Pilgrim Propaganda: The Secret History of Thanksgiving

Pilgrim Propaganda: The Secret History of Thanksgiving

Pilgrim Propaganda: The Secret History of Thanksgiving: Do our Thanksgiving myths exemplify apartheid America’s whitewashed native-american history and propaganda?

| This article originally appeared on Mystic Politics / by Everett Tucker.

Is our Thanksgiving Myth whitewashing the history of the Puritan’s Nemasket Raid and Pequot Tribe Massacres in 1621 and 1637? Does our Plymouth Propaganda exemplify apartheid america’s whitewashed native-american history and propaganda?

Thanksgiving is known for its warm family gatherings, the gridiron mash-ups of football games, pumpkin pie, and deceptively simple views on america’s history and the complex and troubled relationships with America’s native peoples (13,15).

We all know the 2-century-old story of the poor pilgrims who were persecuted in Europe  immigrating to america, and barely eking it out w’ the help of our “Indian” friends (8). Thanksgiving has its root in deeply religious tradition, in deep reverence and awe of the Christian god, but it is largely a secular happening now (11,15).

Digging deeper reveals interlocking tales of massacres, coups, treaties, politics, and religious fundamentalism as the framework of what could be called the secret history behind our thanksgiving myths. (15)

Religious Fundamentalist’s Pilgrim Thanksgiving

After the English revolution which saw the formation of the Church of England, the puritans seeking to fix what they saw as corrupted rites, rituals, and practices inherited from the Catholic Church were increasingly marginalized and their attempts to re-reform the church were eventually criminalized.

This criminalization of dissent led to them emigrating to first Holland and then chartering a ship to America named the Mayflower in September of 1620 (4,8). In all, 37 puritanical separatists and 65 others constituted the 102 of the Mayflower stock, 41 of which signed the Mayflower compact- a boilerplate accord akin to a constitution. (4,8)

The landed during the mini-ice age of 1620-1820 on December 2nd 1620, dropping anchor in Massachusetts off the tip of cape cod. Having left Plymouth, England they must have felt it providential that their new locale was New Plimoth, a location previously surveyed and named by Captain John Smith, in modern-Plymouth, Massachusetts. The first winter was so brutal they stayed aboard ships, only exacerbating exposure, scurvy, and infectious diseases (8,15).

Only with the help of indigenous guides did they successfully cultivate their first harvest, corn, which seems to be a significant cultural passing-of-the-torch in the Indigenous-European conflicts of early america (8,15).  At the end of their first year, the Pilgrims held a great feast honoring Squanto and the Wampanoags. The details of the events are a bit more vivid than as related by second-grade productions of the “Pilgrim Thanksgiving” plays put on all across america, though.

The Nemasket Raid of 1621

Squanto, or Tisquantum, was an Algonquin native and the only found survivor of a 1614 encounter with English explorers left him and his tribe enslaved and half eaten away by small pox (1,7,8) . Squanto’s tale was unique. He was sold into slavery and later escaped to London  managing finally to return home via exploratory expedition. Back in the Americas he was brought to diplomatically translate with the new pilgrims after Mayflower’s landing in 1820 (1,7,8).

After the Plymouth colony befriended him, he taught them to grow corn and fish, while also negotiating a treaty between pilgrims and the Wampanoag Nation, leading to a thanksgiving in honor of him and the Wampanoags (1,7,8).

On March 22nd, 1621 the governor of Plymouth Colony, John Carver, signed a treaty with Massasoit, a Sachem (paramount chief) of the Algonquian, forming an alliance between the Pokanoket and the Puritans, requiring mutual support during times of need or war (3,4,7). The Pokanoket are the headship tribe of the diverse Wampanoag Nation, which is more readily associated with soft-history accounts of thanksgiving (6).

Myles Standish, the hired and subsequently elected leader of the Plymouth militia was quick to react to any threat against the Colonists or the Pokanoket allies with intimidation and shows of force (3,4).

Massasoit was being undermined by a another high chief, Corbitant, who was attempting to foment conflict between the Nemasket people and Massasoit (3). Squanto was sent as a spy, interpreter, and intermediary to investigate the conflict on behalf of the puritans, immediately being taken hostage with his life threatened by Corbitant (1,3,7).

