Original American Thanksgivings Redux: Lessons for Today and Tomorrow


Thanksgiving: What was, What happened, What's possible.

Thanksgiving: What was. What happened. What’s possible.

As an American one of my favorite holy days is Thanksgiving. Yes, Thanksgiving. And as much as I love the food and the sense of community I feel, for me it really isn’t about food, family, and friends. It’s more for being aware of and the expression of gratitude and appreciation. We give thanks on Thanksgiving.

It’s a time to pause and reflect, to slow down and be aware of what is. It’s a few moments to be thankful for all the things we take for granted.

Thanksgiving has a dark side, too. It’s often glossed over and forgotten in history books and magazine articles. For a short time Thanksgiving blended together Native American Indian and European-American traditions in celebrations rich with the fragile promise of two very different racial cultures co-creating a new, hybrid civilization. This failure ranks as one of the great tragedies of human history, and one of the greatest unsung ones.

Contrary to popular cultural myths and legends, the First Thanksgiving did not occur with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock or even in Virginia. The Native tribes had their own harvest festivals across the Autumn months in which they celebrated among and between villages the best of the hunt, the fishing, the gathering, and the farming. The Europeans, too, have an Ancient history of Pagan harvest festivals from the Greeks and Romans to the Celts and Germans. These mingled with Christian agricultural festivals.

This aspect of sharing the abundance of hunt and harvest is relatively old as traditions go and is found around the world in many seasonal climate zones. For the Native American such festivities were part of the natural rhythm of life. For the Europeans, many from cities where urbanization tends to eclipse nature, they were strangers in foreign lands. The early English settlements struggled with poor settlement choices and resulting epidemics and famines.

The first European-American Thanksgivings were often a one-time event marking the successful completion of a dangerous sea voyage into unknown and sometimes hostile territories. Sometimes these official giving of thanks were formalized down through the years. Some of these died out after a while as others evolved into traditions institutionalized by national governments.

Among the so-called Early Thanksgivings I’ve dug up across Wikipedia were celebrated in the following dominions:

1)   Spanish Florida in 1565.

2)   Baffin Island in English Canada (today’s Nunavut), 1578.

3)   Spanish Texas, 1598.

4)   French Canada (New France) in 1606.

5)   English Virginia (Jamestown Colony) in 1607, 1610 and at Berkeley Hundred in 1619 – all especially pertinent since the 1584 – 1590 “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island (today’s Outer Banks of North Carolina) mysteriously died out.

6)   English Massachusetts (Pilgrim Colony at Plymouth Rock, founded in 1620) in 1621 and 1622.

7)   English Massachusetts (Puritan Colony at Massachusetts Bay, now Boston, founded in 1628), in 1630 and with Connecticut in 1639.

8)   Dutch colonies in New Netherlands celebrated Thanksgiving in 1644.

The Virginia and Massachusetts Thanksgivings were a blend of harvest festivities with deep gratitude for surviving dangerous ocean crossings and harsh winter famines. They were also a blend of White European settlers and Native American tribes. In the mix, too, were African slaves kidnapped from a variety of African tribes and White indentured servants, often debt slaves from across Europe working off the cost of coming to America.

Some of the Native tribes present were hostile toward tribes absent and were intent on leveraging alliances with the Whites in power struggles. The Europeans similarly sought to play one tribe off against the other. Yet in these early Thanksgivings much of this was put aside in celebration of the harmony and abundance present and the possibility of multi-racial collaboration to build a truly new “New World.”

There were a few years here and there of peace and trust, even decades. Prosperity and harmony arose from famines and poverty. Wars did rage in the hinterland between different Native tribes and at sea and around in far off places between the maritime European empires.

Locally, however, European settlers and the Indians shared resources, worked out disputes peacefully, and helped one another in various ways. And just as quickly as all this evolved there were growing numbers of men – and it was mostly men, not women – on both sides who pushed for wars for conquest, resources such as land, and ethnic extermination.

Mutual genocide resulted. The European-Americans won by killing more Natives, so their name is both exalted with pride and shamed as murderers. The Native American Indians slaughtered every White they could, but they couldn’t kill enough of them fast enough so the Natives lost the wars.

The First Anglo-Powhatan War of 1607 – 1614 was a nasty, desultory affair. It set the stage for the Second and Third Wars between the English and the Powhatan Confederacy in what is now Virginia. Also called Opechancanough’s First and Second Wars, these conflicts of 1622 – 1632 and 1644 – 1645 were genocidal bloodbaths.

