The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Silver Lining of Thanksgiving Past

I had originally intended to write a rather cynical Thanksgiving weekend post, pointing out that the Native American tribes who helped the pilgrims in that first Thanksgiving feast made a big mistake by helping Europeans figure out how to live and prosper in the new world. Their reward, ultimately, was slavery, scalp bounties, smallpox (sometimes deliberately spread) and, in the end, genocide. But it turns out the story has an interesting twist:

The Puritans were religious radicals being driven into exile out of England. Since their story is well known, I will not repeat it here. They settled and built a colony which they called the “Plymouth Plantation,” near the ruins of a former Native village of the Pawtuxet Nation. Only one Pawtuxet had survived, a man named Squanto, who had spent time as a slave to the English. Since he understood the language and customs of the Puritans, he taught them to use the corn growing wild from the abandoned fields of the village, taught them to fish, and about the foods, herbs and fruits of this land. Squanto also negotiated a peace treaty between the Puritans and the Wampanoag Nation, a very large Native nation which totally surrounded the new Plymouth Plantation. Because of Squanto’s efforts, the Puritans enjoyed almost 15 years of peaceful harmony with the surrounding Natives, and they prospered.

At the end of their first year, the Puritans held a great feast following the harvest of their new farming efforts. The feast honored Squanto and their friends, the Wampanoags. The feast was followed by three days of “thanksgiving” celebrating their good fortune. This feast produced the image of the first Thanksgiving that we all grew up with as children. However, things were doomed to change.

Until approximately 1629, there were only about 300 Puritans living in widely scattered settlements around New England. As word leaked back to England about their peaceful and prosperous life, more Puritans arrived by the boatloads. As the numbers of Puritans grew, the question of ownership of the land became a major issue. The Puritans came from the belief of individual needs and prosperity, and had no concept of tribal living, or group sharing. It was clear that these heathen savages had no claim on the land because it had never been subdued, cultivated and farmed in the European manner, and there were no fences or other boundaries marked.

The land was clearly “public domain,” and there for the taking. This attitude met with great resistance from the original Puritans who held their Native benefactors in high regard. These first Puritan settlers were summarily excommunicated and expelled from the church.

I had assumed that those who had been saved, had been helped, by the natives, had turned against them. It seems that wasn’t the case.

In later days, different types of Thanksgivings would occur:

In 1641, the Dutch governor of Manhattan offered the first scalp bounty; a common practice in many European countries. This was broadened by the Puritans to include a bounty for Natives fit to be sold for slavery. The Dutch and Puritans joined forces to exterminate all Natives from New England, and village after village fell. Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches of Manhattan announced a day of “thanksgiving” to celebrate victory over the heathen savages. This was the second Thanksgiving. During the feasting, the hacked off heads of Natives were kicked through the streets of Manhattan like soccer balls.

The killing took on a frenzy, with days of thanksgiving being held after each successful massacre. Even the friendly Wampanoag did not escape. Their chief was beheaded, and his head placed on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts — where it remained for 24 years. Each town held thanksgiving days to celebrate their own victories over the Natives until it became clear that there needed to be an order to these special occasions. It was George Washington who finally brought a system and a schedule to thanksgiving when he declared one day to be celebrated across the nation as Thanksgiving Day.

Pleasant, no?

I don’t generally dwell on the fact that the US and Canada are countries based on the destruction of the original inhabitants of the land. Genocide, for all that we act as if it were suddenly invented in the 20th century by the Nazis, or perhaps by the Turks, is nearly as ancient as recorded history. The Roman destruction of Carthage, perhaps the most famous genocide of ancient history, was hardly the first. Nor is modern weaponry necessary, as both Genghis Khan, who had entire cities slaughtered, and the Hutus, with their slaughter of half a million to a million Tutsis, primarily with machetes, could attest. Sharp objects don’t run out of bullets, after all.

Yet, there is no question that the natives would have been wiser to have never helped Europeans learn how to survive in the new world–even if one can argue that in the end, the result probably would have been the same.

Still, I come back to this: The Puritans who were helped by the Native Americans resisted the destruction of their benefactors to the point of excommunication. At the time, such a penalty was the equivalent of being ostracized from their communities–other Puritans were forbidden to have any civil comunication with them whatsoever, including eating with them.

Here, of course, is the point in an essay where I’d normally draw a lesson, but I don’t know that I have one. What I do know, from my own personal experience, is that many people aren’t even as thankful as those pilgrims–helping someone often creates resentment. And certainly one should never expect thankfulness as the result of an indirect extension of assistance. But the effect of gratitude runs both ways. As a child one of the first full novels I ever read was Ernest Thomas Seton’s “Rolf In the Woods,” a book about a white teenager effectively adopted by a Native American in early 19th century America. The Native American helps him, and then, as Seton notes, feels both kindly towards him and a sense of responsbility for the young man’s continued well-being.