In reaction to the abduction, the leaders of the Plymouth town and militia led a group of 10 men to Nemasket on a mission to kill Corbitant, which culminated in a night attack w’ muskets blazing & few resulting deaths. Corbitant had already escaped and Squanto was unharmed (3).

Ostensibly a pay-off for good works done, or as tit-for-tat as per their agreement, Pokanoket natives gave Anglo-American colonists beaver and fox fur, taught them how to fish, taught them the fundamentals of Northeastern agriculture, for help in opposing rival natives and in accordance with their dealings (4).

The windfall of supplies during the crippling winter was probably the source of foods eaten in this traditional ‘Pilgrim Thanksgiving’, being most closely associated with the scantily recorded event. Subsequent events would only solidify conflict, and not peace, as the underlying trend in these thanksgiving celebrations. (3,4,9)

The Mystic Massacre of 1637

In 1637 near present-day Groton, Connecticut approximately 700 members of the Pequot tribe were gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival which is our appropriated Thanksgiving. (1,2)

In the early morning the English and Dutch militia of 90 men along with 70 Mohegan and Narragansett warriors surrounded the Pequot and ordered to leave their fortified village (2). The Pequots who complied were immediately shot and those that tried to bunker down were burned alive after their longhouses were set on fire. (1,2)

Enlivened by their massacring  the next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A Day Of Thanksgiving”, effectively commandeering the pre-existing native american holiday. (1)

The precedent setting event touched-off a series of attacks throughout the years as Anglo-American settlers went from village to village murdering and enslaving the indigenous, shipping them abroad as commodified products via New England ports. (1,5)

After another attack on the Pequot in modern-Stamford, Connecticut, the churches announced another of thanksgiving to celebrate the Anglo-American victories. In true “savage” fashion, the decapitated heads of Natives were kicked like soccer balls through the streets. (1)

Our ally the Wampanoag were also ripe for degradation: Their Sachem had his decapitated head on display for 24 years in Plymouth, Massachusetts (1).

In addition to the fallacious omissions of common narratives on thanksgiving, there are also misconceptions about the context or chronology of ‘the first thanksgiving’ (9).

…Because it isn’t the first Thanksgiving

The adverse conditions afforded the fundamentalist puritans many opportunities to thank their all-seeing god for their temporal goods and windfalls. Every successful crop, British ship bringing supplies, or good turn must have been reconciled as indicating they walked within divine providence (9,12).

“To the Puritans, a true “thanksgiving” was a day of prayer and pious humiliation, thanking God for His special Providence. Auspicious events, such as the sudden ending of war, drought or pestilence, might inspire a thanksgiving proclamation” (Plimoth.org 1).

The Anglo-American fundamentalists had many, many days of thanksgiving, and days of religious fasting, a good number of which predated the 1821 celebration. It is important to note that many such previous thanksgivings occurred in Europe  making the colonial thanksgiving even less significant. Days of thanks were common in Europe, the base of Western Christendom. (9,12)

Spanish explorers had three notable days of thanks in the Americas before the pilgrims:

  1. On September 8, 1585, explorer Pedro Melendez de Avile celebrated a day of thanksgiving in Florida with group of Spaniards and invited Timucua tribe to join (9).
  2. In 1598, Spanish explorer Juan de Onate and crew held a day of thanksgiving after successfully crossing 350 miles of Mexican badlands (9).
  3. On December 4th, 1619, 38 settlers on the Margaret landed by Jamestown and gave thanks then and every subsequent year until the Indian Massacre of 1622 (9).

“Thanksgiving became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century and it was proclaimed each autumn by the individual Colonies” (Plimoth.org 1).

How Thanksgiving became a formal holiday

A second thanksgiving was seen in 1823 when a frenzied Plymouth community went on religious fasts to hasten the end of a drought (10). As the genocide’s days of celebration became too numerous, we eventually crystallized all the historical anguish into one cookie-cutter commercialized holiday.

Sarah Josepha Hale, who we would recognize for her work ‘Mary had a little lamb’ and as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, relentlessly campaigned for 20 years for the 1621 Nemasket Raid Pilgrim Thanksgiving to become a holiday, premised on scant passages by William Bradford, Plymouth Governor. There was no universal thanksgivings between all thirteen colonies until October 1777, when the Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving, in part also commemorating the recent wins in General Little Johnny Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga (3,9,11,12,14).

