One such offering is found at The Mahatma X Files and as much as I admire James and regard him as a compatriot, on this I have to call bullshit.
Truth be told, I almost let this pass with just a brief note of dissent because I have long since gotten tired of the annual vituperation I receive from various quarters when I try to bring some sanity to this discussion - but I decided I couldn't. The fact is, the passages James quotes display a truly colossal level of historical ignorance matched to a transparent bias that does more to undermine the well-hidden valid argument about the treatment of native Americans over the years than it does to advance it.
Headlined, as such things usually are, as "The Real Story of Thanksgiving," it (including the sources cited) improperly conflates all the native peoples of the area, refers to incidents sixteen years apart involving different natives as if nothing could have changed in the interim, distorts the historical record, and frankly manufactures claims out of thin air.
Let's start with the only contemporaneous description of the so-called "first Thanksgiving." It was contained in a letter written by, it is believed, Edward Winslow (although no name is actually attached). It's dated December 11, 1621 and thus would have been written shortly after the actual event. It was published in 1622 in a book commonly called Mourt's Relation.
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And though it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.The only other near-contemporaneous account comes from William Bradford who wrote about it in his journal (published as Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647) probably some 10 or 12 years later. Even there he just sort of brushes by it, endorsing Winslow by referring to "not feigned but true reports."
They now began to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses against the winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took in good store, of which every family had its portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so large of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.That's pretty much it; that's pretty much what the entire mythology was built on.
A few other points: No time is given for the celebration except it being post-harvest, which likely would have made it around late September or October. This was not a "thanksgiving," which was to them a religious occasion, a holy day, one set aside as occasion arose to thank God for some special and unexpected blessing. It was, rather, a very traditional, very secular, harvest feast: It was traditional among English that if you had a good harvest, you had a feast to which you invited neighbors and workers who had been helpful to you over the year. Other than the deer and fowl mentioned in Winslow's account, it's uncertain what they ate at the feast, although some reasonable guesses can be made.
Okay. With that in mind, on to James' post. My first correction may be nit-picky, but I decided to include it.
Only two written accounts of the three-day event exist, and one of them, by Governor William Bradford, was written 20 years after the fact.As I noted, Bradford doesn't really describe the event. And by his own account he started writing his history in 1630, just nine years later. He started with the congregation's escape from England in 1608 and got up to the arrival in Plymouth in December 1620, that same year, i.e., 1630. He said he finished the rest "in pieces" over the ensuing years. It seems very unlikely it took him another 11 years to get to the following fall in the story.
James cites another source as saying - and I have to quote the whole passage - this:
'Thanksgiving' did not begin as a great loving relationship between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag, Pequot and Narragansett people. In fact, in October of 1621 when the pilgrim survivors of their first winter in Turtle Island sat down to share the first unofficial 'Thanksgiving' meal, the Indians who were there were not even invited! There was no turkey, squash, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie. A few days before this alleged feast took place, a company of 'pilgrims' led by Miles Standish actively sought the head of a local Indian chief, and an 11 foot high wall was erected around the entire Plymouth settlement for the very purpose of keeping Indians out!It's hard to believe that many historical errors could fit in one paragraph.
First, no native people of the time would have called themselves "Wampanoag." That is a native word meaning roughly “people of the east” or “people of the dawn” and could refer to anyone living to the east of you. While it has been adopted as a modern, general term for the natives of eastern Rhode Island and Massachusetts (including Cape Cod), for a native of the time to have called themselves “Wampanoag” would have been nonsensical; it would have meant something like “I live to the east of where I live.”
Second, it is true enough that the childhood mythology of the "Pilgrims" threw all of the native peoples into one pile - but why is this author doing it, and doing it in a way that distorts the history? Massasoit's people, the Pequot, and the Narragansett no more regarded themselves as one people than English, French, and Spanish did despite their common identification as "Europeans."
Third, the "not even invited" business is nonsense, one in which James himself joins:
Was Chief Massasoit invited to bring 90 Indians with him to dine with 52 colonists, most of them women and children? This seems unlikely. ... It is much more likely that Chief Massasoit either crashed the party, or brought enough men to ensure that he was not kidnapped or harmed by the Pilgrims.Another nit-pick: It was actually 53 and whether "most" were women and children is a judgment call: There were 22 grown men and nine adolescent boys ranging in age from about 12 to 18.
In any event, what seems far more unlikely is that Massasoit would have shown up unannounced to an event which, if uninvited, he would have no reason to even know of. There is no indication in the account that the settlers were surprised or disturbed by his arrival and in fact inviting him would hardly seem out of place: Remember that inviting to the feast those who had helped you was part of the tradition and certainly the natives had done that.
