Excerpt from The Hidden History of Massachusetts: A Guide
for Black Folks; © DR. TINGBA APIDTA A publication of: The
Reclamation Project, New Revised and expanded edition, 2003; ISBN
0-9714462-0-2. For more info e-mail A. Muhammad at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Real First Thanksgiving
Much of America's understanding of the early relationship
between the Indian and the European is conveyed through the story of
Thanksgiving. Proclaimed a holiday in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln, this fairy
tale of a feast was allowed to exist in the American imagination pretty much
untouched until 1970, the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims.
That is when Frank B. James, president of the Federated Eastern Indian
League, prepared a speech for a Plymouth banquet that exposed the Pilgrims
for having committed, among other crimes, the robbery of the graves of the
Wampanoags. He wrote:
We welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little
knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to
pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.
But white Massachusetts officials told him he could not
deliver such a speech and offered to write him another. Instead, James
declined to speak, and on Thanksgiving Day hundreds of Indians from around
the country came to protest. It was the first National Day of Mourning, a
day to mark the losses Native Americans suffered as the early settlers
prospered. This true story of "Thanksgiving" is what whites did
not want Mr. James to tell.
What Really Happened in Plymouth in 1621?
According to a single-paragraph account in the writings
of one Pilgrim, a harvest feast did take place in Plymouth in 1621, probably
in mid-October, but the Indians who attended were not even invited. Though
it later became known as "Thanksgiving," the Pilgrims never called
it that. And amidst the imagery of a picnic of interracial harmony is some
of the most terrifying bloodshed in New World history.
The Pilgrim crop had failed miserably that year, but the
agricultural expertise of the Indians had produced twenty acres of corn,
without which the Pilgrims would have surely perished. The Indians often
brought food to the Pilgrims, who came from England ridiculously unprepared
to survive and hence relied almost exclusively on handouts from the overly
generous Indians-thus making the Pilgrims the western hemisphere's first
class of welfare recipients. The Pilgrims invited the Indian sachem
Massasoit to their feast, and it was Massasoit, engaging in the tribal
tradition of equal sharing, who then invited ninety or more of his Indian
brothers and sisters-to the annoyance of the 50 or so ungrateful Europeans.
No turkey, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie was served; they likely ate duck
or geese and the venison from the 5 deer brought by Massasoit. In fact,
most, if not all, of the food was most likely brought and prepared by the
Indians, whose 10,000-year familiarity with the cuisine of the region had
kept the whites alive up to that point.
The Pilgrims wore no black hats or buckled shoes-these
were the silly inventions of artists hundreds of years since that time.
These lower-class Englishmen wore brightly colored clothing, with one of
their church leaders recording among his possessions "1 paire of greene
drawers." Contrary to the fabricated lore of storytellers generations
since, no Pilgrims prayed at the meal, and the supposed good cheer and
fellowship must have dissipated quickly once the Pilgrims brandished their
weaponry in a primitive display of intimidation. What's more, the Pilgrims
consumed a good deal of home brew. In fact, each Pilgrim drank at least a
half gallon of beer a day, which they preferred even to water. This daily
inebriation led their governor, William Bradford, to comment on his people's
"notorious sin," which included their "drunkenness and
uncleanliness" and rampant "sodomy"...
The Pilgrims of Plymouth, The Original Scalpers
Contrary to popular mythology the Pilgrims were no
friends to the local Indians. They were engaged in a ruthless war of
extermination against their hosts, even as they falsely posed as friends.
Just days before the alleged Thanksgiving love-fest, a company of Pilgrims
led by Myles Standish actively sought to chop off the head of a local chief.
They deliberately caused a rivalry between two friendly Indians, pitting one
against the other in an attempt to obtain "better intelligence and make
them both more diligent." An 11-foot-high wall was erected around the
entire settlement for the purpose of keeping the Indians out.
Any Indian who came within the vicinity of the Pilgrim
settlement was subject to robbery, enslavement, or even murder. The Pilgrims
further advertised their evil intentions and white racial hostility, when
they mounted five cannons on a hill around their settlement, constructed a
platform for artillery, and then organized their soldiers into four
companies-all in preparation for the military destruction of their friends
Pilgrim Myles Standish eventually got his bloody prize.
He went to the Indians, pretended to be a trader, then beheaded an Indian
man named Wituwamat. He brought the head to Plymouth, where it was displayed
on a wooden spike for many years, according to Gary B. Nash, "as a
symbol of white power." Standish had the Indian man's young brother
hanged from the rafters for good measure. From that time on, the whites were
known to the Indians of Massachusetts by the name "Wotowquenange,"
which in their tongue meant cutthroats and stabbers.
Who Were the "Savages"?
The myth of the fierce, ruthless Indian savage lusting
after the blood of innocent Europeans must be vigorously dispelled at this
point. In actuality, the historical record shows that the very opposite was
Once the European settlements stabilized, the whites
turned on their hosts in a brutal way. The once amicable relationship was
breeched again and again by the whites, who lusted over the riches of Indian
land. A combination of the Pilgrims' demonization of the Indians, the
concocted mythology of Eurocentric historians, and standard Hollywood
propaganda has served to paint the gentle Indian as a tomahawk-swinging
savage endlessly on the warpath, lusting for the blood of the God-fearing
But the Pilgrims' own testimony obliterates that fallacy.
The Indians engaged each other in military contests from time to time, but
the causes of "war," the methods, and the resulting damage
differed profoundly from the European variety:
€ Indian "wars" were
largely symbolic and were about honor, not about territory or extermination.
