The Unoffficial History of Thanksgiving
compiled by Tristan Ahtone

The arrival of Europeans on the east cost of North America occurred not in 1620, but well before. French and Dutch fishermen and settlers had been in the area as early as 1614, and had been responsible for kidnapping Indians, selling them into slavery, and maliciously infecting them with smallpox.

In 1620 the pilgrims arrived on the east coast and within two days they had received assistance from the local Wampanoag Indian tribe: The pilgrims stole their stored crops, dug up graves for dishes and pots, and took many native people as prisoners and forced them to teach crop planting and survival techniques to the colonists in their new environment.

Luckily, for the colonists, an ex-slave named Squanto had recently escaped slavery in England, spoke English fluently and was able to instruct the pilgrims in crop planting, fishing, and hunting. Squanto not only escaped from slavery, he was also one of the only survivors of his tribe, the rest had been wiped out from the European smallpox plagues years before.

When it came to helping the rag-tag team of colonists, Squanto, not only was able to put aside his personal differences with the people who had enslaved him and killed off his entire tribe, but also helped make the colonists self-sufficient, and aided in brokering a treaty with the Wampanoag tribe.

In 1621 Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoags, signed a “treaty of friendship” giving the English permission to occupy 12,000 acres of land. In 1621 the myth of thanksgiving was born. The colonists invited Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, to their first feast as a follow up to their recent land deal. Massasoit in turn invited 90 of his men, much to the chagrin of the colonists.

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.

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.

The proclamation of 1676 announced the first national day of thanksgiving with the onset of the Wampanoag war, the very people who helped the original colonists survive on their arrival. Massasoit, the chief invited to eat with the puritans in 1621, died in 1661. His son Metacomet, later to be known by the English as King Phillip, originally honored the treaties made by his father with the colonists, but after years of further encroachment and destruction of the land, slave trade, and slaughter, Metacomet changed his mind.

In 1675 “King Phillip” called upon all natives to unite to defend their homelands from the English. For the next year the bloody conflict went on non-stop, until Metacomet was captured, murdered, quartered, his hands were cut off and sent to Boston, his head was impaled on a pike in the town square of Plymouth for the next 25 years, and his nine-year-old son was shipped to the Caribbean to be a slave for the rest of his life.

On June 20, 1676 Edward Rawson was unanimously voted by the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, to proclaim June 29th as the first day of thanksgiving. The proclamation reads in part: “The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present War with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgments he hath remembered mercy… The council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favor…”

It was not until 1863 that Abe Lincoln, needing a wave of patriotism to hold the country together, that Thanksgiving was nationally and officially declared and set forth to this day. At the time, two days were announced as days to give thanks, the first was a celebration of the victory at Gettysburg on August 6th, and the second one became the Thursday in November that we know now.

The most interesting part of thanksgiving is the propaganda that has been put out surrounding it. During the 19th century thanksgiving traditions consisted of turkey and family reunions. Whenever popular art contained both pilgrims and Indians, the scene was usually characterized by violent confrontations between the two groups, not a multi-cultural/multi-racial dinner.

In 1914 artist Jennie Brownscombe created the vision of thanksgiving that we see today: community, religion, racial harmony and tolerance, after her notorious painting reached wide circulation in Life magazine.

Adamant protests to the celebration of thanksgiving have taken place over the years. As early as 1863 Pequot Indian Minister William Apess urged “every man of color” to mourn the day of the landing, and bury Plymouth Rock in protest. In 1970 Apess got his way.

1970 was the “350th” anniversary of thanksgiving, and became the first proclaimed national day of mourning for American Indians.

State officials of Massachusetts asked Frank B. James, President of the federated Eastern Indian League, to speak at the thanksgiving celebration. The speech he submitted read: “Today is a time of celebrating for you… but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my people… The pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod… before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat, and beans… Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts; yet he and his people welcomed and befriended the settlers…, little knowing that… before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags… and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them… Although our way of life is almost gone and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important.” James was subsequently barred from speaking.

As a result, hundreds of people from around the country came to support him by gathering around the statue of Massasoit that had been erected in town. The protesters buried Plymouth Rock twice that day.

For the next 24 years, American Indians staged protest every thanksgiving, in 1996 the United American Indians of New England put a stop the annual pilgrim parade and forced the marchers to turn around and head back toward the seaside (symbolism?).

In 1997 the peaceful protestors were assaulted by members of the Plymouth police, the county sheriffs department, and state troopers on horseback in full riot gear. Men, women, children, and elders were beaten, pepper sprayed and gassed. Twenty-Five people were arrested; blacks, whites, latinos, Indians, and even a 67-year-old Penobscot elder were taken to jail. Videotape was later produced to confirm the assault and ensuing police brutality. Plymouth is known as “Americas Hometown.”

Finally in 1999 plaques were approved and dedicated to commemorate “genocide” and other crimes against indigenous peoples of the Americas. The plaque at Coles Hill, where the statue of Massasoit is reads:Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the pilgrims and other European settlers… To them, thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture.” The second plaque in the towns post office square honors “King Phillip”, Massasoits son.

Please email: Tristan_Ahtone@hotmail.com for a copy of sources used to compile this information.