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The first Thanksgiving is a key chapter in America’s origin story – but what happened in Virginia four months later mattered much more

In the 19th century, there was a campaign to link the Thanksgiving holiday to the Pilgrims. (Bettman/Getty Images)

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving in New England. Remembered and retold as an allegory for perseverance and cooperation, the story of that first Thanksgiving has become an important part of how Americans think about the founding of their country.

But what happened four months later, starting in March 1622 about 600 miles south of Plymouth, is, I believe, far more reflective of the country’s origins – a story not of peaceful coexistence but of distrust, displacement and repression.

As a scholar of colonial New England and Virginia, I have often wondered why Americans tend to pay so much less attention to other English migrants of the same era.

The conquest and colonization of New England mattered, of course. But the Pilgrims’ experience in the early 1620s tells us less about the colonial era than events along Chesapeake Bay, where the English had established Jamestown in 1607.

A compelling origin story

The Pilgrims etched their place in the nation’s history long ago as plucky survivors who persevered despite difficult conditions. Ill-prepared for the New England winter of 1620 to 1621, they benefited when a terrible epidemic raged among the Indigenous peoples of the region from 1616 to 1619, which reduced competition for resources.

Having endured a winter in which perhaps one-half of the migrants succumbed, the survivors welcomed the fall harvest of 1621. They survived because local Wampanoags had taught them how to grow corn, the most important crop in much of eastern North America. That November, the Pilgrims and Wampanoags shared a three-day feast.

This was the event that now marks the first American day of Thanksgiving, even though many Indigenous peoples had long had rituals that included giving thanks and other European settlers had previously declared similar days of thanks – including one in Florida in 1565 and another along the Maine coast in 1607.

Native American woman presents a turkey to a Pilgrim.

A postcard from 1912 depicts goodwill and cooperation between Native Americans and colonists. (Samantha Vuignier/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 1623, Pilgrims in Plymouth declared a day to thank their God for bringing rain when it looked like their corn crop might wither in a brutal drought. They likely celebrated it in late July. In 1777, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, the members of the Continental Congress declared a day of Thanksgiving for Dec. 18. The Pilgrims didn’t even get a mention.

In the 19th century, however, annual Thanksgiving holidays became linked to New England, largely as a result of campaigns to make the Plymouth experience one of the nation’s origin stories. Promoters of this narrative identified the Mayflower Compact as the starting point for representative government and praised the religious freedom they saw in New England – at least for Americans of European ancestry.

For most of the last century, U.S. Presidents have mentioned the Pilgrims in their annual proclamation, helping to solidify the link between the holiday and those immigrants.

In Virginia, a tenuous peace shatters

But the events in Plymouth in 1621 that came to be enshrined in the national narrative were not typical.

A more revealing incident took place in Virginia in 1622.

Since 1607, English migrants had maintained a small community in Jamestown, where colonists struggled mightily to survive. Unable to figure out how to find fresh water, they drank from the James River, even during the summer months when the water level dropped and turned the river into a swamp. The bacteria they consumed from doing so caused typhoid fever and dysentery.

Despite a death rate that reached 50% in some years, the English decided to stay. Their investment paid off in the mid-1610s when an enterprising colonist named John Rolfe planted West Indian tobacco seeds in the region’s fertile soil. The industry soon boomed.

But economic success did not mean the colony would thrive. Initial English survival in Virginia depended on the good graces of the local Indigenous population. By 1607, Wahunsonacock, the leader of an alliance of Natives called Tsenacomoco, had spent a generation forming a confederation of roughly 30 distinct communities along tributaries of Chesapeake Bay. The English called him Powhatan and labeled his followers the Powhatans.

Wahunsonacock could have likely prevented the English from establishing their community at Jamestown; after all, the Powhatans controlled most of the resources in the region. In 1608, when the newcomers were near starvation, the Powhatans provided them with food. Wahunsonacock also spared Captain John Smith’s life after his people captured the Englishman.

Wahunsonacock’s actions revealed his strategic thinking. Rather than see the newcomers as all-powerful, he likely believed the English would become a subordinate community under his control. After a war from 1609 to 1614 between English and Powhatans, Wahunsonacock and his allies agreed to peace and coexistence.

Wahunsonacock died in 1618. Soon after his passing, Opechancanough, likely one of Wahunsonacock’s brothers, emerged as a leader of the Powhatans. Unlike his predecessor, Opechancanough viewed the English with suspicion, especially when they pushed on to Powhatan lands to expand their tobacco fields.

By spring 1622, Opechancanough had had enough. On March 22, he and his allies launched a surprise attack. By day’s end, they had killed 347 of the English. They might have killed more except that one Powhatan who had converted to Christianity had warned some of the English, which gave them the time to escape.

Within months, news of the violence spread in England. Edward Waterhouse, the colony’s secretary, detailed the “barbarous Massacre” in a short pamphlet. A few years later, an engraver in Frankfurt captured Europeans’ fears of Native Americans in a haunting illustration for a translation of Waterhouse’s book.

Engraving of Indigenous Americans slaughtering colonists.

Matthäus Merian’s woodcut print depicted brutal bloodshed in Jamestown, shaping European attitudes toward Native Americans. Wikimedia CommonsMatthäus Merian’s woodcut print depicted brutal bloodshed in Jamestown, shaping European attitudes toward Native Americans. (Wikimedia Commons)

Waterhouse wrote of those who died “under the bloudy and barbarous hands of that perfidious and inhumane people.” He reported that the victors had desecrated English corpses. He called them “savages” and resorted to common European descriptions of “wyld Naked Natives.” He vowed revenge.

Over the next decade, English soldiers launched a brutal war against the Powhatans, repeatedly burning the Powhatans’ fields at harvest time in an effort to starve them and drive them away.