Washington suggested that a single thanksgiving be celebrated instead of one for each ‘victory’ in 1789, via a ‘thanksgiving proclamation’, proclaiming it to be “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” (1,10,11,12).

Presidents Washington, Adams and Monroe proclaimed national Thanksgivings, odd non-annually recurring days of thanks were common. During the Revolution the continental congress officially recognized several days of thanksgiving. (1,9,10,11,12,13)

Pre-1963 states celebrated thanksgiving whenever convenient, between October and January (9,11,12). Abraham Lincoln legitimized Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in September and a national holiday in 1863, amidst the civil war with his own thanksgiving proclamation (1,9,10,11). “The President declared two national Thanksgivings that year, one for August 6 celebrating the victory at Gettysburg and a second for the last Thursday in November” (Plimoth.org 1).

Throughout 1939-1941 Franklin D. Roosevelt, in an attempt to bolster the Christmas shopping season during and after the Great Depression at the behest of U.S. retailers, proclaimed Thanksgiving the third Thursday in November  (10,11,12). The new date of congress caused calendar confusion and an issue for school vacations and football games. There was outcry that you couldn’t arbitrarily change a ‘Holiday’, and Atlantic City’s mayor commented that the third Thursday be called “franksgiving” (12).

Congress, in disapproval, passed a joint resolution in 1941 stating that Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of November, as we celebrate it today (10,11,12).

The Evolution of Thanksgiving Rituals

Our modern rituals of thanksgiving bear little to no resemblance to the customs of 1621. The first Pilgrim Thanksgiving was held in the fall of 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, and was a three-day feast. (9,11)

They ate fowl and deer for certain and most likely also ate berries, fish, clams, plums, and boiled pumpkin. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie, or pumpkin pie aren’t mentioned in the historical record and seem to be popularized by Hale (9,12).

Lobster, seal and swans were on the Pilgrims’ menu. No desserts were served because sugar rations were very low, and suggestions were made to use native spices in celebratory meals. (8,9) There was also no milk, cider, potatoes, or butter. There was no domestic cattle for dairy products, and the newly-discovered potato was still considered by many Europeans to be poisonous. (14)

The modern notion of thanksgiving foods is due in large part to the infusion of southern staples like ham, sweet potatoes, pies and puddings, and even ambrosia (12).

Our Modern Thanksgiving is one of gridlock, busy airports, food, and consumerism. It is famous for its capitalistic orientation and celebration of  uber-materialism, usually referred to as ‘Black Friday’, where people line up and fight over stuff they don’t need with arbitrary reduction in prices.

Do you think our whitewashed history and nationalistic propaganda causes apathetic consumerism?

What else does our fuzzy mythology foment?

| Sources: Article (Everett Tucker) / Image (Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914).

Everett Tucker is the creator and editor of Mystic Politics. He is condescending, overconfident, under-educated, and extremely interested in exploring religiopolitical overlap, the psychology of belief, and the conspiratorial tropes & memes- real or otherwise- of popular culture. Signup for email updates to be notified of future journalistic hack work.

Referenced & Cited works:

  2. Wikipedia. “The Mystic Massacre“. Web.
  3. Wikipedia. “Nemasket Raid, Defense of Plymouth Colony, Myles Standish“. Web.
  4. Avila, Juan Antonio. Lecture on Early American History. NMSU: Fall 2012. Lecture (notes).
  5. Wikipedia. “European Enslavement, Slavery among Native Americans in the United States“. Web.
  6. Wikipedia. “Pokanoket“. Web.
  7. Wikipedia. “Squanto“. Web.
  8. History.Com. “Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Thanksgiving“. Web.
  9. Hiskey, Daven. “The First Thanksgiving Didn’t Actually Take Place in America“. Web (2012).
  10. History.Com. “Thanksgiving Becomes an Official Holiday, Thanksgiving“. Web.
  11. Goldsmith, Damon. “Thanksgiving History: From fall feast to national holiday“. Web.
  12. Rosenberg, Jennifer. “How FDR Changed Thanksgiving“. Web.
  13. Plimoth.Org. “Thanksgiving History“. Web.
  14. Wilstar.Com. “Thanksgiving History and Customs“. Web.
  15. Ely, Mike. “Native blood: the truth behind the myth of `Thanksgiving Day‘”. Web.


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