Grappling with Colonialism at Thanksgiving

Painting of Pilgrims at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving used to be one of my favorite holidays, and the reasons for this are numerous. There’s lots of food; there’s time with family; there are nostalgic movies; there’s pecan pie. Needless to say, any holiday with pecan pie has a special place in my heart.

But all of this belies the fact that Thanksgiving is also a celebration of genocide. This genocide is the ugly side of Thanksgiving and is frequently ignored by our culture for any number of reasons. These reasons are numerous but not so obvious, and they are rooted in events that took place hundreds of years ago and spanned thousands of miles. I can only begin to illustrate the depth of this history in one brief article, but I’ll do my best to condense the story and make it easily understood.

The time was the early seventeenth century. Europe had been wracked by religious conflict for decades, revolving around the emergence of Protestantism and the resistance of Catholicism to any potential competitor for spiritual supremacy. These religious differences were superficial but provided a rationalization for the colonialism of European monarchs who were quite frankly besotted with their own deification.

James I of England was one of these monarchs and never flinched from using his authority to persecute religious dissidents. Separatists who wished for independence from the Anglican church formed one of these groups of dissidents, and it was persecution at the hands of James I that led them to emigrate from England.

Portrait of James I (Jon de Critz, 1606)
Portrait of James I (Jon de Critz, 1606)

In 1609 these Separatists — who would later come to be known as Pilgrims — emigrated to the Netherlands. They were, however, unfamiliar with the culture in which they found themselves and became worried about the prospect of losing their identity in the fray of the rapidly industrializing city of Leiden.

As is so often the case for immigrants, events went from bad to worse. This was exacerbated by the arrival of English authorities in Leiden, and by 1619 these displaced Separatists were making plans to emigrate once again. In this case, however, the Netherlands wasn’t far enough to escape James I. Only the distance provided by the Atlantic Ocean would satisfy their desire to be free of religious persecution at the hands of their own king.

After a hazardous passage over forbidding seas, the Separatists made landfall in 1620 and established relations with local Native American peoples, including the Wampanoags and their chief Massasoit. There had previously been a wave of epidemics in the area, precipitated by the intrusion of European colonizers who were quick to exploit the rapid depopulation of entire communities.

Some estimates indicate that as many as two-thirds of native people in the region of what is now New England died from infectious diseases introduced by Europeans. In any case the Separatists were not responsible for this, and Massasoit made no attempt to blame them for other people’s misdeeds. Consequently a peace treaty was signed in 1621, and there was a level of trust between the colonists and natives for a short time to come.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Jennie Brownscombe, 1914)
The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Jennie Brownscombe, 1914)

Decades passed, and with time the number of Plymouth colonists increased. In 1621, the number of colonists was fifty. By 1630, the number had climbed to three hundred. By 1643, the number had skyrocketed to two thousand.

Combined with the fact that colonists continued to acquire Wampanoag land at an alarming rate, there came to be increasing hostility between the natives and colonists. The Wampanoags had kept their end of the peace treaty of 1621, but increasingly the Separatists of Plymouth Colony were reneging on their end of the bargain. In the peace treaty, there had been an implicit understanding that the colonists would limit their numbers and respect Wampanoag territorial sovereignty. This, however, was clearly not the case.

By the 1660s, tensions were thick enough to cut with a knife. Massasoit had died in 1661, and his son Wamsutta succeeded to the position of supreme leader of the Wampanoags. After witnessing the collapse of the fur trade — by which his people had previously made a living — he had begun selling his people’s land to the Plymouth colonists.

Doing commerce with the Wampanoags had by this time been made illegal, and Wamsutta was arrested by the governor of Plymouth Colony. After being administered a “portion of working physic,” Wamsutta was released from custody and died within three days. Proof was circumstantial, but it nonetheless pointed to the conclusion that the governor had ordered the poisoning of Wamsutta.

Wamsutta’s brother Metacom, who came to be known by the title of King Philip, then succeeded to the position of supreme leader of the Wampanoags.

Philip, King of Mount Hope (Paul Revere, 1772)
Philip, King of Mount Hope (Paul Revere, 1772)

From the events of recent decades, Metacom had learned that the colonists were untrustworthy. They continued to encroach on Wampanoag lands and to deal with the Wampanoags unjustly. After a Christianized Indian had died under circumstances that may have been suicidal, three Wampanoags were hauled before a court in Plymouth colony, convicted on scant evidence, and promptly executed by hanging.

The date of these hangings was June 8th, 1675. By June 20th, 1675, the Wampanoags were at war with Plymouth Colony. This war has been named Metacom’s War, though it could just as easily have been named the War of Territorial Acquisition.

In any case, it was a devastating event in Wampanoag history and resulted in the further decimation of their numbers. By the end of Metacom’s War, forty percent of the Wampanoag had been killed. Of those few who remained, a great number were sold into slavery. As result, by the early 1700s, the Wampanoag people had effectively been wiped out.