We tend to look favorably upon those we’ve helped, especially if they respond with gratitude and make good use of what we’ve given, whether it be knowledge or material goods. Helping people makes us feel better about ourselves. Empathy, the ability to feel another’s pain, is as naturally human as is callousness (not to mention the actual enjoyment of others’ pain, empathy’s dark twin). Feeling another’s pain, we either wish to relieve it, or we close ourselves off to it. To do so requires making that person, or those people, into something other than ourselves. It’s much easier not to feel for those who aren’t like you, who are lesser, who are, indeed, nothing but uncivilized beasts or savages–little more than animals.

The Puritans who had personally been helped by, feasted with, and befriended the Native Americans couldn’t do this. And the natives who had befriended the Puritans couldn’t do it either. They had been made aware that both sides were like them, were human. The Puritans felt grateful, the Native Americans, benevolent.

But those who came afterwards, those who benefitted from the knowledge the natives had given, had never dealt with the natives as humans. Therefore, they could feel superior. They could afford to be ignorant of the fact that the natives had assisted their predecessors, and that, in exchange, the original Puritans were able to help the Native Americans by giving or trading with them for steel, iron goods, and other advanced European items. To the late-comers, the natives were nothing but animals, who didn’t own the land and were savages fit for death.

There was no room for empathy, for a bond of thankfulness, or for the reciprocity of favors and affection that leads to friendship.

And so those Native American tribes were virtually destroyed–and yet we still pretend we are thankful for what they gave, when the record shows that the only people who were thankful were a few hundred Puritans who were rewarded for their faithfulness by excommunication.

Every Thanksgiving, I’ve thought of those who died, a sour smile on my face. But in Thanksgivings to come I’ll think also of those who didn’t break faith. A bitter silver lining perhaps, but I find in such things the true gold of the human spirit, untarnished, even in failure.

(Originally published for the 2007 Thanksgiving.)


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  1. Celsius 233

    I haven’t celebrated the beginning of the genocide for more years than I can remember and that was just for what went on there in North America. I’m 64 and I have railed on about this since I was 15. That’s when I learned the truth.

  2. anonymous

    Yes, those indirectly helped ended up with nothing but a murderous sense of entitlement and false superiority. A very good object lesson on the need for really high estate taxes. In the spirit of the day, Thanks.

  3. AR

    Here is Charles C. Mann’s account, in his Atlantic article of 2002, titled 1491:

    “A few years ago it occurred to me that my ancestor and everyone else in the colony had voluntarily enlisted in a venture that brought them to New England without food or shelter six weeks before winter. Half the 102 people on the Mayflower made it through to spring, which to me was amazing. How, I wondered, did they survive?

    “In his history of Plymouth Colony, Bradford provided the answer: by robbing Indian houses and graves. The Mayflower first hove to at Cape Cod. An armed company staggered out. Eventually it found a recently deserted Indian settlement. The newcomers—hungry, cold, sick—dug up graves and ransacked houses, looking for underground stashes of corn. “And sure it was God’s good providence that we found this corn,” Bradford wrote, “for else we know not how we should have done.” (He felt uneasy about the thievery, though.) When the colonists came to Plymouth, a month later, they set up shop in another deserted Indian village. All through the coastal forest the Indians had “died on heapes, as they lay in their houses,” the English trader Thomas Morton noted. “And the bones and skulls upon the severall places of their habitations made such a spectacle” that to Morton the Massachusetts woods seemed to be “a new found Golgotha”—the hill of executions in Roman Jerusalem.

    “To the Pilgrims’ astonishment, one of the corpses they exhumed on Cape Cod had blond hair. A French ship had been wrecked there several years earlier. The Patuxet Indians imprisoned a few survivors. One of them supposedly learned enough of the local language to inform his captors that God would destroy them for their misdeeds. The Patuxet scoffed at the threat. But the Europeans carried a disease, and they bequeathed it to their jailers. The epidemic (probably of viral hepatitis, according to a study by Arthur E. Spiess, an archaeologist at the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and Bruce D. Spiess, the director of clinical research at the Medical College of Virginia) took years to exhaust itself and may have killed 90 percent of the people in coastal New England. It made a huge difference to American history. “The good hand of God favored our beginnings,” Bradford mused, by “sweeping away great multitudes of the natives … that he might make room for us.”

    “By the time my ancestor set sail on the Mayflower, Europeans had been visiting New England for more than a hundred years. English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese mariners regularly plied the coastline, trading what they could, occasionally kidnapping the inhabitants for slaves. New England, the Europeans saw, was thickly settled and well defended. In 1605 and 1606 Samuel de Champlain visited Cape Cod, hoping to establish a French base. He abandoned the idea. Too many people already lived there. A year later Sir Ferdinando Gorges—British despite his name—tried to establish an English community in southern Maine. It had more founders than Plymouth and seems to have been better organized. Confronted by numerous well-armed local Indians, the settlers abandoned the project within months. The Indians at Plymouth would surely have been an equal obstacle to my ancestor and his ramshackle expedition had disease not intervened.”

