November 26, 2020

In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers.  These were a group of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith.  The separatists were accompanied by other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World.  After a treacherous crossing that lasted 66 days, they made landfall.  They had set out for the mouth of the Hudson River, but were off by one degree north.  They dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod in November.  They were driven out by the local Native tribe one month later, and the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay and these “Pilgrims” began the work of establishing a village at what is now called Plymouth.

The first national Thanksgiving Day did not include any reference to the Pilgrims.  President Abraham Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November in 1863.  Lincoln was looking to reconcile a country in the throes of the Civil War.  One hundred years later President John F. Kennedy, whose family was from Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, immortalized the Native peoples in his own Thanksgiving Day proclamation.  It is this pasteurized version of Thanksgiving that is taught in elementary school and stays alive through such homages as “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.”

The historically accurate story of the Pilgrims and the founding of Plymouth Colony 400 years ago this month is not in most history books.  It is not the one you will find at Pilgrim Memorial Park in Plymouth, home of the famed Plymouth Rock and the replica ship Mayflower II.  The more historically accurate telling suggests the Pilgrims did not find themselves in a vast untouched land, but instead amid Indigenous people already wary and distrustful of Europeans.  These people were not invited to the first feast in 1621.  Instead, 60 warriors arrived as a show of force to let the settlers know they were a powerful people and not to be trifled with.  Within 50 years, the colonists would greatly outnumber the Indigenous peoples.  The resulting plagues, wars, and enslavement destroyed all but three of the original 69 bands of Wampanoag who used to spread across New England.

Thoughts:  Historian David Silverman published, This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, in 2019 as a precursor to the 400-year anniversary.  This unsettling history reveals why some modern Native people hold a Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving.  The book is intended to demonstrate it is time to rethink how we tell the history of Thanksgiving.  “How are we supposed to improve on this sorry record if we don’t understand the sorry record?” asks Silverman.  It is only by acknowledging the ills of the past that we can make changes for the future.  Do the work.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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