And this is why I have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving.

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24 thoughts on “Grappling with Colonialism at Thanksgiving

  1. This is one of the best descriptions of the history between the pilgrims and the Indians, and Standing Rock is a stark reminder of it It serves to show that we are still dismissing the natives. I am an ESL elementary teacher, and I couldn’t tell the Thanksgiving story in the glossy Disney fashion that I was taught as a child. It was awkward, discussing the positives and ending with “and then the pilgrims stole their land and enslaved or murdered them”. But, I think history needs to be told accurately. I guess we can all just celebrate it as a day to be thankful for what we have, and to remember NOT to repeat history as some people are doing now. It could also be renamed pecan pie day lol.


  2. HI agree wholeheartedly. I like the meal and the family get-together. but not what stands behind it. It is terrible what we do to others. Reservations are little better than concentration camps with genocide in mind. Australians also mistreat the aborigines, etc., etc.


  3. Thanks for a well-written slice of white settlement history,in this country, the kind we’re not going to read about in our high schools or general media outlets. You’re right, the honorable thing to do at this point is to stand up for the Standing Rock protestors– this destruction of our lands and native populations has been going on for far too long. Not only that, enjoy your holiday for its friends and family and… pecan pie!


  4. Great post! I feel the sme way about Australia Day which is January 26th, a month after Christmas . We celebrate the founding of Modern Australia by Captin Cook-usually with a barbie- and forget what it means to our Ingenous peiples who call it Survival Day.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this reminder. I like to think the American Indian spirit is rising among those who respect the earth more than property rights. It occurs to me that the European culture of property rights and lines in the sand was so alien to the Native Americans that by the time they comprehended what was happening, it was too late. We are seeing the result of centuries of disrespect for the earth that supports us all.

    This brings me to one of the most dangerous practices of modern history, that of eminent domain. Ever since the Supreme Court confiscated Susette Kelo’s neighborhood for the city of New London, Connecticut, in 2005, communities around the country have used it to take private land on the flimsiest of excuses. The Kelo decision was in favor of Pfizer, which planned to build a $240 million research facility next door. Now, Pfizer has scotched the project, and the neighborhood has been razed for nothing.

    I’m not sure how much eminent domain has been used against the Standing Rock community, but I know it has been used for sections of the Keystone XL pipeline already. There is a threat in Georgia that the state will allow Kinder Morgan, a publicly traded company, to use eminent domain for its 200+ mile Palmetto Pipeline. Southern Company, which has a virtual monopoly on power in much of the Southeast, has just given Kinder Morgan $1.5 billion to help it out. This is the same Southern Company that is building two new nuclear power plants upriver from me and is experiencing billions in cost overruns, even while many are saying the power won’t be needed.

    I could go on, but should probably put this on my own blog. Fact is, the president-elect wants to increase the use of eminent domain. I contend the entire US was founded on the sanctity of property rights, which is diametrically opposed to the native settlers’ traditions. If the government doesn’t respect property rights, why do people still pay taxes?

    A final note: Howard Zinn’s landmark book, “A People’s History of the United States,” presents an educational but unflattering look at how the US government has violated every treaty it made with Native Americans since the beginning. of European colonization.


    1. Well said. I appreciate your supportive response. Here in Savannah, our new mayor is part of the good ole boy network that is dominated by real estate developers, brokers, and agents, as well as their government contractor friends. Everyone is so strung out on overhead and debt that they are desperate for income, but all they know how to do is build buildings, like schools. They are not so good at maintaining what they have or in managing the public assets once the buildings are up.

      It’s probably similar to other communities that way. They are pushing the eminent domain issue, and they will probably succeed. It seems people can rationalize anything they want to do.


    2. Thank you, Katherine, for mentioning eminent domain. I live in Virginia where we currently are fighting against our own proposed pipeline that would connect WV and NC slicing through our pristine mountains. Eminent domain was clearly designed by large corporations (and then peddled and sold to politicians) to stay in control and bulldoze over the average person who is unlikely to have the funds to fight a court battle against the corporate robbers.


  6. I appreciate your sharing this. I have a small but strong thread of Native American blood, and I study history. That combination supports everything you say. I will add, however, that religion made an explanation for some of the immigrants, but before long capitalism mattered more. Also, this religion espousing love for one’s fellow man did not include anyone that was inconvenient to love, such as Native Americans or slaves. One thing my study of history has given me is a skeptical approach to religions in general, especially those claiming Abraham as an ancestor.

    Maybe this piece will do something to counter the overboard commercialism that has come to permeate all of our holidays. I have set aside most of the usual trappings of Thanksgiving in favor of spending the day in activities the either bring me gratitude or express the gratitude I have.


  7. Really interesting, I am not American, nor was I aware of this aspect of the history…I find it very sad that people do not learn from history over time.


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