€ "Wars" were fought as
domestic correction for a specific act and were ended when correction was
achieved. Such action might better be described as internal policing. The
conquest or destruction of whole territories was a European concept.
€ Indian "wars" were often
engaged in by family groups, not by whole tribal groups, and would involve
only the family members.
€ A lengthy negotiation was engaged
in between the aggrieved parties before escalation to physical confrontation
would be sanctioned. Surprise attacks were unknown to the Indians.
€ It was regarded as evidence of
bravery for a man to go into "battle" carrying no weapon that
would do any harm at a distance-not even bows and arrows. The bravest act in
war in some Indian cultures was to touch their adversary and escape before
he could do physical harm.
€ The targeting of non-combatants
like women, children, and the elderly was never contemplated. Indians
expressed shock and repugnance when the Europeans told, and then showed,
them that they considered women and children fair game in their style of
€ A major Indian "war"
might end with less than a dozen casualties on both sides. Often, when the
arrows had been expended the "war" would be halted. The European
practice of wiping out whole nations in bloody massacres was
incomprehensible to the Indian.
According to one scholar, "The most notable feature
of Indian warfare was its relative innocuity." European observers of
Indian wars often expressed surprise at how little harm they actually
inflicted. "Their wars are far less bloody and devouring than the cruel
wars of Europe," commented settler Roger Williams in 1643. Even Puritan
warmonger and professional soldier Capt. John Mason scoffed at Indian
warfare: "[Their] feeble manner...did hardly deserve the name of
fighting." Fellow warmonger John Underhill spoke of the Narragansetts,
after having spent a day "burning and spoiling" their country:
"no Indians would come near us, but run from us, as the deer from the
dogs." He concluded that the Indians might fight seven years and not
kill seven men. Their fighting style, he wrote, "is more for pastime,
than to conquer and subdue enemies."
All this describes a people for whom war is a deeply
regrettable last resort. An agrarian people, the American Indians had
devised a civilization that provided dozens of options all designed to avoid
conflict--the very opposite of Europeans, for whom all-out war, a ferocious
bloodlust, and systematic genocide are their apparent life force. Thomas
Jefferson--who himself advocated the physical extermination of the American
Indian--said of Europe, "They [Europeans] are nations of eternal war.
All their energies are expended in the destruction of labor, property and
lives of their people."
By the mid 1630s, a new group of 700 even holier
Europeans calling themselves Puritans had arrived on 11 ships and settled in
Boston-which only served to accelerate the brutality against the Indians.
In one incident around 1637, a force of whites trapped
some seven hundred Pequot Indians, mostly women, children, and the elderly,
near the mouth of the Mystic River. Englishman John Mason attacked the
Indian camp with "fire, sword, blunderbuss, and tomahawk." Only a
handful escaped and few prisoners were taken-to the apparent delight of the
To see them frying in the fire, and the streams of their
blood quenching the same, and the stench was horrible; but the victory
seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave praise thereof to God.
This event marked the first actual Thanksgiving. In just
10 years 12,000 whites had invaded New England, and as their numbers grew
they pressed for all-out extermination of the Indian. Euro-diseases had
reduced the population of the Massachusett nation from over 24,000 to less
than 750; meanwhile, the number of European settlers in Massachusetts rose
to more than 20,000 by 1646.
By 1675, the Massachusetts Englishmen were in a
full-scale war with the great Indian chief of the Wampanoags, Metacomet.
Renamed "King Philip" by the white man, Metacomet watched the
steady erosion of the lifestyle and culture of his people as
European-imposed laws and values engulfed them.
In 1671, the white man had ordered Metacomet to come to
Plymouth to enforce upon him a new treaty, which included the humiliating
rule that he could no longer sell his own land without prior approval from
whites. They also demanded that he turn in his community's firearms. Marked
for extermination by the merciless power of a distant king and his ruthless
subjects, Metacomet retaliated in 1675 with raids on several isolated
frontier towns. Eventually, the Indians attacked 52 of the 90 New England
towns, destroying 13 of them. The Englishmen ultimately regrouped, and after
much bloodletting defeated the great Indian nation, just half a century
after their arrival on Massachusetts soil. Historian Douglas Edward Leach
describes the bitter end:
The ruthless executions, the cruel sentences...were all
aimed at the same goal-unchallengeable white supremacy in southern New
England. That the program succeeded is convincingly demonstrated by the
almost complete docility of the local native ever since.
When Captain Benjamin Church tracked down and murdered
Metacomet in 1676, his body was quartered and parts were "left for the
wolves." The great Indian chief's hands were cut off and sent to Boston
and his head went to Plymouth, where it was set upon a pole on the real
first "day of public Thanksgiving for the beginning of revenge upon the
enemy." Metacomet's nine-year-old son was destined for execution
because, the whites reasoned, the offspring of the devil must pay for the
sins of their father. The child was instead shipped to the Caribbean to
spend his life in slavery.
As the Holocaust continued, several official Thanksgiving
Days were proclaimed. Governor Joseph Dudley declared in 1704 a
"General Thanksgiving"-not in celebration of the brotherhood of
[God's] infinite Goodness to extend His Favors...In
defeating and disappointing...the Expeditions of the Enemy [Indians] against
us, And the good Success given us against them, by delivering so many of
them into our hands...
Just two years later one could reap a £50 reward in
Massachusetts for the scalp of an Indian-demonstrating that the practice of
scalping was a European tradition. According to one scholar, "Hunting
redskins became...a popular sport in New England, especially since prisoners
were worth good money..."
(end of excerpt)