Fair warning: I’ve given myself a challenge this episode. I’m going to try to teach you a story from American history without cynicism. I’ve realized that my US history class has become a Who’s Who of land stealers, exploiters, and politicians and, while I’m confident that I’m teaching our history the right way; it can get kind of depressing sometimes. So, today, I’m going to attempt to tackle the story of Thanksgiving with the bright-eyed, singsong approach of Schoolhouse Rock. And whenever I can feel myself going down a dark path, you’ll hear this noise *** to help lift me out of my postmodern revisionist negativity and back to the spirit of the holidays! Wish me luck…
397 years ago in November of 1621 Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast to mark the first successful corn harvest of the Plymouth Bay Colony. Well, the first successful corn harvest that white people had attempted; Native Americans were like, “Uh… congratulations? We’ve been harvesting maize for years but whatever.”
The Pilgrims invited local Native Americans who had helped teach them how to cultivate the land – an act that spared them the fate of some of the early Jamestown settlers who were so desperate for food that they dug up the bodies of the people who had already starved to death and ate them…(Oh man, this is going to be harder than I thought)…
Today I want to talk about Thanksgiving! What happened at the first Thanksgiving? Who were these Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims? And why is Thanksgiving a national holiday today? (Spoiler: It was to do with war, secret arms deals, and the lady who wrote “Mary Had A Little Lamb”.)
This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context…
Act 1: The Story of Thanksgiving
In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers. These passengers were an assortment of groups who were leaving England seeking religious freedom. Henry VIII had split from the Catholic Church just 86 years earlier and there were some Protestants who believed that his new Church of England hadn’t gone far enough in eliminating the sinful practices of the Catholic Church. The more radical of these groups wanted to purify the Church – these are Puritans – and an even smaller group wanted to separate from the Church entirely – or Separatists. Basically, the Mayflower was filled with some of the most radical religious separatists who had become so frustrating to the English monarchy that they decided to put an ocean in between them.
The journey lasted over two months and, although they intended to and near the mouth of the Hudson River, they missed and ended up in Cape Cod. I guess you could say they “Pulled a Columbus”, am I right? Eventually they ended up in Massachusetts Bay where they established the village of Plymouth. The first winter was so brutal that most of the Pilgrims lived on the ship. They made it through to spring, at which point they moved onto the land permanently and were visited by a Native American who greeted them in English.
Sometimes we think that the people on the Mayflower were the first English colonists but that’s not true. The British had been attempting to found colonies since the 1580s – 40 years before the Pilgrims bumped into Plymouth Rock. Their first permanent successful settlement was in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia – 13 years before the Mayflower. This is important for two reasons: like we talked about a few episodes ago, disease had already spread rapidly along the East Coast so when the Pilgrims arrived they were seeing the survivors of that demographic disaster. But, that also meant that the Natives – at least those along the coast – were already somewhat familiar with these strange white people and some of them even spoke English. Now, we’ll see that that’s partly because some of them had already been kidnapped by British explorers but… (I know I know.) More on that in a few minutes…
For now, just know that the Pilgrims were put into contact with a native man who spoke English and was the last surviving member of his tribe. He taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers, and avoid poisonous plants. He also served as a translator and mediator between the early Plymouth Colony and the local tribes, helping them forge an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe.
So, the first official Thanksgiving was in November of 1621 – one year after the Pilgrims’ voyage to the New World. William Bradford, the governor of the new colony, organized the three-day celebration as a symbol of the new alliance between his people and the Wampanoag. This alliance would last for over 50 years and is, sadly, one of the few examples of whites and natives working together – a brief vision of what could have been. It’s a huge achievement – both the alliance and the fact that the Pilgrims didn’t starve – and almost all of the credit goes to an enslaved native who had already traveled to Europe and back before the Pilgrims arrived.
Act 2: Squanto
Tisquantum, nicknamed Squanto, was born somewhere around 1585. For context: Elizabeth I was ruling England; the Spanish had just defeated the mighty Ottoman Empire as they fought for control of the Mediterranean Sea; and in Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu was assembling a powerful military force that would soon unite Japan and slowly bring it out of its feudal period and onto the world stage.