Conflict over cooperation

The Powhatans’ orchestrated attack anticipated other Indigenous rebellions against aggressive European colonizers in 17th-century North America.

The English response, too, fit a pattern: Any sign of resistance by “pagans,” as Waterhouse labeled the Powhatans, needed to be suppressed to advance Europeans’ desire to convert Native Americans to Christianity, claim Indigenous lands, and satisfy European customers clamoring for goods produced in America.

It was this dynamic – not the one of fellowship found in Plymouth in 1621 – that would go on to define the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers for over two centuries.

Before the end of the century, violence erupted in New England too, erasing the positive legacy of the feast of 1621. By 1675, simmering tensions exploded in a war that stretched across the region. On a per capita basis, it was among the deadliest conflicts in American history.

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In 1970, an Aquinnah Wampanoag elder named Wamsutta, on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, pointed to generations of violence against Native communities and dispossession. Ever since that day, many Indigenous Americans have observed a National Day of Mourning instead of Thanksgiving.

Today’s Thanksgiving – with school kids’ construction paper turkeys and narrative of camaraderie and cooperation between the colonists and Indigenous Americans – obscures the more tragic legacy of the early 17th century.The Conversation

Peter C. Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 comments

Skip Hagerty November 25, 2021 at 11:07 am

So we now need to cancel Thanksgiving because its perceived linkage to oppression of Native Americans? Give me a break. How about we give thanks today for all the great Patriots that built this country….a country that has liberated more people from the yoke of tyranny than any other nation in the history of mankind. We may not be perfect but there is no debate our country is one that all others should aspire to be.

Bruce Sullivan November 27, 2021 at 9:01 pm

NORWALK PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN CRISIS

Currently a major crisis is brewing in the Norwalk Public Schools that many parents and tax payers are not aware of. Over 80 teachers/Educators have left or resigned from the Norwalk Public schools, since September. Approximately thirty or more teachers are planning to leave by the end of this school year. There are no more Aids assisting in Kindergarten classes, no aids for co taught classes with Special Ed children, and Food Aid and bus monitors are being cut. Teachers are not getting the support, or assistance they need to teach the students. Special Ed children are not getting the assistance they need in the classroom either. Teachers are being asked to attend more meetings, more training programs for new math, science and literacy programs which pop up year after year. Veteran teachers are being forced out of their positions due to the monotonous observation and evaluation process. Younger teachers are burning out at an alarming rate due to the meaningless busy work they have to do each day. Teachers are being told to teach a certain way, and cannot teach the students the way they know how to teach. Everything is about tests, scores, data, and meetings to discuss new ways of learning methods. The days of the old tried and true learning which worked is gone out the window. Also students who pose problems in disrespect and defiant attitudes are not being allowed to be disciplined and are allowed to be disrespectful to teachers. This makes teaching even harder. Today teachers are being told to be nicer to students, and that bad behaviors will go away if teachers talk nicely to students and dialogue more with them. Teachers are being asked to do lengthy lesson plans which many times can take three hours to do, and have to be submitted each week. Currently there are very few if any substitute teachers any more. The pay is not great and since the Covid-19 Pandemic few people want to come into the buildings to sub for teachers anymore. Aids who normally would be helping students and teachers are now being told to cover other classes, cafeteria jobs, and recess duties. Teachers are leaving the profession at an ever increasing rate, and the Superintendent and people in Central office are not offering incentives for people to stay. The people in Central Office are making huge salaries, and claim they can’t afford to pay for more aids and subs, yet over a million dollars is being spent on the Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent positions with a 5 million dollar Welcome Center to boot. If teachers do not get the support they need soon, there will not be enough teachers to keep the Public schools open in Norwalk. Students will not be able to get a proper education anymore. Also teachers are having to work longer hours at home and on the weekends and this is leading to depression, anxiety, and family problems. Currently without the teachers the schools in Norwalk and elsewhere could not function. Parents and Tax payers need to be aware of these problems before it is too late. Teachers are at a breaking point, and cannot handle much more. Parents and Tax Payers need to tell the Board of Education and those in authority in Central Office that you demand better for the teachers and our children. Everyone in Norwalk wake up!

Mike Lyons November 28, 2021 at 6:53 pm

Well, at least this college professor acknowledges the violence initiated by the natives against the settlers.

Why some folks are unable to concentrate on the positive aspects of something like Thanksgiving and have to endlessly remind us that things were often bad in the past – as if we didn’t know that – escapes me. I guess there’s always a party pooper at a holiday, and Nancy manages to find one for every occasion.

Responding to similar attacks on Columbus, a writer made these comments in the NY Post, whish I’m happy to share here …

“You’d be hard pressed to find any explorer or group of people who were of pure heart or motive. Hell even the Native People of the Americas owned slaves, practiced human sacrifices, cannibalism, infanticide, skinned & burned people alive and were in constant war with each other. The Native Americans weren’t so much the victim of an actual coordinated “genocide” such as Hitler actually attempted against the European Jews in WW2; rather their biggest problem was that they weren’t immune to European diseases (sorry but even the evil Columbus didn’t know about bacteria and viruses) and were literally still in the stone age.

They didn’t know how to forge metal or even have any domesticated animals to speak of and couldn’t stop warring with each other long enough to coalesce. Basically, like it or not, a more technologically advanced group simply displaced a group of people who were still in the stone age. It was inevitable. That’s been the case throughout human history. Starting with all of us displacing the Neanderthal. Such is life.

So just remember that replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day is great virtue signaling but keep in mind that the Indigenous People did the same things Columbus is accused of…

well except for cannibalism & human sacrifices, the Indigenous Peoples did that.”

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