“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Brownscombe, 1914. Arguably one of the most famous depictions of the event, Brownscombe’s work suggests that the Pilgrims outnumbered their Native American guests. In reality, there were likely at least twice as many Wampanoag as Pilgrims at the feast.

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Brownscombe, 1914. Arguably one of the most famous depictions of the event, Brownscombe’s work suggests that the Pilgrims outnumbered their Native American guests. In reality, there were likely at least twice as many Wampanoag as Pilgrims at the feast.

The presence of the Wampanoag has for a long time loomed large in popular memory of the First Thanksgiving. A bit of context is necessary. The Pilgrims chose Plymouth as the site for their colony for several reasons. At its center was a tall hill which would be readily defensible. There was a decent, if somewhat shallow harbor. The coast was alive with “innumerable fowl,” the shore boasted an abundance of mussels (“the greatest and best that ever we saw”), and the harbor was teeming with lobsters and crabs. What is more, there were several small brooks and numerous springs blessed with “the best water that ever we drank.”

But the clincher was that much of the adjacent land had already been cleared for planting, which would save them incalculable labor. The Pilgrims unknowingly had landed in a region of present-day Massachusetts that had once been teeming with Native Americans, but sometime after 1617 the entire region had been devastated by disease, possibly bubonic plague or viral hepatitis contracted from European fishermen. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands had died in the epidemic, whole villages being wiped out so suddenly that there was no time to bury the dead.

On a journey inland during the summer of 1621, Edward Winslow was puzzled by the combination of “many goodly fields” but few inhabitants. The paradox was solved when he came across “skulls and bones . . . still lying above the ground where their houses and dwellings had been.” A few years later, another English settler related that all through the coastal forest the Indians “had died on heapes, as they lay in their houses,” the gruesome remains reminding the observer of “a new found Golgotha.”

The new home the Pilgrims would call Plymouth was actually the abandoned village of a tribe called the Patuxet, where as many as two thousand individuals may have lived scarcely five years before. There were remnants of other peoples nearby—chiefly the Wampanoag (the closest), Massachusetts, Nausets, and Narragansetts—but with the exception of the last, these also had been recently decimated.

That the Pilgrims survived, humanly speaking, was due to the assistance of nearby Indians, although some of that assistance was, shall we say, inadvertent. When the first landing party was exploring the coastline back in November, they had stumbled on an underground cache of dried Indian corn (which they had never seen before) and promptly appropriated it, purposing to give the owners “full satisfaction when they should meet with any of them.” When spring came it proved invaluable as seed, and in fact nearly four-fifths of the acreage that they planted in 1621 was sown from this unexpected supply. Without it, William Bradford admitted, the entire settlement “might have starved.”

That they knew how to make good use of the seed was—as every schoolchild knows—also courtesy of the Indians, in particular a surviving Patuxet named Tisquantum, or Squanto for short. Squanto had been kidnapped by an English sea captain around 1614 and sold as a slave in Spain. He then escaped, made his way to England, spent some time in Newfoundland, and eventually returned to the New England coast with an English explorer sometime after 1617, only to learn that his people were no more. The combination of Squanto’s extraordinary past and his invaluable service to the Pilgrims prompted William Bradford to declare Squanto “a special instrument sent of God for their good.”

It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims to fertilize their cornfields with shad from nearby streams and to add beans and squash (to climb the corn stalks) once the corn shoots had broken the ground. Equally valuable in the short run, it was Squanto who taught them how to catch eels from the creek and river beds. In an impressive display, Squanto dug them out with his feet and caught them with his bare hands, and in a few hours had as many as he could lift. To the hungry Pilgrims they were a delicacy; a visitor two years later described them as “passing sweet, fat and wholesome, having no taste at all of the mud.”

Perhaps of greatest importance, it was Squanto who served as the Pilgrims’ interpreter and facilitated peaceful, if often tense, relations with the nearby Wampanoag. Since first landing at Cape Cod, the Pilgrims had repeatedly sighted Indians at a distance, and even traded shots with a group of Nausets, but except for the message they conveyed when they discharged their weapons, they had not as yet actually communicated with any of the native peoples in the area. With Squanto’s aid, in March of 1621 the Pilgrims agreed to a kind of mutual-defense pact with the Wampanoag sachem (or chief) Massasoit, one that both sides honored, incidentally, for more than fifty years.

All of this makes it plausible to believe that, when God granted the Pilgrims a good harvest, they would have invited their Native American neighbors to join them in their 1621 harvest celebration. Perhaps they did. Yet it bears emphasizing: four centuries after the fact, we still don’t know for sure how the Wampanoag came to be at the Pilgrims’ feast. The belief that the Pilgrims invited them as a gesture of good will is sheer conjecture.  No direct evidence survives to prove it.

