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The ‘First Thanksgiving’ Story Covers Up the All Too Real Violence in Early America

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Mancall is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, Professor of History and Anthropology, and the Linda and Harlan Martens Director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. His latest book is The Trials of Thomas Morton

The 17th century is having a moment. In 2019, the world observed the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia. This year marks 400 years since English Pilgrims and Wampanoags allegedly sat down to a three-day feast in territory the immigrants called Plymouth. These events have drawn extraordinary public attention. But each only makes sense when seen in the context of a century that defined enduring aspects of American life, especially European colonists’ efforts to take possession of Indigenous lands.

According to American lore, a group of Wampanoags joined the struggling community of English colonists for a meal in the autumn of 1621. In the 19th century, that feast became the focal point for celebration even though Pilgrims, according to William Bradford, their governor and primary historian, seem to have actually declared their first day of thanksgiving in 1623—two years later—when mid-summer rains soaked drought-parched fields. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as a national holiday of Thanksgiving, though his proclamation mentioned neither the Pilgrims nor the Wampanoags. (The next year his proclamation, which also ignored the colonists, took note of divine assistance in “many and signal victories over the enemy, who is of our own household,” a reference to the Civil War.) By the mid-20th century, U. S. Presidents routinely reminded the nation about the hard work of the Pilgrims. By the end of that century, they remembered to call attention to the presence of Native peoples, too. In 1984, Ronald Reagan even quoted a Seneca saying to demonstrate that “the native American Thanksgiving antedated those of the new Americans.”

But the focus on 1621 distorts our understanding of the past. By emphasizing peaceful coexistence between newly arrived English migrants and already settled Wampanoags, annual celebrations of Thanksgiving have, perhaps unintentionally, minimized the violence inherent in colonization. The 1619 Project of the New York Times has shone a light on the harrowing truths of enslavement and its legacy. In a similar vein, we might ask: how does our understanding of early American history look if we put conflicts between Indigenous and newcomers at the center of the story? While it might be comforting to think that there were times when Indigenous Americans and European colonists coexisted in peace, violence was common, not exceptional, in the territory that would eventually become the U.S.

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The hostile nature of European relations with Indigenous peoples in North America began even before 1607, the year the English established a community in Jamestown. In 1598, the Pueblo residents of Acoma, in modern New Mexico, rebelled against Spanish attempts to coerce them into becoming subjects of a distant monarch. After the town’s residents killed a dozen Spaniards, a larger contingent of soldiers invaded the town, which had been occupied since the 12th century. After three days of brutal warfare, hundreds of Pueblos lay dead. The Spanish soldiers, under orders from their commander, chopped off the right foot of every man over age 25 and enslaved men and women alike. They severed the hands of two Hopis with the idea that they would become walking advertisements for what happens to those who resisted colonization.

In the decades that followed, emissaries of other European nations arrived in North America. They sailed across the Atlantic believing that they had a legitimate right to American territory through the act of discovery. They claimed that they found lands where no Christian prince ruled and hence they asserted ownership on behalf of their monarch, a policy established for the Americas by Pope Alexander VI in 1493.

But Europeans often found that Native peoples understandably did not accept the legitimacy of this European doctrine. Rather than allow newcomers to push them away, many fought back. Indigenous men and women who resisted incursions onto their land sparked fierce responses from European soldiers and colonists.

One infamous example took place on the banks of the Mystic River during an event known as the Pequot War of 1637, a conflict that might better be named the Anglo-Pequot War. Fearing that the Pequots were going to form an alliance with the nearby Narragansetts and drive the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Massachusetts into the sea, the colonists created an alliance with the Narragansetts. According to the Plymouth governor William Bradford, armed soldiers surrounded the Pequot village and set it on fire. The flames destroyed the Pequots’ weapons, homes and families. Colonists shot at those who tried to escape. Bradford believed the soldiers killed 400 people. John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts, estimated that the total of those murdered during the war or captured and enslaved totaled 700. “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same,” Bradford memorably wrote of that terrible night, but the deaths were a “sweet sacrifice,” a phrase from Leviticus, for which the colonists “gave the praise thereof to God.”

Six years later, warfare tore apart the Dutch colony of New Netherland (modern New York). Governor Willem Kieft, eager to destroy Indigenous resistance to the colony, ordered assaults on sites where Munsee-speaking peoples had sought sanctuary. In a single night, according to one colonial witness, Dutch soldiers murdered 80 refugees at Pavonia. In a tragic echo of the brutality at Acoma, the soldiers also apparently sliced off the hands or legs of some of their victims. Near Stamford, an English military veteran of the 1637 war who had offered his services to the Dutch ordered soldiers to set fire to a Tankiteke town, killing almost 700 in an hour.

Violence begat violence across the scorched earth wherever European colonists, eager to expand their holdings, came into conflict with Indigenous peoples. In 1675, a confederation of Natives in southern New England led by a Wampanoag headman named Metacomet (or Pometacomet, known to the English as King Philip) tried to halt the spread of colonial communities by creating an alliance among Native groups. He roused a rebellion that eventually stretched across modern Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and even Maine. Armed colonists, with some Native allies, hunted Metacomet and any Indigenous people they believed were his allies. After a series of Native assaults on scattered colonial towns, colonial soldiers gathered in modern South Kingston, Rhode Island. In a pitched battle now known as the Great Swamp Massacre, the Natives killed scores of colonial soldiers. But colonists set fire to a Narragansett encampment, killing perhaps almost 100 Native fighters and hundreds of non-combatants in a single night.

Colonists finally found Metacomet in August 1676. They decapitated him and quartered his body so they could put it on display, a strategy that English officials had long used to discourage men from becoming pirates. Colonists in Massachusetts sold captured Natives into slavery in the West Indies.

In the face of such well-documented horrors, the legend of a single feast of turkey and venison in a small colonial town hardly seems the most important story we should be telling about America’s 17th century. Though the holiday often brings out gestures of generosity, we might do well to separate Thanksgiving celebrations from a reassuring story that masks the terrible violence Native communities suffered in an era of conquest and colonization.

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