The Thanksgiving Myth
Above Photo: austen777/ Flickr
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In many ways the Thanksgiving celebration is a unique festivity. As harvest festivals go it’s not particularly unusual: families gathering for a special meal to enjoy the bounty of nature and the fruit of the growing season’s labor. Most societies in the temperate zones of the earth have such harvest festivals. In the more northerly latitudes of Canada it comes in October as it does also in north China at the time of the harvest moon. At the latitudes of the United States Thanksgiving comes in late November, after the harvests are in.
So what is so special about the Thanksgiving celebrated there? Unlike most of our other holidays, which are religious, Thanksgiving is secular. Neither is political like the 4th of July which marks the beginning of the political entity called the United States of America. Thanksgiving is a more private holiday, celebrated with family around the dinner table. Yet it is also a celebration of families together in community with others. In addition to being a harvest festival, what is distinctive about our Thanksgiving is that it also celebrates the English settlement in North America and the founding of a nation. Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a nation, of a people, a century and a half before the formation of the U.S. It tells a story of our founding, a settlement. As such, it conveys an image of who we are as a people. It presents a narrative of how we began, of what we value, of who we are.
What is that image? First, a society based on home and family. Second, families rooted in a community, having a common unity. Third, a community that has settled in a new land, in the wilderness, where they work hard to make a new life for themselves. Finally, a people with a generosity of spirit that shares its bounty with neighbors and lives in brotherhood with them. In the practice of Thanksgiving, we embrace the values of the human warmth of family, Christian charity, and brotherhood. As a people, this is who we define ourselves to be.
But if you look at the historical record surrounding the first Thanksgiving, we find that the usual narrative is largely fictitious. It leaves out crucial circumstances about the Pilgrims settling Plymouth in 1620. Let me fill in some of the missing parts of the story.
One key fact that made this settlement possible was the Black Plague or Bubonic Plague that had killed one third of the population of Europe centuries earlier. Those who survived and their descendants carried immunities to this and many other diseases unknown to the far healthier populations native to the new world. English fishermen who had been coming to the waters off the coast of Massachusetts for decades before the Pilgrims, brought microbes to the peoples living there. Beginning in 1617, just three years before the Pilgrims landed, pandemics broke out that wiped out 90 to 96% of the native population of southern New England.
It was thus that the Pilgrims found a land without people. But as luck would have it, at the deserted Indian town which they renamed Plymouth, they found fields of corn ready for the harvesting. Without that would they have survived that first winter? “Throughout New England, colonists appropriated Indian cornfields, which explains why so many town names” end in ‘field’: Marshfield, Springfield, Deerfield.
This good fortune and the misfortune of the Indians was taken by the pious Pilgrims as a sign of Gods favor. King James of England, who saw to the promulgation of his version of the Bible, gave thanks to “Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us,” for sending “this wonderful plague among the savages.” So much for brotherly love. And John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, also a pious man, observed in 1634: But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not fifty, have put themselves under our protection. [emphasis added]
One of those who put himself under their protection was Squanto, who is usually mentioned as knowing English and having taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn. But the story of how he came to know English is not usually told. He had been taken prisoner by a British captain in 1605 and brought to England for nine years. There he worked for a Plymouth merchant (who incidentally helped finance the Mayflower) and who arranged his passage back to Massachusetts. But then in 1614 he and a couple dozen members of his tribe were taken by a British slave raider and sold into slavery in Spain. Squanto escaped, made his way back to England where he gained passage back to Cape Cod. But when he returned to his home village, he found to his horror that he was the only member of his tribe still alive. All the others had perished in an epidemic two years earlier. Is it any wonder that he threw in his lot with the Pilgrims when they arrived shortly thereafter?
Similarly, it was the plague that led to the alliance of the Wampanoags with the Pilgrims since they feared the stronger Narragansetts to the west. Under the leadership of their chief Massasoit, they were the Indian guests at the 1621 thanksgiving feast which we now commerate. Unfortunately, this friendship did not last due to the attempt of the English to take their land and bring them under English rule. They were nearly wiped out in King Philip’s War, a victory that was celebrated in a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1676, often referred to as the first proclamation of Thanksgiving. So the first official Thanksgiving proclamation celebrated the slaughter of the guests at the first Thanksgiving! I might mention a few other embarrassing historical facts about this occasion. It was Abraham Lincoln who made it a national holiday in 1863 in an effort to promote national unity in the midst of the Civil War. He later proclaimed another national thanksgiving in August in celebration of the Union victory at Gettysburg. In fact, many Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations were to celebrate success in war rather than for peace and brotherhood. The Pilgrims weren’t even included in the story until the 1890s. And it was in the 19th century that some enterprising citizens of Plymouth rolled the Plymouth Rock down to the seashore so it could be said that this was were the Pilgrims first set foot on land. That has certainly helped tourism in the years since. And it was in 1939 that Franklin Roosevelt moved the date for Thanksgiving up a week earlier so as to allow for more shopping days before Christmas. Public protest forced him in 1941 to move the date back to the last Thursday in November, where it has
been ever since.
As the founding myth of our nation, Thanksgiving conceals from view the ambiguous legacy of the country. Barack Obama has called slavery our original sin. But the historical fact is that slavery was our second sin. The original one was the taking of this continent and the near annihilation of its original inhabitants. The Thanksgiving Myth covers this over with a story of brotherhood and generosity. It induces a historical amnesia.
Where does this iconoclastic look at Thanksgiving leave us? Was Henry Ford right? Is history bunk? I have spoken of the Thanksgiving myth. What do I mean by calling it a myth? A myth is a made up story, an invented narrative often hung on a few selected historical pegs. Certainly any truthful history of our nation would have to highlight the reality of the theft of the continent from its original inhabitants and the genocide against them. After all, the settlers were colonists, convinced of their divine destiny. They did not win the land by brotherly love. We’re talking about colonialism here.
Much of the bounty celebrated on Thanksgiving Day is the fruit of the land we stole from the natives, created by the labor of slaves, their descendants and the waves of immigrants that continue to this day. It is the fruit of exploitation, not brotherhood. It is this sordid history that the Thanksgiving narrative ignores.
Yet, for all that, there is something true in the Thanksgiving Myth. We have to understand that a myth is not history. It does not tell us what we have done; it tells us what we want to be. By celebrating Thanksgiving we are reminding ourselves of the values we want to uphold in our lives and as a people. We value human relationships, we value brotherhood, we value peace. In spite of the ugly history that has brought us to the present, we still hold those values dear. And it is practices like Thanksgiving that help keep those values alive in our consciousness, and in our hearts. They are what enable us to keep hope alive (in the words of Jesse Jackson 20 years ago) as we pursue a better America, one worthy of our highest values. And it is that hope that finally broke out of a long dark tunnel into the bright sunlight on the first Tuesday of this month. It is that hope that can now renew our faith in this nation as we celebrate on the last Thursday of the month. At last we have much to be thankful for. We can celebrate the founding of a new nation worthy of our highest ideals. Si se pueda. Yes, we can.
Source: Quotations from James W. Loewen, “The Truth About the First Thanksgiving”, Monthly Review, November 1992, pp. 12-25.