The story of American Thanksgiving is linked to the United States' beginnings: to the tenuous coastal Massachusetts colony in Plymouth. The colonists, about a hundred of them, later came to be known as “Pilgrims”. They were a religious group, and identified themselves as separate from the Church of England. Fleeing the volatile political situation in England, they first went to the Netherlands, and eventually found investors to fund a venture to establish a colony in North America.
They sailed on the now famous Mayflower in 1620. It was a badly planned voyage: the Pilgrims had little clue as to where they were precisely heading. When they landed in what is today coastal Massachusetts – on Nov 9th, 1620 – they realized they had no real means of producing food. They had not brought domesticated animals to ensure a supply of meat; they had not planned to farm either. They planned to fish and export fish, but their fishing gear turned out to be useless in New England.
The colonists would have perished – indeed half of the hundred or so that arrived died the first winter – but they survived because of assistance offered by the Indians of New England. Chief among the helpers was Squanto who taught the colonists techniques to grow maize (corn). The colonists, using this new knowledge, survived, and had a bountiful harvest. To express their gratitude, they had a magnificent thanksgiving feast with Indians. That’s the feast that the picture of Jean Louis Gerome depicts: splendidly feathered Indians, surrounded by the Pilgrims, partaking in what must have been a sumptuous meal.
This is also the story Americans kids learn in school. All nations attach special relevance to their beginnings, and the Pilgrims are a vital part of America’s national narrative. But the story, while true, is told in isolation, without a proper context; there is a sense of idyll about it. And the way it is told propagates a broader myth: that European settlers settled a largely empty expanse of North America, a vast natural wilderness. Sure, there were a few tribes here and there, some friendly, some hostile, but what could they do? They were destined to lose.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The textbook version of Thanksgiving not only obscures the broader socio-political context of the time; it also hides an immense tragedy.
New England before European contact was teeming with different Indian groups: a mosaic of shifting alliances and confederacies. The population is estimated to be 100,000. Certainly not as high it was in some of the dense parts of the world at the time – the region around Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), for instance – but significant for the 15th century nevertheless.
The population was growing as well. Maize (corn) was a staple and was farmed abundantly along with squash and beans. The presence of this triumvirate – maize, squash and beans – is especially significant. All three were first domesticated in Mexico. For them to have made it this far north meant that there was an extensive network through which such ideas of cultivation were relayed.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, European shipping vessels – British, French, Spanish and Italian – began to rove the eastern coast of the United States. By 1610, Britain alone had about three hundred such vessels. Many of them attempted to stay put and settle, but could not, except for short periods. Why? Because they weren’t always welcome. The Indians were happy to have the Europeans stay for some time and trade with them, but the moment the visitors overstayed, they were asked to leave, sometimes with a hint of force. All accounts of European explorers who sailed in these ships confirm the coast was thickly populated.
(Southern New England in the 16th and 17th centuries: at the time of European exploration. Click for a much better view.)
Prominent among Indians groups in southern New England was the Wampanoag confederation, whose chief was Massasoit. To the north was the group called Massachusetts – which incidentally was also the name of the language spoken in the region – and to the east, in Cape Cod, were the Nauset. These groups were allied together, and were hostile to the Narragansett alliance immediately to the west. There were also the Nipmuck, and the Western Abenaki to the northwest. In New England, the Indians belonged to one of two different language groups: Algonquian and the Iroquoian.
To reiterate: the New England before European contact wasn’t a vast wilderness with a few scattered tribes; far from it. But something happened around the time that Europeans began to explore the east coast; something that damaged the equilibrium and irrevocably shifted the balance against the Indians.
That something was disease.
Indians had no immunity to European diseases, which had their roots in the domestication of mammals – such as cows, horses, and pigs, which the Americas did not have. Most infectious diseases we know – smallpox and measles for example, and more recently AIDS – were once diseases in animals that mutated and adapted to human populations. Since Eurasian agrarian societies had a great number of domesticated mammals and were in close contact with them, their populations were inevitable targets for such diseases. Epidemics took a heavy toll on Europe during medieval times, as we all know. Large numbers of Europeans died, but the population developed some immunity over time.
Indians, on other hand, had no domesticated mammals (why that was so is too big a question to answer here), and hence had fewer diseases that could affect Europeans and inadvertently hinder settlement. Conversely the lack of immunity to European diseases proved devastating to Indian communities throughout North and South America. It paved the way for European colonization.
Indeed, it was disease in conjunction with conquest that brought about the decline of the Indians. If only conquest had happened and the effects of disease had not been catastrophic, Indians would have surely fought the Europeans back and eventually gained their independence, like other people the world over. And if only disease had affected them and no conquest had happened, Indian populations would have declined initially, but would have later rebounded back – as Eurasian populations did after the epidemics of medieval times.
