Now that it’s all over and you’ve digested and pooped your turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie it might be worth taking a few quiet moments out to contemplate the true origin, history and meaning of what we know as ‘Thanksgiving’.
Like a great number of other traditions, Thanksgiving is steeped in violence, ignominy and bloodshed, its modern appropriation now well versed in sweeping the murky past under the carpet. But what is the ‘true’ story behind Thanksgiving, and does it carry any relevance in today’s world?
The PG-rated version would have us believe that the Pilgrims, fresh off the boat from England, gently wound their way into the territory of the native Wampanoag Nation and settled down to feast in friendship, good vibes and love…
Like a lot of historical retellings, such a story is ingrained with different amounts of truth, fiction and, in some cases, downright lies. The real build-up to that first feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag trundled down a rocky path of conflict, slavery and the Patuxet tribe’s decimation via Smallpox; a disease not known in the New World. The natives’ immune systems, not used to this deadly disease, could not stop the widespread infection and deaths that occurred.
Returning to Massachussets Bay to collect more natives to ship back to England for slavery, the Pilgrims discovered what they thought was the last living member of the Patuxet tribe, a man named Squanto who had already lived through and returned from English slavery.
Thanks to Squanto’s language and practical skills, the Pilgrims were able to build bridges (literally and figuratively) with the Wampanoag Nation, sign a peace accord and plan to live in perfect New World harmony. Hence, the mythical feast we are so familiar with today.
But these first acts of diplomacy quickly became the catalyst for a series of bitter, violent wars that took as much from one side as the other. English Puritans, a hardy religious sect that believed strongly in a terrible fashion sense, arrived by the boatload and laid their markers down across territory that had already been in use for thousands of years. Together with other British settlers, the Puritans ruthlessly hacked, slashed and slaved their way through the area. The resulting war with the Pequot Nation was a bloodbath from start to finish.
The English and Dutch were responsible for one of the war’s worst atrocities: a pre-dawn raid on a Pequot village that left over 700 men, women and children dead. Over the following days, hundreds more were killed or sold into slavery, with the Governor of Massachusets Bay declaring them Days of Thanksgiving. Because nothing gets you feeling grateful like a massacre…
Such barbarism continued in such a fashion for years after, with each massacre being greeted with a feast. It was only until George Washington stepped in to declare that one day per year should be set aside to celebrate the occasions instead of after each victory. It was President Lincoln that officially declared it an American public holiday. This happened on the same day he sent troops to vanquish a Sioux tribe in Minnesota. Start as you mean to go on…
And so the myth and spirit of Thanksgiving has adapted and evolved to the modern world. While we’ve at least scaled back on the savage murders of entire villages, the gluttony many put themselves through speaks of an in-built greed and desire to take everything for one’s self.
So, the next time you sit to eat with friends and family, spare a few seconds to consider the blood-coated trail the nation has had to walk to get to where it is today. Give thanks that you weren’t on the receiving end of it or feel the weight of history upon your own back.