As an educator, I’m very aware that what is taught in schools is watered down, glossed over, neatly trimmed, and even mythological versions of our actual history. This is painfully true for many of our most important events. Thanksgiving is probably the worst offender because the lie it tells serves to absolve our ancestors of guilt and steer everyone away from any version of founding America that doesn’t fill citizens with pride and joy. Here I’m going to spell out some significant historical inaccuracies around the Thanksgiving story and talk a little about why it is significant that we know the truth.
The Puritans Did Not Come to Escape Religious Persecution
This is one of the biggest lies our teachers ever told us, and it serves a very specific political purpose. To circumvent the fact that America was founded by wealth seeking slavers, traders, and invaders (didn’t mean to rhyme) we paint the original settlers as victims who were desperate and vulnerable, seeking a new life.
We know them as the Puritans now, but that’s not what they called themselves in the early 1600′s when they left England. They referred to themselves as “true protestants.” They were a minority group that did dissent from the Church of England, that’s true, but not because they were being persecuted. This was the time of the protestant reformation where the masses were reading and becoming more educated, as a result they began criticizing the church and developing their own interpretations of scripture. Their qualms were not only theological, there was significant corruption and abuse by priests in the Church of England, and people were legitimately angry. The “true protestants” though were not satisfied with the reformation and held strict religious standards for themselves. They were essentially disgusted by Church’s corruption, but also general social issues such as poverty and immoral behavior. They didn’t leave England because they were being judged by society, they left because they stood in judgement of others and felt they were too good to be apart of England anymore. So they left, not in search of freedom, because they legally and socially had the freedom to hold themselves to stricter religious standards. No, they came to the New World to establish their own theocracy, based on the radical moral conservatism we know today to be Puritanism.
Squanto Was Not Befriended
Part of the original Thanksgiving story we usually tell is that John Smith and the early settlers befriended a young man named Squanto, who helped them make peace and trade with indigenous peoples.
Well, first his name was Tisquantum. Squanto was a pejorative pet name he was given in the tradition of not respecting the people’s they encountered as equals and adapting them to their comfort. It is true that Tisquantum served as an interpreter and middle man for a short period of time. However, John Smith, the lovable romantic in Disney’s Pocahontas movie, captured Tisquantum and a group of
Pawtuxet people and sold them into slavery in Spain. Tisquantum did later escape and manage to return to America by joining the Newfoundland Company, but his people had all died from war and disease. Later he did become an Emissary for the English again, and endeavored as a guide and interpreter for many others before he died.
In school they never mention the fact that Tisquantum was sold into slavery, because the fact that most early settlers in the New World, including famed Christopher Columbus, were slavers. It was a highly profitable market, and the Europeans had no misgivings about kidnapping native peoples and enslaving them at their whim.
There Were Two Early Feasts for Thanks
There were actually multiple feasts held by early settlers in celebration, but there are two significant events that contend for possibly being the root of our modern tradition. We of course think of the famed feast on 1621 as the source of our tradition. That did take place, and I’ll get to that in a minute. However, a strong possibility is that our tradition actually comes from a massive meal for thanks that took place after the massacre of Pequot. While at war with the Pequot people over European’s expansion into their land, Euro settlers attacked a Pequot village and successfully won the battle by trapping villagers and burning them. More than 500 were killed, and this fueled continual hostility. Governor, John Winthrop, held a festival to give “thanks” for this victory. There’s a growing idea that this event is actually the source of our tradition, but the truth is that there is no hard evidence that proves one or the other.
What Was Wrong With the “First Thanksgiving?”
The problem is that the purpose it was said to serve and the result are just not true. The feast in 1621 was held by settlers to celebrate a successful harvest, that’s true. There is no evidence to show that the Wampanoag were invited though. Both historians and modern Wampanoag’s now recognize that the natives were drawn to the village by gun shots and celebration. They were afraid that the settlers were preparing to attack. The 90 or so Wampanoag men that attended the meal were warriors that had come to assess the situation. At that time there were only about 50 colonists. While the actual event is said to have been peaceful and happy, it was pure happenstance. It was not a planned political olive branch.
The Peace Did Not Last
There was a treaty signed in 1621. It was very basic and established the settlers and Wampanoag as allies that would not war. So much for that. A majority of the native population had succumb to small pox and other diseases brought from Europe. As Europeans pushed into the land relationships were strained and a generation later (which was only 30 or 40 years) things devolved into back and forth attacks leading into all out war. This part isn’t a secret by any means, but the original Thanksgiving myth tries to put emphasis on settlers as peace bringers and divert attention away from their efforts to expand and steal the land from the rightful inhabitants. The people of Jamestown told the Wampanoag that they wanted to establish a trading post. It was when the Wampanoag realized that their intent was to establish a new state that their treaty was broken.
These Are Not Small Details
Remember that the whole point of the mainstream Thanksgiving story is to promote the narrative that Europeans came peacefully and relations with natives began on good terms. That’s just not true. The Europeans lied about their reasons for coming, lied about their reasons for staying, sold native people’s into slavery, took them home to be put on display like animals the same way they did to Africans, and Europeans have broke literally every treaty ever signed with any native people.
There are many people in our country that ideologically favor propaganda over objective truth. They think it is acceptable and moral to lie to engender a desired feeling or perspective. They also feel it is acceptable to essentially rewrite history by claiming absurd alternative interpretations of events for the same purpose. This would people who deny genocide was committed against the natives, people who argue slavery was really not that bad, people who deny the confederate flag is racist.
The belief that purposefully lying about history is acceptable has always been present and is strongly held today. Not only lying, but covering up history. We see this in every aspect of historical education and social issue, whether it’s LGBTQ history, segregation, the confederacy, immigration, police and civil rights, our military, and so much more.
We live in a world where people only know a sliver of the truth and it’s because of neatly packaged little stories like thanksgiving and other abridged versions that we don’t have a real grasp on what has shaped our world, and we can’t recognize it when it happens in front of us.
The Truth Matters, Disliking it is Irrelevant