David J. Silverman is professor of history at George Washington University. His most recent book is “This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving” (Bloomsbury, 2019).
With more people planning to resume traditional in-person Thanksgiving festivities this year, some families will face a familiar quandary: how to navigate potentially thorny political issues at the dinner table. This year that will include Republican claims that critical race theory (CRT) is being taught in public schools, which seem to have played a role in the Republican sweep of Virginia’s elections.
Yet, while the issue is new, the campaign being waged against CRT - and the debate about how race and history are taught in public schools - are as American as the apple pie, turkey and Thanksgiving rituals that will take place this week. The fear, among White voters, that if the public understands race historically, it will promote more liberal racial policies, and tear apart a national fabric woven from epics of White heroism, is nothing new. It is just the most recent manifestation of a long battle about whether history education should teach critical thinking or patriotic indoctrination.
In fact, the conservative tradition of whitewashing the history of American race relations gave rise in the 19th century to the very myth at the center of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Initially in the 17th century, the diverse peoples of colonial America did not think of themselves or others in racial terms. Europeans tended to categorize people either as civilized Christians or savage pagans and believed that either one could become the other. Native Americans had no conception of themselves as “Indians.” They tended to refer to Europeans broadly as “Christians” and to particular European national groups as “coat men,” “knife men” or “iron men.” People from Africa did not see themselves as African or Black. We can only imagine what they thought of the Europeans who bought, sold and worked them mercilessly.
Yet race, and especially white supremacy, eventually became an organizing principle of American society. For instance, one colony after another legislated that Christian baptism did not confer freedom, thereby enabling White Christians to hold fellow Christians of color in bondage, contrary to Western European tradition. In the recurrent wars between the colonies and particular tribes, it was common for White mobs to attack Native people, including Christian Indian allies, at random, and turn on their own government if it tried to stop them. Eventually, colonial authorities legitimized the mob’s galvanizing principle, that it was safer in wartime to treat Indians as a single, undifferentiated threat, by offering bounties for the scalps of (any) Indigenous people.
Though colonial New Englanders commonly held days of thanksgiving in response to perceived blessings like the end of droughts or military victories, not until the 19th century did their descendants attribute the origins of this ritual to Pilgrims and Indians. That association began with the 1841 publication of one of the major primary source accounts of Plymouth colony two centuries earlier. After a short passage about a harvest feast hosted by the English and attended by their new allies, the Wampanoags, the editor added a footnote that declared: “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England.” Yankee authors, artists and lecturers then disseminated this story until people throughout the Northeast took it for established fact.
The rest of the country went along with this myth after Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1865 because it was useful as a framework for reuniting the country after the Civil War. By the late 1870s, the United States had completed its military subjugation of the tribes of the Great Plains and far West. The end of these military campaigns allowed White people to stop vilifying Indigenous people as bloodthirsty “savages” and give them an unthreatening role in a national founding story.
Turning a shared meal into the consummate symbol of colonial-Indian relations served to minimize the endless, brutal wars against Native people that characterized White expansion in the colonies and the United States. Instead, the fictional colonial New England of peaceful Indian relations, religious freedom and democracy became, for White Americans, an inspiring national heritage.
It was no coincidence that New England claimed this prominent role after the North’s victory in the Civil War. If the romantic New England of the Thanksgiving myth was the template for the American character, then the country’s historical and ongoing White oppression of African Americans and Native Americans could be dismissed as Southern and Western exceptions. Lionizing the Pilgrims as “our” founders also addressed widespread nativist anxiety at the time that the United States was being overrun by Catholic immigrants supposedly unappreciative of the country’s Protestant, democratic origins and values.
In other words, America’s story of the first Thanksgiving was the creation of White Protestants in the late 19th century, particularly Yankees, asserting their cultural authority over Americans of color, immigrants and those from other regions of the United States. Their idealized ancestors became “us.”
The Thanksgiving myth distorted history by encouraging the false notion that America was a “New World” or wilderness, ripe for the taking, when, in fact, Indigenous people had lived and thrived here for many thousands of years.
The myth also purported that the “Indians” (it rarely identifies them as Wampanoags) reached out to the Mayflower passengers because they were a friendly tribe. But friendliness had nothing to do with it.
The real cause was desperation. Epidemic disease brought by Europeans devastated the Wampanoags between 1616 and 1619, wiping out a majority of their population. Once it subsided, the neighboring Narragansett people took advantage of the Wampanoags’ weakness to subjugate them.
This background explains why the Wampanoag leader, Ousamequin (or Massasoit), sought an alliance with Plymouth in 1621. Based on his people’s decades of violent encounters and trade with European explorers, he gambled, despite stiff opposition from within the Wampanoag ranks, that the newcomers’ military wares and soldiers could help him fend off the Narragansetts, and that their goods would enrich his people and enhance his authority. In the short term, he was right.
In the long term, however, his decision was a disaster for the Wampanoags, which the Thanksgiving myth studiously ignores. In 1675-76, Ousamequin’s son, Pumetacom (or King Philip), led a year-long, multi-tribal war against colonial expansion, which resulted in a crushing Native defeat. The English symbolized their victory by mounting Pumetacom’s severed head outside the gates of Plymouth and declaring a day of thanksgiving - but this image of brutality is rarely remembered by Americans celebrating Thanksgiving today.
Some Wampanoags survived the war, only to suffer centuries of the very poverty, servitude and dispossession that Pumetacom had resisted.
Today, the Wampanoags, like so many other Native communities, are in the midst of a revival that includes language reclamation, community reconsolidation and initiatives for economic and political self-determination. For some of them, this involves holding a Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving to reflect on what they have lost and why.
No reasonable person takes issue with gathering together with family and friends to offer thanks for the good in our lives. There is no “War on Thanksgiving.” The real question at the center of the Thanksgiving myth that most of us learned - and at the root of our ongoing political debates - is whether we should continue lying to ourselves and to our children about the nation’s past, or whether confronting it can allow us to build a more inclusive, peaceful society.
Originally published in The Washington Post.
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