Most Americans at least suspect that the meanings, menus and traditions we associate with Thanksgiving—even its date—have only a nodding acquaintance with historical fact.

By Michael A. LaCombe, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History and author of Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority
in the English Atlantic World (The University of Pennsylvania Press: 2012)

Most Americans at least suspect that the meanings, menus and traditions we associate with Thanksgiving—even its date—have only a nodding acquaintance with historical fact. Before the founding of Plymouth in 1620 and for centuries afterward, days of thanksgiving were celebrated without any reference to Pilgrims, cranberries or roast turkey, much less Native Americans.

Even so, commemorating Plymouth’s 1621 harvest feast can teach important lessons. Thanksgiving is arguably the only American symbol that places Indians at the center of our national narrative in a positive way. In their crudest form, many images of Thanksgiving ignore the violence, disease, death and dispossession that mark every chapter of Native American history, replacing them with cartoonish, smiling Pilgrims and Indians passing steaming dishes of food around a table. Other representations depict Indians as trusting allies betrayed and exploited by European greed. Both ignore a vital fact: in 1621, English settlements were frail tributaries of powerful, canny native leaders who tolerated their presence as allies and trading partners.

The most substantial description of the first Thanksgiving begins like this: “our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours.” After these four returned, the Plymouth planters “exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us.” This is where the story gets interesting.

Of the 100 or so men, women and children who had settled at Plymouth the previous winter, more than half were dead. Relations with the Wampanoag tribe were friendly, but the unexpected arrival of their leader Massasoit along with 90 able-bodied, armed men was understandably a bit alarming. Massasoit was greeted with a fusillade of gunfire, turned and left, returning shortly afterward with five deer, which he took pains to present personally to each of Plymouth’s leading men.

The meal that followed was a rare occasion of commensality in early America, a celebration of peace and abundance that included both English and Indians. But Massasoit’s conduct underscored the fact that the English were guests, not equals. Arriving in state, bearing the bulk of the food consumed at the feast, Massasoit made it clear that Plymouth existed because he permitted it to exist. He was not out for a stroll with 90 close friends on that fall day; instead, he was making it clear that any celebration of Plymouth’s abundance must also honor him.

In the years that followed, the English spread themselves over the landscape, displacing native villages, crops and animals. As they recognized that the English could not be contained, Indians everywhere resisted with violence. King Philip’s War of 1675–76 marks the end of that long and bloody struggle in New England, a clear end to the period of accommodation and negotiation symbolized by Plymouth’s harvest feast. The war was inspired and led by Metacom, Massasoit’s son, in a desperate push to remove the English from New England forever. As his allies surrendered or retreated, Metacom was captured and killed, then his corpse was beheaded and his head placed on the gates of Plymouth. Not an appetizing image, to be sure, but an instructive one: although most Native Americans lost their lives and lands, they were never passive, much less naïve. What had changed between Massasoit’s day and Metacom’s was the range of options available.

This piece appeared in the Adelphi University Magazine Fall 2012 edition.

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