What's more, the claim that he was defending against the possibility of being "kidnapped or harmed" is built on pure vapor with no basis in fact whatsoever. In actual fact, the very next thing Edward Winslow says after his quote above is this:
We have found the natives very faithful in the covenant of peace with us, very loving and ready to pleasure us. We often go to them, and they come to us; some of us have been fifty miles by land in the country with them....There is absolutely no basis in the historical record to suggest that Massasoit, who the settlers regarded as an ally and with who "we entertained and feasted," had any reason to fear being "kidnapped or harmed."
(Oh, and by the way, another nit-picky correction: The settlers would not have called themselves "pilgrims," with or without the capital P. That entire notion is built on a single phrase from Bradford, who in describing the original voyage from England, says "they knew they were pilgrims." It appears nowhere else in any even near-contemporaneous account.)
Next, as I noted above, outside of fowl and deer there is no direct knowledge of what was actually eaten. Which means the statement "there was no turkey, squash, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie" is, again, built on nothing. There undoubtedly was no cranberry sauce (which didn't appear until much later) and very likely no cranberries (known as "fenberries" at the time, they were thought too bitter) and no pumpkin pie as we would know it. But there could well have been a "pie" make from pumpkins, there likely was squash (a normal feature of household gardens), and there very likely was turkey - note that Bradford mentions "great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many." But again, no one knows for sure - which also means no one can say they didn't have turkey or squash (or even a type of pie with pumpkins).
The next sentence in the quoted passage contains so many distortions and boners that I have to repeat it here for reference:
A few days before this alleged feast took place, a company of 'pilgrims' led by Miles Standish actively sought the head of a local Indian chief, and an 11 foot high wall was erected around the entire Plymouth settlement for the very purpose of keeping Indians out!First, there is nothing "alleged" about the feast. It is a documented historical fact.
Next, the only possible incident to which this could refer did not take place a few days before but a few months before, in the latter part of June. The passage also omits the cause of the incident: The settlers had been told that Massasoit, with who they had what amounted to a mutual defense treaty, had been "put from his country" by the Narragansett, that their interpreter Squanto (or Tisquantum) had been murdered by a sachem ("chief" is an Anglo term) under Massasoit named Corbitant - who was at Namasket (the nearest native town to Plymouth) preaching insurrection against Massasoit. So they were acting both in their own interest and in defense of Massasoit. The part about how Standish "actively sought the head of a local Indian chief" is at best gross exaggeration if not pure fiction: Standish had been instructed to execute Corbitant if he had killed Squanto as he had threatened to do and was feared to have done.
They sent an armed party to Namasket to check this out. When they got there they found Squanto was alive and Corbitant had fled. There were a few injuries, which the settlers helped heal, but no one was killed.
As for the "wall," the "11 foot high" figure is plucked out of the air. In September 1623, a visitor to Plymouth named Emmanuel Altham said the fence was eight feet. It's also not entirely clear just how substantial this wall really was.
More to the point, it was not built until months after the harvest feast! Remember that the feast was at the end of the harvest, which would have been late September or early October. A ship named "Fortune" arrived in late November and left on December 13.
Soon after this ship's departure[, Bradford writes,] that great people of the Narragansetts, in a braving manner, sent a messenger unto them with a bundle of arrows tied about with a great snakeskin, which their interpreters told them was a threatening and a challenge.That is, this was in December or January, more than two months after the feast. In his book Good News from New England, published in 1624, Edward Winslow writes at length about the incident, including how it was sparked in part by a native messenger who was bearing gifts from Plymouth to Canonicus, the sachem of the Narragansett. Apparently, he stole the best of the gifts for himself, which made the remainder look more like an insult than an honor. The town stared down the challenge (they replaced the arrows with gunpowder and musket balls and sent it back), but
[i]n the mean time, knowing our own weakness, notwithstanding our high words and lofty looks towards them, and still lying open to all casualty, having as yet (under God) no other defense than our arms, we thought it most needful to impale our town, which with all expedition we accomplished in the month of February and some few days....So in short, this has not one single damned thing to do with the harvest feast. It was done as a military defense in response to a direct threat from a sachem who was a rival of their ally Massasoit and occurred at least four months after the feast.
Wait, we're not finished.
Dr. Tingba Apidta ... surmises that [at the feast] the settlers “brandished their weaponry” early and got drunk soon thereafter. He notes that “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.’”This is just garbage, a concoction of ignorance and selective quoting that is ideology, not history. For one thing, the only imaginable source for the reference to brandishing weapons is in Winslow's saying "we exercised our arms" - which he describes as a "recreation." If it had been meant in any way to intimidate the natives, there is no reason at all to doubt that Winslow would have said so; neither he nor Bradford were shy about noting such occasions.
