As Thanksgiving approaches and we all get ready to eat, drink, and be thankful; we at the Synthesis have been pondering the origins of the holiday. A day of thanks has always existed in most countries, especially Europe. Puritans came to the New World having probably celebrated or at least known of a day of thanks. But our Thanksgiving is different from most other countries, in that it celebrates a moment when two cultures-Anglo and American Indian sat down at a table and celebrated together. This day in history, which may or may not have actually existed, represents a glimmer of hope; a moment before history had unfolded when relations could have gone down a different path. But what happened after whites and Indians left the Thanksgiving table?
Puritan colonists arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, escaping religious persecution in England. The English colonists struggled to survive their first year in Massachusetts, nearly half the colonists died from starvation or disease. They probably would not have made it were it not for the local Native Americans. The Wampanoag Indians were residents of the region, but they had been decimated by smallpox, which raged through New England. Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag’s saw an opportunity to strike up an alliance with the English. The Wampanoag’s had been weakened by disease, and Massasoit felt vulnerable from their traditional enemies, the Narragansett, the Pequot, and the Mohegan. The English were an ally unlike any other; they carried technology that far surpassed anything the Wampanoag controlled. The English were receptive to the alliance as well. They received aid from the Wampanoag, as well as tried agricultural knowledge that worked in the region. The English Puritans and the Wampanoag Native Americans may or may not have sat down at a table to give thanks. Scholars are split on whether this event actually took place. But regardless, the traditional Thanksgiving celebration represents this alliance. This alliance was a moment in history, when both Europeans and the Wampanoag’s had similar interests and enemies.
But the alliance did not last long. Instead, English Puritans grew strong. More colonists emigrated from England to the New World. Massasoit could only watch, as the alliance he forged with the English grew increasingly unstable. Sometime around the early 1660s, Massasoit died. He probably wondered what the future held for his family and his people. His eldest son Wamsutta, took over leadership of the tribe briefly, but died under mysterious circumstances. Metacom, Wamsutta’s younger brother took over as chief of the Wampanoag. Metacom grew up in a hybrid culture. He spoke English and had taken on an English name, Philip. But Metacom was young, brash, and increasingly willing to preemptively break his father’s truce to protect the long-term interest of his people. In the summer of 1675, conflict broke out between the Wampanoag and the English Puritans, which bore Metacom’s Christian name: King Philip’s War. Fighting raged for close to a year. A confederacy of native tribes brought the English colony to its knees; nearly a third of the colony perished in the conflict, proportionately the most deadly conflict in American history. Ultimately, the English prevailed. Metacom was killed in the summer of 1676, betrayed by fellow Indians. Most of the Wampanoag were killed or sold into slavery. The colony expanded onto sacred Wampanoag land.
Perhaps Thanksgiving is a day we celebrate because it represents what could have been. It represents a more humane history when Anglo-Americans and Native Americans forged bonds of cooperation and mutual interest. Ultimately, that bond broke down, and the true history of Anglo-American and Native American relations unfolded; a history that is marked with abuse, betrayal, and shame.