Opechancanough was Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy. This was a union of about 30 Native tribes across what is now Virginia with parts of northern North Carolina, and was founded by Chief Powhatan, the older brother or half-brother of Opechancanough.

In Opechancanough’s First Massacre in 1622 his warriors killed an estimated 347 English in the greater Jamestown region. This constituted one-fourth to one-third of the English population. The English regrouped and struck back, killing hundreds and hundreds of Indians. The war ground on for ten years, ending in a stalemate with large numbers dead, maimed, and traumatized on both sides.

Keep in mind when we discuss these “Colonial Indian Wars” all sides targeted women and children as well as men, the elderly, and babies. Homes, villages, stored food, and crops were destroyed on both sides. The invading Europeans won.

The Powhatan Confederacy, which held together about 30 Native tribes, found it difficult to regroup after the 1622-1632 war. Then in 1644 Opechancanough struck again in a final desperate push. His forces massacred even more in 1644 than in 1622. Around 500 English settlers were killed. While a big number, there were now so many European colonialists and more White families having European-American babies that 500 deaths were only about a tenth of the total settler population. The English fought back brutally, massacred even more Indians, and destroyed their villages. Opechancanough was captured and killed by English soldiers, and the Powhatan Confederacy was defeated by 1645 and permanently fractured.

The last and perhaps largest of the Virginia Anglo-Indian wars was Bacon’s Rebellion of, including the Indian wars associated with it, 1674 – 1677. It’s often portrayed as a populist uprising by frontier farmers and the working class against a tyrannical English despot and thus a forerunner of the American Revolution. To some degree it was. Even White indentured servants and Black slaves rose in revolt alongside Nathaniel Bacon’s forces. The uprising was also a genocidal nightmare for the natives.

The English Crown had a policy of divide and conquer and played one tribe off against another. There were also relatively peaceful tribes who had no desire for war and simply wished for peaceful coexistence. Enemy tribes had been attacking English frontiersmen pushing into Native territories. The Colonial Governor did not want to escalate the border conflict into a full-scale war.

The Baconites, however, not only overthrew Governor Berkeley, but they attacked ALL Indians. Many Native Americans were massacred from a number of tribes who were either allies of the English or peaceful co-existers.

It was ethnic cleansing on a horrendous scale, set off a larger war between Whites and Reds in the Greater Virginia and North Carolina areas, triggered revolts in Maryland, and the specter of slave rebellion terrified the White ruling class. It was sad all the Native American tribes and the revolting Whites and Blacks could not have joined together but instead turned upon one another. The Empire struck back, however, capturing and killing all to restore the power of the Crown.

There would be no more joyful and mutual Thanksgivings in Virginia shared between the races. Racial harmony between Native tribes and European settlers died an ugly death. Emphasis then moved to strengthen both English economic, financial, political, and racial control of its rowdy colonies and to further institutionalized slavery.

In New England it was even bloodier and in some ways sadder.

A deadly plague of European origin burned its way up the New England coast in 1616 – 1618. Most likely European fishermen, slave raiders, privateers, and pirates spread this epidemic. This disease proved so virulent it decimated an estimated 90% of the Native population. The tribes of the Wampanoag Confederacy, for example, dropped in number for about 24,000 people to around 3,000, a loss of an estimated 21,000 deaths in one small nation in two or three years time.

Some historians consider this one of the most pivotal events in history as it allowed for invasion and conquest by Europeans and subsequent European-Americans. If these tribal confederacies had not been ravaged by this epidemic, it is highly probable they would have successfully shoved the Europeans back into the Atlantic. This in turn may’ve catalyzed a higher level of political unification among regional tribes.

Founded mostly by Pilgrims from across Europe, Plymouth Rock was settled in 1620 in what is now Massachusetts. Together with the Wampanoags the Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock. Keep in mind the Wampanoags had been severely weakened by the recent epidemic and sought an alliance with the strange Whites against other Native tribes. Apparently many tribes south of their region escaped the plague.

Two Native men became famous during these early Thanksgivings. One was Squanto (Tisquantum) of the Patuxet tribe of the Wampanoag Confederacy. As a youth, he was kidnapped by English raiders to be a slave. Many years later after an adventurous life, Squanto ended up rescuing the Pilgrims. He taught the Pilgrims many things including helping them survive winter, catch fish, trap game, plant and cultivate local food crops, and farm, hunt, and forage with the seasons. He also helped keep the peace and helped the Wampanoags keep the peace with the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The highest-ranking leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy was the Massasoit (Great Leader) Ousa Mequin (Yellow Feather). He was born about 1581 and died sometime between 1660 and 1662. Ousa Mequin was also Grand Sachem (chief) of the Pokanoket, a tribe within the Confederacy. Many simply referred to him as “Massasoit.”

