STORY OF THANKSGIVING
by Susan Bates
Most of us
associate the holiday with happy Pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a big
feast. And that did happen - once.
The story began
in 1614 when a band of English explorers sailed home to England with a ship
full of Patuxet Indians bound for slavery. They left behind smallpox which
virtually wiped out those who had escaped. By the time the Pilgrims arrived in
Massachusetts Bay they found only one living Patuxet Indian, a man named
Squanto who had survived slavery in England and knew their language. He taught
them to grow corn and to fish, and negotiated a peace treaty between the
Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Nation. At the end of their first year, the
Pilgrims held a great feast honoring Squanto and the Wampanoags.
But as word
spread in England about the paradise to be found in the new world, religious
zealots called Puritans began arriving by the boat load. Finding no fences
around the land, they considered it to be in the public domain. Joined by
other British settlers, they seized land, capturing strong young Natives for
slaves and killing the rest. But the Pequot Nation had not agreed to the peace
treaty Squanto had negotiated and they fought back. The Pequot War was one of
the bloodiest Indian wars ever fought.
In 1637 near present day Groton, Connecticut, over 700 men, women and children
of the Pequot Tribe had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival which is
our Thanksgiving celebration. In the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were
surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them to come outside.
Those who came out were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and
children who huddled inside the longhouse were burned alive. The next day the
governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared "A Day Of Thanksgiving"
because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered.
Cheered by their
"victory", the brave colonists and their Indian allies attacked
village after village. Women and children over 14 were sold into slavery while
the rest were murdered. Boats loaded with a many as 500 slaves regularly left
the ports of New England. Bounties were paid for Indian scalps to encourage as
many deaths as possible.
especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford,
Connecticut, the churches announced a second day of "thanksgiving"
to celebrate victory over the heathen savages. During the feasting, the hacked
off heads of Natives were kicked through the streets like soccer balls. Even
the friendly Wampanoag did not escape the madness. Their chief was beheaded,
and his head impaled on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts -- where it remained
on display for 24 years.
became more and more frenzied, with days of thanksgiving feasts being held
after each successful massacre. George Washington finally suggested that only
one day of Thanksgiving per year be set aside instead of celebrating each and
every massacre. Later Abraham Lincoln decreed Thanksgiving Day to be a legal
national holiday during the Civil War -- on the same day he ordered troops to
march against the starving Sioux in Minnesota.
doesn't have quite the same fuzzy feelings associated with it as the one where
the Indians and Pilgrims are all sitting down together at the big feast. But
we need to learn our true history so it won't ever be repeated. Next
Thanksgiving, when you gather with your loved ones to Thank God for all your
blessings, think about those people who only wanted to live their lives and
raise their families. They, also took time out to say "thank you" to
Creator for all their blessings.
It is sad to
think that this happened, but it is important to understand all of the story
and not just the happy part. Today the town of Plymouth Rock has a
Thanksgiving ceremony each year in remembrance of the first Thanksgiving.
There are still Wampanoag people living in Massachusetts. In 1970, they asked
one of them to speak at the ceremony to mark the 350th anniversary of the
Pilgrim's arrival. Here is part of what was said:
"Today is a
time of celebrating for you -- a time of looking back to the first days of
white people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is
with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. When the
Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with open arms, little
knowing that it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to
pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we and other Indians
living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases
that we caught from them. Let us always remember, the Indian is and was just
as human as the white people.
Although our way
of life is almost gone, we, the Wampanoags, still walk the lands of
Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed. But today we work toward a
better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are