In fairness, according to an English merchant who visited Plymouth in 1623, when William Bradford remarried in the summer of that year, the Pilgrims invited Massasoit and the Wampanoag to the wedding celebration. That they did something comparable two years earlier for their harvest feast is not implausible.
And yet, Edward Winslow’s ambiguous reference to “Indians coming amongst us” leaves open the possibility that they simply showed up, uninvited, expecting hospitality.

This, too, is plausible, for they had a track record of doing precisely that. According to Winslow, the very day after the Pilgrims concluded a peace treaty with the Wampanoag the previous March, “divers of their people came over to us, hoping to get some victuals as we imagined.” This initiated a pattern the Pilgrims would come to know well. In the coming weeks, the Wampanoag “came very often” and in force, bringing their wives and children with them.

By late spring the problem had gotten so bad that Governor Bradford sent a delegation to the Wampanoag settlement to “prevent abuses in their disorderly coming unto us.” Traveling to Massasoit’s home in present-day Rhode Island, a commission of Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins first presented the sachem with a handsome red “horseman’s coat” trimmed in lace. Then, as diplomatically as possible, they explained to the Wampanoag leader that, while his people were welcome to visit, the Pilgrims “could no longer give them such entertainment as [they] had done.” Translation: don’t plan on staying for dinner every time you pay us a visit.

Even if Massasoit and his men were invited, we err when we remember the First Thanksgiving as some kind of idyllic multicultural celebration. It was likely tense at best. The Pilgrims had been schooled to see the Native Americans they encountered as bloodthirsty “savages”; even after the feast one of the Pilgrim writers would describe the Wampanoag as naturally “cruel and treacherous people.” The Wampanoag had learned to view Europeans in much the same way, for more than once European sailors or fishermen visiting Cape Cod had kidnapped or murdered unsuspecting natives.

If the Pilgrims had arrived just a few years earlier, before the great epidemic had ravaged the Wampanoag, Massasoit’s first inclination would likely have been to drive the newcomers into the ocean. Now with but a shadow of his former strength—and possibly in awe of the Pilgrims’ muskets—the sachem opted for warfare of a different kind: he commanded his powwows to curse the new arrivals. According to William Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, for three days the Wampanoag medicine men convened “in a dark and dismal swamp” and “in a horrid and devilish manner did curse and execrate them with their conjurations.” This is a part of the Thanksgiving story we tend not to emphasize.

If Morton’s information was accurate, it was only after this covert operation failed that Massasoit turned to diplomacy. It is possible that he was encouraged to do so by the English-speaking Squanto, who saw in this alternative strategy an opportunity to improve his status among the Wampanoag, who had essentially been holding the Patuxet Indian prisoner since his appearance the previous year. Although Squanto figures prominently in children’s books as the Pilgrims’ friend, the Pilgrims soon concluded that he “sought his own ends and played his own game,” as William Bradford recalled.

As Bradford and Edward Winslow both told the story, Squanto tried to play the Pilgrims and Wampanoag off against each other, in one case orchestrating false reports of an impending attack on Plymouth, at other times telling Massasoit that the Pilgrims kept the plague under their storehouse and would soon unleash it unless he could persuade them to desist. In both instances Squanto was apparently striving to enhance his own influence as an intermediary and peacemaker, making the Wampanoag “believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would.” When Massasoit learned of this duplicity, he sent his own knife to the Pilgrims through messengers and requested that they cut off Squanto’s head and hands. When the Pilgrims declined to do so—they needed Squanto even if they no longer trusted him—the Wampanoag were “mad with rage.”

If the Pilgrims’ association with the Wampanoag was often strained, their relations with other native peoples in the area were often worse. Not long after the First Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims received a threat from the Narragansett Indians and began to construct a palisade for self-defense. Fear pushed them to a prodigious pace, for by the end of February 1622 a log fence eight feet high and twenty-seven hundred feet long ringed the entire settlement. That spring they began construction of a fort inside the palisade to render their position even stronger, and after ten months of tedious labor they had completed a citadel at the top of the hill complete with six cannon.

About that time they briefly went to war against the Massachusetts Indians. Having reason to believe that the Massachusetts were planning a surprise attack, the Pilgrims initiated a preemptive strike, sending Myles Standish and eight men to ambush a contingent of Massachusetts warriors. Upon hearing of the bloodshed, their beloved Pastor Robinson wrote plaintively from Holland, “Oh, how happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you had killed any!”

As we imagine the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag guests sharing a meal at the First Thanksgiving, it will serve as an antidote to over-sentimentality if we remember that less than two years later the head of a Massachusetts Indian decorated the Pilgrims’ fort. Governor Bradford explained to the Merchant Adventurers that they kept it there “for a terror unto others.” The “others” likely included Massasoit and the Wampanoag, for when they arrived for the governor’s marriage feast a couple of weeks later, they would have seen the gruesome trophy displayed prominently, along with “a piece of linen cloth dyed in the same Indian’s blood.”


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