Fact Check | What happened when Pilgrims met Native Americans?

Native American Girls Gather At Plymouth For Day Of Mourning in counterpoint to Pilgrims' Thanksgiving
Native American Girls Gather At Plymouth For Day Of Mourning in counterpoint to Pilgrims' Thanksgiving

As Thanksgiving approaches, many people look forward to spending time with their loved ones, home-cooked meals, and the rest that typically accompanies the holiday. Simultaneously, nationwide celebrations will commence, as well as conceivable cultural misappropriations commonly categorized as traditions, even within some curriculums. And though there is the option to assume positive intent during American festivities, as people do not know what they do not know, REVOLT questions if the collective should.

If we paraphrase a time-honored story, it may read something like this: “In 1621, a group of feather-clad Indians peacefully broke bread with Pilgrims.” However, how Thanksgiving, as we know it today, came to be is much more complicated. As Smithsonian Magazine published, “The Thanksgiving myth has done so much damage and harm to the cultural self-esteem of generations of Indian people… by perpetuating negative and harmful images to both young Indian and non-Indian minds.” In short, the tale omits recurring genocide and the harm our nation glorifies upon meeting the Wampanoag people.  

Similar to the 1492 landing in the Americas, which references the Western Hemisphere, European colonists pillaged Caribbean Indigenous civilizations — only in the instance of Pilgrims, the privileged men traveled to North America. Now that a geographic nuance continually conflated with Taíno and numerous West Indian territories’ history is unpacked, let’s identify separate parties that affected Thanksgiving Day

The Wampanoag people were “Algonquian-speaking North American Indians who formerly occupied parts of what are now the states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, including Martha’s Vineyard and adjacent islands. They were traditionally semisedentary, moving seasonally between fixed sites… The tribe comprised several villages, each with its own local chief, or sachem,” wrote Britannica. Much like separate tribes of the Caribbean, Wampanoag’s religion, Spiritualism, honors natural elements gifted by a creator and teaches its communities to live in harmony with and off of shared land. 

Per American Natives, this means that, “The Wampanoag tribe believed in Mother Earth as their god. They would often thank the Earth, the plants, the animals, and any living thing for the gifts they gave the Wampanoag.” In contrast, numerous homesteaders sought the freedom of expression Wampanoags had already established during this period. 

“Some 100 people, many of them seeking religious freedom in the New World, set sail from England on the Mayflower in September 1620. That November, the ship landed on the shores of Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts. A scouting party was sent out, and in late December, the group landed at Plymouth Harbor, where they would form the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England. These original settlers of Plymouth Colony are known as the Pilgrim Fathers, or simply as the Pilgrims,” explained History. 

Plimoth Patuxet, a complex of history museums in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which preserves cultural records on English and Native narratives, printed, “England was a Roman Catholic nation until 1534 when King Henry VIII… declared himself head of a new national church called the ‘Church of England.‘ Although he and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603), changed some things that made the Church of England different from the Roman Catholic Church… They called for a return to a simpler faith and less structured forms of worship.” The notion of wanting to purify biblical understandings brought forth the Puritan movement and its supporters.  

According to the World History Encyclopedia, “The Puritans were English Protestant Christians… who claimed the Anglican Church had not distanced itself sufficiently from Catholicism and sought to ‘purify’ it of Catholic practices. The term was originally an insult used by Anglicans to refer to people whom they claimed were too easily offended by the liturgy of the Anglican Church… Puritans did not use the term to refer to themselves, primarily using ‘Saints’ as a self-referent.” And among those who sailed to Plymouth, 35 passengers were believed to be Saints within the English Separatist Church. Concepts of free thinking and religious solidarity were mostly welcomed among colonists but proved detrimental to Indigenous and Black inhabitants of the New World.

