Every year Thanksgiving comes, and every year children learn a story of Thanksgiving. I hesitate to say the story, because the truth is that many schools still share the sugar-coated tale of Native Americans and Pilgrims sitting around the table and sharing a peaceful meal. But any adult who has access to Google knows this is far from the truth. If we told the honest story of Thanksgiving to our kids, it would sound something like this.
‘Twas the year 1614 in Patuxet, a village in the Wampanoag confederation, when, according to Smithsonian magazine, a small ship arrived along the coast carrying several white men. The leader of these men was small and stocky, with a beard so red and scruffy the tribesmen weren’t sure if he was human or beast. “My name is Captain John Smith,” he said proudly. The pniese (pronounced pa-NEES) were the special warrior tribesmen who met the ship upon its arrival. They stared at this beastly small man wondering if he had any clue that they did not, in fact, speak his language.
Somehow, through hand signals or possibly charades, Smith convinced the sachem (the Patuxet leader, pronounced SAY-chem) to give him a tour of his village. The Patuxet were wary of white men, so the visit was kept short and sweet. When Smith’s time was up, the pniese held up their bows and arrows and told him, “Peace out.” Smith and his crew returned to England leaving his lieutenant, Thomas Hunt, behind to fill a second ship with dried fish to take back to Europe.
Without Smith’s knowledge, Hunt decided to pay a visit to the Patuxet and give some of the strongest and healthiest looking villagers a “tour of his ship.” According to Mayflower History, a site dedicated to the history of the Mayflower passengers, Hunt lured them in with the offer to trade beaver. Once the unsuspecting Patuxet were on board, Hunt’s crew forced them belowdecks at gunpoint. Those who fought back were shot and killed. Hunt left the Patuxet village with 19 surviving tribesmen and sailed to Cape Cod where he kidnapped seven Nauset villagers (the natives of Cape Cod), before returning to Europe.
It took six long weeks before Hunt arrived in Málaga, Spain, where he tried to sell his prisoners into slavery. Spanish Friars, realizing that these were American Indians, took custody of the remaining prisoners with the intent to save them from slavery (i.e.: convert them to Christianity). One of these saved prisoners was a Patuxet who called himself Tisquantum, which translated to “Rage of Manitou,” a menacing term meaning “Wrath of God.”
Tisquantum convinced the friars to allow him to try and find his way back home to America, and they agreed. The resourceful Patuxet made his way to London where he worked for John Slany, a shipbuilder. Slany taught Tisquantum English, and after some time, Tisquantum secured a trip back to North America as an interpreter for Thomas Dermer, one of John Smith’s less murdery men.
When Tisquantum arrived back at his village, he was greeted by a devastating sight. All of the Patuxet had died. A plague – or more likely several diseases – were brought to America by the Europeans. The entire Patuxet village and up to 75 percent of the Wampanoag population were wiped out, according to The Huffington Post. Tisquantum, now known as “Squanto” (because who could be bothered to learn the man’s full name? He only had to learn an entire language) sought refuge in a nearby Wampanoag village.
Around this time, the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower. The God-fearing people were thrilled to find that the good Lord had set aside some land exclusively for them – they were not at all ethnocentric. The Almighty had even killed an entire population so that they could make America their home. What a blessing! According to The Huffington Post, the gravesite of the Patuxet was quickly colonized by the Pilgrims, and became known as Plymouth, MA.
According to Indian Country Today, an American Indian media network, after waiting a few months to make sure the Pilgrims weren’t going to kill them with guns or germs, Chief Massasoit, the sachem of the Wampanoag, paid a visit to the settlement. They exchanged gifts and signed a peace treaty to do no harm to each other. The also agreed to align against the Narragansett, the Wampanoag’s longtime rivals. Because Squanto was fluent in English, Massasoit appointed him liaison to the Pilgrims, but rumor has it that Massasoit didn’t exactly trust Squanto and had been keeping him captive in the village since his return.
The Pilgrims had no idea how to survive in America. During their first winter, more than half of them died of malnutrition, disease, and exposure to the harsh New England weather, History.com noted. Squanto, who’d grown accustomed to spending time with the White Man, and was ready to break free from Massasoit’s house arrest, moved in with the colonists and taught them how to plant corn and use fish as fertilizer. He also taught them how to collect shellfish, forage for nuts and berries, and fish for eels. Yum!
The following year, in 1621, the 50 or so remaining Pilgrims had a good harvest and decided to celebrate by shooting guns and canons in the air, like the new, red-blooded Americans they were. Massasoit heard the commotion, worried that the English had backed out of their treaty. He gathered 90 armed warriors, and showed up at Plymouth ready throw down if necessary. The Wampanoag, who often had formal ceremonies giving thanks for their good fortune, soon realized that this was how the White Man celebrated. They camped out for a few days, just to make sure everything would remain on the up and up. The Wampanoag hunted for deer, the Pilgrims hunted for waterfowl, and eventually they all sat down and shared the game along with shellfish, nuts, and corn, according to NPR. This was the first “Thanksgiving.”
There was no Instagram-worthy tablescape, no pumpkin pie or honey baked ham, probably not even a wild turkey. In fact, NPR noted that the English women were most likely stuck cooking over an open fire and the Wampanoag women stayed in their village tending to the children. Nope, women were not invited to this feast.
Close to 400 years later, some things have changed from the first Thanksgiving Feast. Instead of women cooking over an open fire, the men now insist on cooking – and, by cooking I mean deep frying a turkey, which may or may not burn the house down. We eat pies instead of nuts, make casseroles instead of boiling shellfish. We groan when our aunt makes everyone at the table say what they are thankful for. We argue over who sits where, and whose turn it is to clear the table. And, when everyone is so full they’re in physical pain, we sit down in front of the TV to watch football. Because, really, isn’t that what our forefathers intended all along?