What's more, the whole "beer-drunkenness" business is a moth-eaten canard based on sniggering fantasy. Yes, they preferred beer to water: Water was believed to offer no nutrition, contrary to beer, and was often thought potentially dangerous. (It was said at the time that no one would dare drink from any spring found within the walls of London: "The water may look sweet and clear, but there's death in that cup.") Everyone drank beer; even children, once they were weaned, drank watered beer. That also meant that by the time you were an adult, there simply was no way that drinking a couple of quarts of beer a day would get you drunk. Not when you'd been drinking beer since you were a child. It's bull.
(There's also the matter that the strength of the beer, particularly that available to the settlers, which they had to make themselves, didn't match today's. And unlike much of what Dr. Apidta writes, that's not based on speculation. It's based on people following 17th century directions for making beer and seeing what came out.)
So the idea of "daily inebriation" is utter, complete, nonsense. The highly selective quotes from Bradford about drunkenness are no evidence to the contrary: He was a real bluenose and quoting him on personal judgments of the behavior of the community (as opposed to descriptions of events) is very much like quoting some right-winger on the philosophy and ethics of the left - with each equally disposed to take the actions of one or a few and ascribe it to the target group as a whole.
Next up is the reference to "brutish" Miles Standish, "soon after the feast," getting "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.’"Soon," in this case, being somewhere around early April 1623 - more than a year and a-half later. And again, we have a truly gross case of selective quoting, one so massive I can't imagine it was not deliberate.
The details of this incident involved are long and rather complex, but here is the Readers' Digest version:
Some natives had become angry at some English settled in the Massachusetts Bay area (not Plymouth) and resolved to attack them. But they were concerned that if they did so, the Plymouth militia would help fellow English. So they tried to organize a conspiracy among all the local natives to attack all the English all at once.
Around this time, Massasoit fell ill. Edward Winslow tended to him and helped him recover. Massasoit said that those of Plymouth had thus proved their friendship to him, so he would now prove his friendship to them. He was the one who told them of the plan and he was the one who named Wituwamat and others and he was the one who “advised us to kill the men of Massachusetts, who were the authors of this intended mischief.”
After a fair amount of discussion, including at a town meeting, it was agreed the town needed to act on Massasoit's advice, but only against those who were actually involved in the plan. So yes, some members of the militia went up there under Standish's command, saying they were there to trade, trading being something they had done before. But that's rather different from Standish "pretending to be a trader" as if he tried to conceal his identity.
In the ensuing skirmish, Wituwamat and five other natives were killed.
One other thing here: Yes, Wituwamat's head was cut off and displayed outside the north gate of Plymouth and yes, the idea was to strike fear into anyone else who might have similar thoughts. But calling it "a symbol of white power" is absurd and displays, yet again, an appalling ignorance of the history it intends to judge. This had nothing to do with his being a native. It had to do with his being considered an “enemy of the State.”
Back in Europe, the same fate awaited anyone held guilty of treason or insurrection. In England, the heads were displayed along London Bridge and it was so common that shopkeepers on the bridge were known to say things like “you can find my shop - it’s by the fifth skull along the bridge.”
So yes, there was a skirmish and yes, there was a head taken. But yet again, we see the settlers, in this case in the form of Miles Standish, being condemned as bloodthirsty and "brutish" - with no consideration whatsoever given to either cause or context.
I say again: Apidta is not engaging in history, but ideology, ideology trying to hide behind a veil of supposed scholarship.
One last final comment: Contrary to James, "the first, official all-Pilgrim 'Thanksgiving'" did not have "to wait until 1637." It occurred in July 1623. There had been a drought, threatening the crops. The town had a day of humiliation, a holy day set aside when the need arose, devoted to prayer and fasting to ask God's forgiveness for whatever they had done for him to bring such a thing down on them. That very afternoon there began a gentle, soaking rain that saved the crops, so the town had a day of thanksgiving, again a holy day done when the occasion arose, this one for prayers to thank God for their rescue.
I remember a friend of mine some years ago talking about “the urge to find angelic forces in the world,” that is, the seeming need many of us have to fix on some group, some movement, some something that we can convince ourselves is utterly pure in its motives and behavior. In our attempts to find some better balance in our understanding of what was done to the natives of North America, the cruelties inflicted on them, the racism and bigotry which targeted them, too many of us in considering the “Pilgrims” of Plymouth have simply swapped the mythology of savage natives and noble settlers for the perhaps more satisfying but equally false mythology of noble natives and savage settlers.
Balance, it seems, is still a long way off.
Footnote: I'm skipping the whole Pequot War except to wonder what events sixteen years later with a different nation of natives has to do with the so-called "first Thanksgiving" of 1621.