Squanto was born into the Patuxet tribe along Cape Cod Bay. The same year he was born, the English established their first colony on Roanoke Island. Even though that colony would famously disappear, this means that Squanto’s life occurred within probably the most fascinating and destructive centuries to be a Native American. And his life mirrored that – it’s fascinating and sad and also kind of inspiring.
Throughout his childhood he would have heard rumors about the strange white men living along the coast. Often, native tribes would observe some of the early explorers and colonists for months before making contact. Unfortunately, the also would have learned very quickly to be fearful of these people as kidnapping natives had become a common act for many of the early English arrivals. I’m going to go ahead and get this out of the way because I’m about to do a paragraph on the kidnapping of native people. Yeah, I know; but this is important.
Why were these kidnappings so common? We’re not sure but it seems to be one of a few motives: for one, it was a way to quickly show that natives the power and might of these new white men. Selfishly, it also was a quick way to learn about the native people they would be encountering. There were also instances of white people taking natives back across the ocean to use as a twisted sort of advertisement to attract new investors into their ventures in the New World. These natives would then be sold into slavery in Europe.
It’s ridiculous to think about now but a lot of these kidnappers don’t seem to have considered this problematic in any way. In fact, we have evidence of some of the Plymouth settlers speaking with families of natives who had long ago been kidnapped – Squanto himself often translated. And white people were shocked to learn that a native mother who had all three sons kidnapped would also feel pain and sadness about her loss. This was the level of racism we’re dealing with: remember that many Europeans saw Native Americans as a strange and fascinating animal – not quite human. So when they spoke with a woman who couldn’t look at white people “without breaking forth into great passion, weeping and crying excessively,” they were stunned. What’s wrong with you, you racist idiots?! I know. Let’s move on.
So, Squanto himself was kidnapped – we think in 1614, so he would have been around 30 years old. John Smith – you know him: founded Jamestown, saved by Pocahontas, voiced by Mel Gibson – he was on an expedition to explore the coast of Maine and Massachusetts Bay when his second-in-command, Thomas Hunt, took a ship that was meant to be loaded up with cod and then sail to Spain. But, Hunt decided to load up more than just fish. He lured twenty Patuxet Indians, including Squanto, onto his ship by promising them trade. When they got on the ship, he locked the doors and set sail. Cool, thanks Thomas. It should be said that Mel, I mean John Smith, vehemently disapproved of this action and basically wrote that Hunt would never work again. Good for you, John Smith.
We don’t know what happened to Squanto for a few years but we’re pretty sure he wasn’t “finding himself” as he backpacked across Europe. The best guess is that he was sold to the highest bidder and ended up back in England. He would be highly desirable for merchants looking to establish trade with the New World – especially once he picked up English. One way or another, Squanto ended up back on a boat to Newfoundland, where he would work as an interpreter for an English captain for a few years. He was such a highly valued interpreter that he was sent around the northeastern colonies to help the new English arrivals. He eventually ended up close to his birthplace and he was allowed to go and search for his family. But he was the only one left. Literally. Disease had wiped out his people while he was enslaved and he was now the only remaining Patuxet Indian.
He was eventually captured by the Wampanoag Indians who used him to establish interactions with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Bay. Yada yada yada… now we eat cranberries from a can.
Squanto earned himself quite the reputation during his life as he navigated this tricky balancing act between the two worlds. Many other Native Americans viewed him with intense mistrust because he was so close with the white men. And there is some evidence that later in his life, Squanto revelled in the power he held. Here’s a passage from a book written by Mayflower pilgrim Edward Winslow about Squanto:
“His course was to persuade the Indians [that] he could lead us to peace or war at his pleasure, and would oft threaten the Indians, sending them word in a private manner we were intended shortly to kill them, that thereby he might get gifts for himself, to work their peace; so that whereas divers [people] were wont to rely on Massosoit – the Wampanoag chief – for protection, and resort to his abode, now they began to leave him and seek after Tisquantum [Squanto.]”
