Mayflower 400: The Wampanoag and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving

The story of the first successful harvest and the celebratory feast that followed is told by Edward Winslow in a letter he wrote to a friend in 1621. This letter is part of a pamphlet that was published in London in 1622 that is often called Mourt’s Relation or A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England.

“our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Edward Winslow’s letter to a friend in England, December 11, 1621

This story was republished in the book Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers by Alexander Young in 1841. In the annotations, he refers to this event as “the first Thanksgiving.”

The Wampanoag: People of the First Light

The Wampanoag people have lived in North America for 12,000 years. They believe it is an island on the back of a turtle shell. They are a matriarchal society, each community having a clan mother. The word for “mother” translates to “she who has the final say.” The women would grow and gather corn, beans, squashes, nuts, roots, shoots, berries, and eggs, which made up most of their diet.

In Wampanoag culture, the town archives are kept by families of storytellers. This includes oral records, pictures, belts, and weavings that are passed down through the family for generations.

The Great Dying

When the Pilgrims arrived in Patuxet in 1620, they found the remains of a Wampanoag community which had been decimated by disease. There was no one to care for the sick and no one to bury the dead. An estimated 90% of Wampanoag people died of a mysterious plague known as “The Great Dying” between 1614-1619. It was brought to the new world by European fishermen, traders, and explorers who frequented the area.

In 1614 Captain Thomas Hunt took 20 Wampanoag people to sell as slaves in Spain and England. One of these men was Tisquantum, who was given his freedom in 1619 and returned to Patuxent by Captain Thomas Dermer. Because of Tisquantum’s experience as Dermer’s interpreter, he was able to communicate with the Pilgrims.

Who was Massasoit?

Massasoit Ousamequin (Yellow Feather) was the sachem of the Wampanoag community at Pokanoket (now Bristol, RI), which was 2 days walk from Patuxet (Plymouth Colony). He was invited to the Plymouth Plantation by Tisquantum to establish a war alliance/peace treaty with the Pilgrims in March 1621. The terms of the treaty stated Massasoit’s men would not harm the Pilgrims or else they would be sent to the Pilgrims for punishment, and that the Pilgrims would aid Massasoit in the event of an unjust war against them. They also agreed that, when trading, the Wampanoag would not bring bows and arrows and the Pilgrims would not bring their guns.

National Day of Mourning

In 1970 Wamsutta, an Aquinnah Wampanoag was invited to speak at a Mayflower 350th anniversary dinner. When the organizers read a copy of his speech they rescinded the invitation. He instead gave his speech on Thanksgiving day at noon on Cole’s Hill and declared it as a National Day of Mourning. For the last 50 years, the United American Indians of New England have gathered at Plymouth on the 4th Thursday in November to demonstrate against the Pilgrim mythology.

Learn more about the Wampanoag then and now:

(posted by Cristina)

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