Still, to understand the feast we know as the First Thanksgiving, it is useful to document that Jamestown, Virginia, was established as the foremost English settlement ahead of these Pilgrims’ arrival in 1607. The manners of the original settlers influenced the English travelers who followed in the years to come. In conjunction, the National Park Service’s archives read:

“By June 15, [a] fort was completed. It was triangle-shaped with a bulwark at each corner, holding four or five pieces of artillery. The [Pilgrims] were now protected against any attacks that might occur from the local Powhatan Indians, whose hunting land they were living on… [In time,] the settlers began to succumb to a variety of diseases… They were dying from swellings, fluxes, fevers, by famine, and… food was running low, though then-Chief Powhatan [began] to send gifts of food to help the English. If not for the Powhatan [Indians’] help in the early years, the settlement would most likely have failed, as the English would have died from the various diseases or simply starved.”

Despite Indigenous crop mastery and generosity, various forms of abuse, captivity, and death ensued upon Powhatans and neighboring tribes soon after. In 1619, Africans who were stolen from their homes were also forced into labor on the tobacco fields of the Virginia settlement and beyond. After this occurrence, when the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, preceding English travelers had already normalized the enslavement of Black and Indigenous bodies as a founding principle, though seldom acknowledged as such in American classrooms.

Upon the Pilgrims’ arrival on the Wampanoag territory in 1620, the high chief, Massasoit, welcomed the settlers and formed a peace treaty. The tribe’s inhabitants shared their grounds, food, and agricultural knowledge in good faith. According to The National Museum of the American Indian, “In reality, the assembly of the Wampanoag peoples and the English settlers… had much more to do with political alliances, diplomacy, and a pursuit of peace. The Wampanoag peoples had a long political history dealing with other Native Nations before the English arrived… Without help from the Wampanoag, the English would not have had the successful harvest [in 1621] that led to the First Thanksgiving.”  

Though likely new to Pilgrims, the representation of communal gratitude has existed in Indigenous culture through generational practices such as the Strawberry Thanksgiving and the Green Corn Thanksgiving. The latter’s 1637 festival is also considered a precursor to the holiday’s American interpretation — but subsequently was halted by a massacre led by English and Dutch mercenaries. During the 1637 Pequot village gathering, which multiple Wampanoags observed, over 700 Indians were killed by fire while collectively sharing praise. 

In relation to Thanksgiving, the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center registered, “The governor of Bay Colony [referenced] the massacre as ‘a day of Thanksgiving.'” This phrase is commonly used during contemporary celebrations, though its origin is likely unknown to many. With that acknowledgment, respect for togetherness is etched through the foundation of our nation’s chronological advancements, particularly beside Black and Indigenous ingenuity, sweat, expertise, and traditions. Those succeeding contributing factors weigh in, and it was through the skill of harvesting that the earliest custom was birthed. 

The First Thanksgiving, also academically referenced as the Harvest Feast of 1621, carried on for three days between 90 of Massasoit’s men and the Pilgrims, at which the Wampanoag provided some of the banquet’s produce and hunt. Plimoth Patuxet confirmed that Pilgrim Edward Winslow composed the only surviving description of the event accordingly:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that we might after a more special manner rejoice together… 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… 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… [By] the goodness of God, we are so far from want.”

The span of camaraderie was brief, and though the Indigenous tribe contributed abundantly, the English men had seemingly collected all they needed. The Pilgrims’ end of the peace treaty was upheld for a few decades until Massasoit’s passing. Over the years, the colonists demanded more land and held little regard for life beyond their own. “Bad treatment by settlers who encroached on tribal lands, however, led [Massasoit’s] son, Metacom, or Metacomet, known to the English as King Philip, to organize a confederacy of tribes to drive out the colonists,” noted Britannica. A war ensued between the settlers, the Wampanoag people, and their comrades across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. King Philip’s War is considered the bloodiest in our nation’s history. 

“The immediate cause for its outbreak was the trial and execution of three of Metacom’s men by the colonists,” logged the Connecticut History website. And after what appeared to be a brief colonial retreat, disarray followed. “Fearing that the Narragansett tribe was going to join with Metacom, the colonists, including five companies from Connecticut, marched through freezing conditions to attack the Narragansett camp, a fortified village… housing about 1,000 men, women, and children. After hours of battle, the colonists gained control of the fort and burned all wigwams,” the organization summarized. In 1676, after the Wampanoag people helped the Pilgrims endure the New World and put together the First Thanksgiving, their surviving war descendants were forced to watch more Indigenous tribes thrust into bondage or sold into slavery by those same men.