Now, the way Winslow is writing about Squanto it’s clear that he views this behavior as immoral. But, frankly, I think it’s badass. Here’s a guy who has been captured, enslaved, the last remaining member of his tribe. But he’s found a way to gain power and influence with the people who are – indirectly – to blame for his hardship. Not to mention, that the Wampanoag tribe captured him and basically traded him to the Pilgrims for safety and some European wares. Are you telling me that you wouldn’t do whatever you had to do to survive and gain power in that situation? You wouldn’t mess with both sides a little – threatening the natives with the white settlers and vice versa? I think that’s amazing.
Now, he did get himself into some hot water when he started spreading rumors that Massasoit – the Wampanoag chief – was conspiring with other local tribes to attack the colonists. This, obviously, sparked massive fear and panic amongst the colonists and when they learned that Squanto had made it up they were furious. Again, for the record, I think this is fantastic. Who knows why he did it? Maybe he hoped that both sides would go to war and he might be able to escape and live his life on his own terms again? Or maybe he just wanted to screw with all the different groups who had used him for so long? Either way, I’m for it. Squanto was saved by his BFF and the other half of an amazing cross-cultural white/native bromance: Governor William Bradford.
We know a lot about Squanto’s life from reading Bradford’s journals. He was clearly amazed by Squanto and realized how lucky they had been to have him on their side. He referred to Squanto as “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” Squanto maintained a good relationship with the Pilgrims for the rest of his life. The Pilgrims invited him to live on their plantation and they even organized a rescue mission to save his life after he was captured by a nearby tribe. Squanto was eventually selected by Bradford to lead a ship of settlers on a trading expedition around Cape Cod and it was on that trip that he contracted an unknown disease. Governor Bradford stayed with Squanto for the last days of his life and described his death as a “great loss.”
See? I told you I was going to make this a nice episode. Not all white dudes from the past were terrible.
Act 3: Turkey Day
So, this story has been nice and all. But why is Thanksgiving now a national holiday where we eat turkey, drink too much wine and fight with each other over Settlers of Catan? Or is that just my family?
First of all, the Pilgrims were not the first to have the idea of a massive feast to show gratitude. Similar festivals have been celebrated all over the world throughout history. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all feasted and paid tribute to their gods after the fall harvest. The Native Americans themselves had a long tradition of commemorating successful harvest seasons with feasts and parties way before white people showed up.
And for a long time, Thanksgiving was not an official thing – it was something that occurred sporadically to celebrate major events. The second Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims two years after the first to celebrate the end of a long drought. Throughout colonial American history, various groups and colonies would declare days a special Thanksgiving day but there was no coordination or regularity.
During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated a few days of thanksgiving each year to rally the troops and, in 1789, George issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation made by the U.S. government, calling upon Americans to celebrate their independence and the ratification of the Constitution. From then on, every president would designate some day as a general “thanksgiving” day. Well, everyone except Thomas Jefferson who had this crazy idea called “separation of church and state.” He refused to celebrate Thanksgiving because he believed it was state-sponsored religion. What a downer. Just pick up a turkey leg, Thomas.
So, Thanksgiving had been a general holiday that occurred on different days in different states throughout early American history. It wasn’t very popular in the South since it was associated with the northern colonies because apparently back then the north and south literally couldn’t agree on anything. It wasn’t until a lady by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale came along and insisted that we all get our act together and make Thanksgiving a real thing.
Sarah Josepha Hale was a writer, poet and magazine editor, known for writing the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” among other things. She was raised by parents who believed in education for girls and she married a lawyer who supported her pursuit of writing. As the editor of the Godey’s Lady’s Book, she was one of the most influential voices of the 19th century. Her magazine columns gave advice to women on how to raise their children and also advocated for women’s education and the abolition of slavery. It should be noted that she was not a fierce women’s rights activist. She believed that women should get an education so that they could be better wives and mothers and she fought against woman suffrage because she feared that politics would distract women from their duties at home. But, her magazine did give a voice to many activists who were pushing for social change – albeit at a very slow pace. Hale also worked to preserve historic sites, including George Washington’s home and the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
So, Sarah was a lady, a writer, a Christian, and a historical enthusiast. To her, Thanksgiving was the epitome of a truly American holiday and she spent her life lobbying the government to make it official. For 36 years she published editorials and sent letters to people at all levels of government asking for Thanksgiving to be named a national holiday. This lady really loves turkey. Finally, one president read her letter and took her up on her offer: good old Abraham Lincoln.