  4. Ed

    I’m not sure how Canadian Thanksgiving came about, but its worth reading the Wikipedia article on the history of Thanksgiving in the US. It includes the text of Lincoln’s proclamation, which is a bit too wordy for a blog post:

    While there were versions of Thanksgiving in colonial times, Thanksgiving as a national holiday pretty clearly dates to 1863, and was connected with the effort to defeat the Confederates in the Civil War (see Lincoln’s proclamation). During the New Deal it was heavily promoted, as a sort of simulas, to extend the Christmas season one month earlier and to get people to shop more!

    You probably hear the Pilgrims story, and not the later history, because after World War II there were conscious attempts being made to forge a national American identity, and the enimity between white Southerners and white Northerners was being downplayed. So as many American institutions as possible were traced to colonial times or the war of independence. Just keep in mind that this entire effort is a myth, the United States as a nation dates to the Civil War and the effort meant either misremembering earlier history, or as in the case of Thanksgiving ignoring discontinuities between the late eighteenth century and more recent times.

    And since the 1930s, coming up with gimmicks to get people to shop more is still the default way to handle any economic difficulty.

  5. jo6pac

    Please pay no attention what ever the problem some one has with what ever. Thanks Ian, I also learned a long time ago as Celsius 233 and you pointed out what sham. When I point this out to others were the Hilter and others like him got the ideas it’s a blank stare and it couldn’t be possible. Sad

  6. Celsius 233

    Buffy Saint- Marie on Democracy Now;

  7. A better post, that gets better all the time.

  8. > We tend to look well upon those we’ve helped, especially if they respond with gratitude and make good use of what we’ve given, be it knowledge or material goods.

    There’s a term for that: The Benjamin Franklin Effect.

  9. S Brennan

    Nice post Ian, I’ve found that the more “urbane” one becomes, the less civilized one is.

    When your life hangs by another’s kindness, civility is the norm. The tragedy of our lives is, as intertwined as we humans are, the strings are invisible to most.

  10. V. Arnold

    Everywhere you go; there you are.
    It certainly requires a knowledge of history to understand what happened as North America was invaded.
    Knowing Elizabethan England and prior; why would we behave any differently once we arrived in the “New England”?
    We’re in a constant flux from our base nature to our aspired, better selves. It would appear we’re (as a society) well into a return to our base nature…

  11. V. Arnold

    Also, there is an excellent read, Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick.
    Philbrick covers the Puritan’s relationship with the Indians which was reciprocal.

  12. Adam Eran

    Thanks, and thanks to the poster who quoted Mann’s 1491. Both 1491 and 1493 (books) are really worthwhile reads.

    Turns out Columbus brought more deadly microbes than deadly settlers. Malaria and yellow fever are Old World diseases that wreaked havoc in the New World far worse than any of the military depredations (which were easier thanks to a sick population). This is one reason that, before the 19th century, more Africans than whites were brought to the new world. The Africans’ immunity to those Old World diseases meant that the range of the vectors (mosquitos) was roughly where slavery survived. It’s also a good explanation why French military might couldn’t conquer the (black) Haitians. Hard to fight when you’re sick to death.

    Anyway, it’s nice to wish for cultural understanding and a friendlier encounter between cowboys and Indians, but given the death-dealing illnesses the settlers brought, I’m not sure that would have been possible.

    …and as for genocides: I’m betting the Old Testament admonition for the Israelites to wipe out the Amalekites (including women, children and *livestock*!) is among the first recorded.

  13. someofparts

    I guess from now on I’ll celebrate Thanksgiving by having my vaccinations updated.

  14. Well, I still eat the turkey and watch the football games. I guess I could eat the turkey any day, but the football games are beyond my control, so I just call it “turkey day” and pig out.

  15. V. Arnold

    @ Bill H

    The point is, to understand what this holiday is actually about.
    Turkey day is another thing altogether.
    I miss the turkey day feast, having not had one for well over a decade; I’m jealous…

  16. Ian, a brilliant essay. I used to teach US history (AP) & wish I had known this story @ the time.

  17. it is still relevant. read it.

  18. Steeleweed

    One of my ancestors arrived with Winthrop in 1630 as part of the Great Migration. He wasn’t anywhere near orthodox enough for the semi-theocracy that ran things and promptly moved from Watertown MA to Wethersfield CT to avoid them, eventually ending up in Stamford, with his descendants fleeing to Maine, New York and Ohio. Family history has the ‘founder’ being recruited for the Pequot War and quitting in disgust after seeing the behavior of his fellow militia members. The family must have been quite non-mainstream, as they fought against the Connecticut witchcraft trials and later generations were abolitionists.

    More recent generations of the family, I regret to say, demonstrated bigotry and continue to do so. Growing up in the West, I never heard anti-black sentiment since there weren’t many blacks around. The dislike was for the previous owners, Indians and Mexicans.

    I’m inclined to share John Donn’s view::
    “No man is an island,
    Entire of itself.
    Each is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.”

    Either be part of humanity or go be a hermit.

    There is only one question that matters and it is deeply ironic in origin:
    “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

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