendly savages” we learned about in school. Nor were they invited out of the goodness of the Pilgrims’ hearts. They were part of a widespread confederacy of Algonkian-speaking people known as the League of the Delaware. For six hundred years they had been defending themselves from other tribes, and they were suspicious of those early settlers.
As word spread in England about the paradise to be found in the new world many religious zealots called Puritans began arriving, and since there were no fences around the land, they considered it public domain and soon took control instead of the original Pilgrims, who were a mixture of people who weren’t Puritans or a moderate group of the Puritan movement. The Puritans weren’t simple religious conservatives persecuted by the King and the Church of England for their unorthodox beliefs. They were political revolutionaries who not only intended to overthrow England’s government, but radicals who planned to build this new country to their own religious beliefs and no other. They considered themselves the “Chosen Elect” and strove to purify themselves and everyone else, and by any means, including deceptions, treachery, torture, war and genocide to achieve that end. Does that make you think of another religious splinter group today in the Mideast? In 1691 the Puritans got their charter from the Massachusetts Bay Company. As other British settlers came, they seized the land and took strong young Natives for slaves and killing the rest. However, the Pequot Nation had not agreed to the peace treaty Squanto had negotiated and they fought back. The Pequot War was one of the bloodiest Indian wars ever fought.
In 1637 over 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival which is today our Thanksgiving celebration in what is now Groton, Connecticut. In the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries, who ordered them to come outside. Those who did were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouses were burned alive. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A Day of Thanksgiving” because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered.
A Thanksgiving sermon delivered in 1623 by “Mather the Elder” gave special thanks to God for the devastating plague of smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians who had been their benefactors. He praised God for destroying “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, clearing the forests to make way for a better growth”, i.e. the Pilgrims.
From that day on horrible massacres of the Native Americans and capturing all healthy men and women to sell abroad as slaves happened with each event being celebrated as a day of thanksgiving until George Washington finally set aside only one day of Thanksgiving per year instead of celebrating these horrible events.
Even though I grew up with the Thanksgiving story when I became older I found out the horrors the earlier settlers committed against the Native Americans whose land this was, and those injustices continued on with no stopping. What bothers me is the atrocities done in God’s name as is happening now in the Middle-east, and still happens in our country, too, if you stop to think about it. Laws like those that try to remove anything negative about our country instead of telling the truth as it is. Religious fanatics who think only they have God’s blessing and everyone else is a heretic bound for Hell.
In spite of its actual history, I love Thanksgiving. It’s a time to get together with family over a good meal filled with fun and conversation, and at least with my family, no football game on TV so we fill the time after eating, the table is cleared, and dishes washed we gather together in the living room to talk, laugh and share memories. It’s one of those holidays that haven’t been taken over by big business – or at least until recently. It’s sad with employees required to work in the big box stores so customers who can’t wait one extra day to buy that gizmo or thing-a-ma-bob they just must have leave many people without the pleasure of sitting down with their family for a Thanksgiving dinner.
Although I knew these facts, but rather than go through the multiple histories on my shelf, I Googled Thanksgiving and chose these two articles out of many. I credit the above with “The Real Story of Thanksgiving” by Susan Bates and “Introductions for Teachers” by Chuck Larsen. Both will give you more detailed information than I could fit into one blog.
What does Thanksgiving mean to you?
How do you celebrate it?