Bizarre Holiday! From First Peoples to First Thanksgiving

Hey!  If you’re stopping by between putting the turkey in the oven, watching the parade, or (like me) getting ready to go out for a no fuss dinner with your loved ones I want to wish you a happy holiday.

Although the mythology of the holiday in the USA is steeped in colonialism, oppression and genocidal treatment of the First Peoples of this land, I know I have a lot to be thankful for.  And, I can do that while remembering the aboriginal peoples of this hemisphere. 

I recall reading that when the colonists arrived they were surprised there were already villages and cultivated fields — empty villages.  This isn’t what I read but it is pretty sensibly written:

The area that would become Plymouth Colony was essentially a ghost town by the time that the Pilgrims stepped foot off the Mayflower. Deserted villages and untended fields dotted the landscape, with caches of crops, tools and other supplies hastily left behind… along with the skeletal remains of the former inhabitants. A few years prior, the entire coastal region had been ravaged by a mysterious disease that wiped out most of the native Wampanoag and neighboring Massachusetts, Pennacook, Nauset, Permaquid and Abenaki populations.

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris
The First Thanksgiving (1912 – 1915) by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

This “ready-to-populate” land was seen as  divine providence. And, it is supported by information we kind of know now, but which  was not the myth I learned in school. After all, the Pilgrims weren’t the first Europeans to drop anchor in the “New World:”


For nearly a century before the landing of the Mayflower in 1620, the Ninnimissinuok sporadically experienced direct contact by European explorers and for decades before that the indirect consequences of European cod fishermen off the Newfoundland banks. The effect of these early encounters, though gradual and perhaps unattributable when they occurred, were profound. First, and more immediately catastrophic, Europeans brought a variety of diseases for which the aboriginal population had no resistance. Mortality rates eventually rose to 90% throughout the entire continent. When the English settlers arrived, they discovered that vast swaths of Southern New England, previously prepared for cultivation and settlement by extensive deforestation and land preparation was devoid of all inhabitants.


I am thinking about how the myth about the “First Thanksgiving” came about as a celebration of camaraderie if the natives were mostly dead.  There were, of course, some who had survived, just as there were when the diseases hit in Europe.  One of them was Squanto who had been kidnapped before and somehow got back to New England. Squanto and other native peoples helped the colonists.  I imagine that it’s hard to see people starving to death, although as humans we seem to be able to do it all the time. So, whatever, after the natives helped the colonists they had a harvest festival, just as they would have had back in Jolly Old England. Just like that the First Thanksgiving is born!! Who said the Plymouth Colony had bad PR skills!?

So how bizarre is that: European cod fishers, then several explorers and attempts to colonize drop by.  Since the explorers and colonists didn’t die from the plague it had to be something to which they were already immune. Finally, the colonists arrive with a large enough contingent to enable, if not guarantee, success and think that God has given his stamp of approval on taking the place over.  The few natives who are left help them survive so they share their meager harvest at the First Thanksgiving.  After that the British, Spanish, Dutch, and French felt empowered to take over the place and party all the time. The English got most of it over the next century or so and as England, Europe and, eventually, the USA  proceeded to attempt to kill off the First Peoples the plague had not been able to. 

So, how do we get from A – B?  I’ve had a couple of thoughts:   Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, an event celebrated in many places around the world from ancient, pagan times until now. Even in England though, there were still pagan undertones.  But, throw in Divine Providence, you can finally expunge anything pagan from the festival (as they were expunging the First People) and clothe it in the language of Puritan ideas. Then you teach children about it.  Harvest festival achieved and dress the origins of the nation in the starchy clothes of the perfect Puritan.  


Thanksgiving_Day_1865_Hanging_up_the_musket_(Boston_Public_Library)by Winslow Homer
Thanksgiving Day 1865 Hanging_up_the_musket_(Boston_Public_Library) by Winslow Homer

hanksgiving was made a national holiday in 1863. What else was happening then? The Civil War.  Thanksgiving, properly managed, was a great way to strengthen what was left of the Union and even give it the big guys approval.

Now that’s bizarre!! 

I am still thankful but I may have lost my appetite.