An astute statesman, he steered the Wampanoags from time of the great plague through the early settlements by the Europeans. Massasoit allied his people with the English, worked with Squanto as a messenger, and helped celebrate those early Thanksgivings with the Pilgrims. At the first such festival apparently lasted three days and was enjoyed by over 50 Pilgrims and about 90 Native Americans.

As a group, however, the Native Americans paid a bloody price. In the Pequot War (1636-1638), for example, whole tribes including the Pequots disappeared. In the Battle of Mystic, Massachusetts, the English of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Saybrook Colonies aided by their Mohegan and Narragansett allies massacred 600 to 700 Pequots. This strange lineup resulted from severe power imbalances that arose from the earlier and historically pivotal epidemic. This drew in other tribes including allies of the Pequots such as the Niantics.

Hundreds of Natives were killed, hundreds more sold off into slavery. Another 700 Pequots were killed at the end of the war. Massasoit, however, had the Wampanoag Confederacy sit peacefully on the sidelines.

His agreement with the English to stay out of the war was significant. In the short term he preserved his confederacy. In the long run, however, the war allowed the Europeans to consolidate power, exterminate rivals, and eventually set the stage for the Wampanoag’s demise. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving continued to be celebrated between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims. The level of distrust and ethnic hatred began to rise, however, in the wake of such bloody conflict. The worse was yet to come.

King Philip’s War, also known as Metacom’s War broke out in 1675, peaked in 1676, and burned on until finally ending in 1678. Metacom was the second son of Massasoit and rose to leadership of the Wampanoags. As did his father, Metacom led a policy of harmony and accommodation with the Europeans. He took on the English name “Philip” and even shopped in Boston.

The English were pushing west, however, and their allies the Iroquois pushed east. The Wampanoags were squeezed in the middle. Their lashing out against increasingly demanding and dehumanizing demands of the English ignited a war spanning all of New England. This war killed Thanksgiving’s early promise of racial harmony and even unity. It did unify more Indian tribes than ever before to create a semi-national identity as Native Americans distinct from the European colonial regimes.

King Philip’s War remains the bloodiest in American history, proportionally bloodier than the American Civil War. Almost half of the English towns were attacked and many destroyed. The economy of New England was devastated. Many Indian villages were also destroyed in retaliation. It was a gruesome and genocidal race war with war crimes common on both sides. Over 1,000 European-Americans were killed. Over 3,000 Native Americans were killed. Yet this nightmare remains largely forgotten in studies of American history.

Bacon’s Rebellion and King Philip’s War happened with some overlap in time in the two regions where Europeans and Natives co-created mutually inclusive and multi-ethnic Thanksgiving celebrations. Together they destroyed the hope and the promise for what was possible, the creation of a truly unique and multi-racial civilization. Destroyed were the possibilities for peace and prosperity for all groups. The collapse of early, proto-embryonic attempts to first get along together and eventually unite is a tragedy.

What was lost?

Lost was the possibility of a developed biracial society in which slavery would not have evolved to the extent it did and possibly would have died an early death. The few Indians such as some of the Cherokees who later enslaved Blacks did so in an economic system completely dominated by Whites. The Iroquois Confederation inspired the American Founding Fathers to craft what became the United States Constitution. It’s possible the Indian Wars of the West would not have occurred, at least not on the scale history recorded. Would the excesses of Capitalism and the horrors of the Industrial Revolution have been muted by a Native values regarding land and resource use, cooperative ownership, and keeping villages with big families intact?

The victors of the Indian Wars morphed from colonial empires into the United States, Canada, and Mexico, among other New World nation-states. In the midst of the American Civil War, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1863 to be “a national day of thanksgiving.” The Canadian Parliament in 1957 declared the 2ndMonday in October to be “ A Day of General Thanksgiving.” Irony of all irony, it coincides with Columbus Day down south in the U.S.A., a hotly debated event named for a brave adventurer who was also a mass murdering, raping, slaving, powermad pedophile. Christopher Columbus so dismayed so many Spaniards he was eventually deposed, arrested, and sent back to Spain in iron chains.

It’s time to abolish Columbus Day as a holiday and set the record straight with what really happened. And it’s time to remember Thanksgiving for more than turkey and mashed potatoes and for what is possible in the world today and tomorrow. What is possible in the world right now between men and women of all races? What do you give thanks for?

William Dudley Bass
Seattle, Washington
25 November 2011 aka  “Black Friday”


Copyright © 2011, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.


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