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. Really great and considerate post Mark! I’m in Australia and Australia Day is coming up at the end of the month, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I enjoyed reading this!


  2. This was a very thoughtful piece. Thanks for connecting the dots. Sad how we’ve never kept our promises. Native American Lives Matter. Why should they have an adulterated water supply for the sake of corporate profit. Is this what will Make America Great Again? Huh.


  3. Nice post. I feel similar about Thanksgiving. I felt guilty “celebrating” a genocide that’s been going on for more than five centuries. I visited and ate dinner with family many times, but made other plans many times also. Eventually, I stopped completely. This year I spent Thanksgiving at the National Museum of the American Indian in NYC.

    Many family members don’t understand, but I’ve made peace with that. I don’t understand following a dogmatic religion like Capitalism that blatantly disregards the well being of the majority of life on the planet. So I go my own way.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble, but your story inspired me to tell my little story. Thanks for a cool post.



  4. I think that it is good to have a day of Thanks. However, It seems that we should also need a day of Repentance to own up to our historical sins of cruelty and injustice motivated by greed as well as cultural imperialism and misguided notions of white supremacy. We need to achieve both economic justice and racial and religious harmony in todays world. Obviously, some form of atonement is necessary if we are to move forward to a global culture of peace, freedom, love and creativity. Then we would truly have something to be thankful for. Great article. Thank you.


  5. Great post. I’ve been writing about African colonialism lately and no matter where in the world the Europeans colonized it was always devastating and continues to be in so many ways.


  6. Thanksgiving is my least favorite holiday (well I don’t like most holidays in the US as I find them commercial atrocities) for the reason you state above, but also because I find it a time of gluttony in the US. As we are a country of obese people and our healthcare system (I was a paramedic/EMT for 20 years) is breaking in large part due to cardiovascular disease, I find it ironic that one of the most celebrated holidays revolves around how much food everyone eats. I find this sad and when you combine it with the given state of affairs of the native people today, it’s hard for me to really ‘give thanks’ on that day. Rather I try hard to be a thankful person most days for the things I can be thankful for, although some days it’s tough…I don’t mean to be offensive to anyone here, but I just took so many ill people on my ambulance over the years, our country needs to pay more attention to this epidemic.


  7. I share your mixed feelings about this (in)famous holiday, Mark. Thank for delving into it so thoughtfully here.


  8. Reblogged this on VIRTUAL BORSCHT and commented:
    Worth reading and raising awareness about colonialism. Remains so true in land ownership and the ownership of history Just think about how Ukrainians have been devastated by Russian imperialism, especially today when we commemorate genocide by starvation.


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