And now, we’ve reached the section in our episode that I’m calling, “Presidents Make Everything About Politics.” Like, seriously. Presidents can’t ever just do something nice without making it about some bill they’re trying to pass or war they’re trying to win. It’s exhausting.
For Lincoln, it was the Civil War. In 1863, the war had been raging for over two years and morale was sinking in the north. There were those who just wanted to let the south secede – who needs them anyway? – if it meant that their sons and husbands could come home. So Lincoln needed something to boost morale and in walks Sarah Josepha Hale. He issued a proclamation asking all Americans – north and south – to ask God “to commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”
Side note: this is also one of the reasons why Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation. By 1863 he realized that the South was not going to accept his compromise of keeping their slaves and coming back to the U.S. and so he issued his famous proclamation freeing all slaves for two reasons: optimistically, he realized that it was the right thing to do. But also, it was a great way to re-motivate his troops who were now fighting for more than just land – they were fighting for freedom against an oppressive force. Way to go, Abe.
Lincoln scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November and it was celebrated as a national holiday on that day until 1939. You see, FDR, in the midst of the Great Depression, wanted to spur retail sales and so he moved the holiday up a week because, apparently, eating a lot of turkey has always made Americans want to go out and buy crap they don’t need. People saw right through FDR’s attempt to use a national holiday to strengthen the economy and they jokingly called it “Franksgiving.” Two years later, FDR signed a bill officially making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
My final entry into the “Presidents Make Everything About Politics” conversation is about Reagan. Remember when we talked about the Iran-Contra scandal? You know, when the president ignored the direct advice of Congress and secretly sold American weapons to our enemy Iran and then used that money to secretly fund an anti-leftist guerrilla force fighting against the socialist government in Nicaragua? Pretty standard stuff.
Anyway, Reagan was under attack from the press when the scandal got out. And there was a lot of suspicion that he would pardon the two key players that orchestrated the Iran-Contra affair: John Poindexter and Oliver North. Side note: I can’t read John Poindexter’s name without immediately breaking into “Bust A Move” by Young MC – “A chick walks by you wish you could sex her but you’re standing on the wall like you was Poindexter.” Also, the other guy – Oliver North – is the new head of the NRA.
So, the press kept asking Reagan whether he was going to pardon his guys. Meanwhile, there was a turkey named Charlie who was around the White House for some Thanksgiving event or photo op and he was about to be sent to a petting zoo. When an ABC News reporter asked Reagan whether he would pardon North and Poindexter, the president responded, “If they’d given me a different answer on Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him.” It was a silly attempt to misdirect journalists but it ended up becoming an official ceremony, formalized under President George H.W. Bush who was the first to have a presidential pardon ceremony for a bird. We live in a strange world.
I would like to break my own rule and be cynical again for just a second. Because, Native Americans today have a very different view of our Thanksgiving holiday that is important to acknowledge. Even though the story of the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag, and Squanto is a pretty nice story – especially considering the alternative – it is not representative of the typical relationship between natives and white settlers. Many Native Americans take issue with the way that Thanksgiving and its story are presented to the public, especially to children, because it very literally whitewashes what was a largely violent, destructive, and painful experience. Since 1970, some protesters have gathered on the top of Cole’s Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, on Thanksgiving Day to commemorate a “National Day of Mourning” for the millions of Native Americans who weren’t given the “Squanto treatment” by the white settlers. In the minds of a lot of people of indigenous descent, Thanksgiving is only second to Columbus Day on the list of “Offensive Holidays the U.S. Government Has Chosen to Celebrate.”
But, for now, just this once, let’s focus on the positives. This is a rare story in American history that actually went the way we want all stories to go: religious refugees traveled thousands of miles to find a new home. (You should know it’s taken all of my strength to not call it the Mayflower Caravan this whole time.) They arrived and were helped by the natives who, even though they had already experienced massive hardship and pain, were willing to help these new arrivals. Instead of cultures clashing there was a period of cultural exchange, aided by another man who had every reason to hate everyone involved, but instead chose to act as a mediator for a peaceful outcome. And then they all sat down at a table together to share their gratitude. When you think about it that way, it’s pretty nice. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.