What eventually unfolded, though, throughout North and South America, was a combination of disease and conquest. This crushed Indian communities everywhere. That is why, instead a North America full of indigenous peoples – with their own nation states and flags – you see a North America full of the descendants of Europeans, Africans and now Asians. American Indians are now a mere 3-4 million of the total United States population of about 300 million.
How did disease play a role in New England of the early 1600s? Plymouth, the part of Massachusetts where the Pilgrims landed, had once been a thriving coastal Indian community, called Patuxet. But nearly all of the inhabitants of Patuxet had died because of viral hepatitis. The disease had apparently been transmitted by way of prior interactions with Europeans, before the Pilgrims’ arrival (the epidemic is estimated to have struck around 1616).
Not only that, the disease raced into the interior, killing nearly ninety percent of the Wampanoag Confederacy, of which Patuxet was a part. Ninety percent! Here is a passage from Charles Mann’s 1491 that describes the devastation, with quotes from Thomas Morton, a merchant who witnessed the aftermath of the tragedy:
The Indians “died in heapes as they lay in their houses,” the merchant Thomas Morton observed. In their panic, the healthy fled from the sick, carrying the disease with them to neighboring communities. Behind them remained the dying, “left for crows and kites and vermin to prey upon.” Beginning in 1616, the pestilence took at least three years to exhaust itself and killed as much as 90 percent of the people in coastal New England. “And the bones and the skulls upon the severall places of their habitations made such a spectacle,” Morton wrote, that the Massachusetts woodlands seemed to be a “new-found Golgotha,” the Place of the Skull, where executions took place in Roman Jerusalem.With his people suddenly on the verge of being exterminated, Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag confederacy, took a risky decision. He felt threatened by the Narragansett to the West. (Presumably, since relations between the Wampanoag and the Narragansett were frigid, there hadn’t been much exchange between the two; the latter had thus not yet been affected greatly by the epidemic.) So when the Pilgrims landed in 1620, about three years after the epidemic struck, Massasoit, in a desperate move – reversing his earlier policy which discouraged European permanency on Wampanoag territory – allowed the Pilgrims to settle. In exchange the Pilgrims would have to formally ally themselves with the Wampanoag against the Narragansett.
What precise advantages, you might ask, would an alliance with the Pilgrims bring? The Pilgrims themselves had barely survived. There might even be a risk of more disease: though epidemics were unexplained at the time and were attributed to the realm of the supernatural, surely it might not have been lost on the Indians that interactions with traveling Europeans had brought disease. Perhaps it was advantageous to associate with the Pilgrims because they possessed new weapons. Firearms were new to Indians, though they quickly realized that the “British were terrible shots, from lack of practice – their guns were little more than noisemakers.”
But most likely Massasoit wanted to make an alliance with the Pilgrims just to deter the Narragansett. Since the Narragansett were farther inland, the Pilgrims with their firearms might have seemed like a uncertain and unpredictable threat. They might think twice before attempting a takeover of the Wampanoag.
Massasoit’s alliance with the Pilgrims happened in 1621. Squanto, a former resident of Patuxet, was one of the key players. His true name, in Massachusett, was Tisquantum. Some years before the Pilgrims' arrival, Tisquantum had been kidnapped by a European shipping vessel – the kidnapping of Indians was quite common – and was paraded in Europe’s capitals as an Indian specimen, a curiosity. But Tisquantum was smart; he learned English, became proficient, maneuvered his hosts and returned back to New England. When he reached Patuxet, hoping to rejoin his community, he found it no longer existed. Instead, there was now a British settlement.
Tisquantum’s story is the most poignant: imagine his grief and sense of desolation upon discovering that the community he'd known so well and had grown up with had been all but exterminated by disease. Charles Mann argues in 1491 that Tisquantum helped the Pilgrims with an eye to somehow rehabilitating Patuxet. That is a fair thesis. Tisquantum might have also had broader ambitions, which is why Massasoit was ever suspicious of him.
But to return to the point. In 1621, Massasoit took a chance and allied with the Pilgrims. Tisquantum helped the Pilgrims and soon became indispensable. It was his assistance that led to the Pilgrims' bountiful harvest that year. Massasoit and his men joined the feast with the Pilgrims; together they had a great time and complained about the Narragansett.
Thanksgiving, thus, was as the product of a calculated move by Massasoit, a decision that he took with the Indian political-social context in mind. Naturally, he could not have evaluated the long term consequences of his decision.
It turned out to be a critical moment in American history. With the Pilgrims’ alliance and permanent settlement, the British now had a foothold in America. Farther south, the Jamestown colony, founded even earlier than the Plymouth Colony, in 1607, had also managed to survive. In the decades that followed, thousands more from Britain would arrive – leading to more wars with the Indians: the Pequot War and King Phillip’s War; the latter particularly brutal.
The floodgates had now opened. The stage was now set for the European competition for Indian land in North America. The creation of the United States was not too far away.