|Every schoolchild in the U.S. has been
taught that the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony invited the local Indians to a major
harvest feast after surviving their first bitter year in New England. But the real history
of Thanksgiving is a story of the murder of indigenous people and the theft of their land
by European colonialists--and of the ruthless ways of capitalism.
* * * * *
In mid-winter 1620 the English ship Mayflower landed on the
North American coast, delivering 102 Puritan exiles. The original Native people of this
stretch of shoreline had already been killed off. In 1614 a British expedition had landed
there. When they left they took 24 Indians as slaves and left smallpox behind. Three years
of plague wiped out between 90 and 96 percent of the inhabitants of the coast, destroying
most villages completely.
The Puritans landed and built their colony called "the Plymouth
Plantation" near the deserted ruins of the Indian village of Pawtuxet. They ate from
abandoned cornfields grown wild. Only one Pawtuxet named Squanto had survived--he had
spent the last years as a slave to the English and Spanish in Europe. Squanto spoke the
colonists' language and taught them how to plant corn and how to catch fish until the
first harvest. Squanto also helped the colonists negotiate a peace treaty with the nearby
Wampanoag tribe, led by the chief Massasoit.
These were very lucky breaks for the colonists. The first Virginia
settlement had been wiped out before they could establish themselves. Thanks to the good
will of the Wampanoag, the Puritans not only survived their first year but had an alliance
with the Wampanoags that would give them almost two decades of peace.
John Winthrop, a founder of the Massahusetts Bay colony considered
this wave of illness and death to be a divine miracle. He wrote to a friend in England,
"But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space
the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox which still continues among them. So
as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts,
being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection."
The deadly impact of European diseases and the good will of the
Wampanoag allowed the Puritans to survive their first year.
In celebration of their good fortune, the colony's governor, William
Bradford, declared a three-day feast of thanksgiving after that first harvest of 1621.
How the Puritans Stole the Land
But the peace that produced the Thanksgiving Feast of 1621 meant
that the Puritans would have 15 years to establish a firm foothold on the coast. Until
1629 there were no more than 300 Puritans in New England, scattered in small and isolated
settlements. But their survival inspired a wave of Puritan invasion that soon established
growing Massachusetts towns north of Plymouth: Boston and Salem. For 10 years, boatloads
of new settlers came.
And as the number of Europeans increased, they proved not nearly so
generous as the Wampanoags.
On arrival, the Puritans discussed "who legally owns all this
land." They had to decide this, not just because of Anglo-Saxon traditions, but
because their particular way of farming was based on individual--not communal or
tribal--ownership. This debate over land ownership reveals that bourgeois "rule of
law" does not mean "protect the rights of the masses of people."
Some Puritans argued that the land belonged to the Indians. These
forces were excommunicated and expelled. Massachusetts Governor Winthrop declared the
Indians had not "subdued" the land, and therefore all uncultivated lands should,
according to English Common Law, be considered "public domain." This meant they
belonged to the king. In short, the colonists decided they did not need to consult the
Indians when they seized new lands, they only had to consult the representative of the
crown (meaning the local governor).
The Puritans embraced a line from Psalms 2:8. "Ask of me,
and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the
earth for thy possession." Since then, European settler states have similarly
declared god their real estate agent: from the Boers seizing South Africa to the Zionists
The European immigrants took land and enslaved Indians to help them
farm it. By 1637 there were about 2,000 British settlers. They pushed out from the coast
and decided to remove the inhabitants.
The Birth of
"The American Way of War"
In the Connecticut Valley, the powerful Pequot tribe had not entered
an alliance with the British (as had the Narragansett, the Wampanoag, and the
Massachusetts peoples). At first they were far from the centers of colonization. Then, in
1633, the British stole the land where the city of Hartford now sits--land which the
Pequot had recently conquered from another tribe. That same year two British slave raiders
were killed. The colonists demanded that the Indians who killed the slavers be turned
over. The Pequot refused.
The Puritan preachers said, from Romans 13:2, "Whosoever
therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall
receive to themselves damnation." The colonial governments gathered an armed
force of 240 under the command of John Mason. They were joined by a thousand Narragansett
warriors. The historian Francis Jennings writes: "Mason proposed to avoid attacking
Pequot warriors which would have overtaxed his unseasoned, unreliable troops. Battle, as
such, was not his purpose. Battle is only one of the ways to destroy an enemy's will to
fight. Massacre can accomplish the same end with less risk, and Mason had determined that
massacre would be his objective."
The colonist army surrounded a fortified Pequot village on the
Mystic River. At sunrise, as the inhabitants slept, the Puritan soldiers set the village
William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth, wrote: "Those that
escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with
their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived
they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying
in the fire...horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet
sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for
Mason himself wrote: "It may be demanded...Should not
Christians have more mercy and compassion? But...sometimes the Scripture declareth women
and children must perish with their parents.... We had sufficient light from the word of
God for our proceedings."
Three hundred and fifty years later the Puritan phrase "a
shining city on the hill" became a favorite quote of Ronald Reagan's speechwriters.
Profits of Slavery
This so-called "Pequot war" was a one-sided murder and
slaving expedition. Over 180 captives were taken. After consulting the bible again, in
Leviticus 24:44, the colonial authorities found justification to kill most of the Pequot
men and enslave the captured women and their children. Only 500 Pequot remained alive and
free. In 1975 the official number of Pequot living in Connecticut was 21.
Some of the war captives were given to the Narragansett and
Massachusetts allies of the British. Even before the arrival of Europeans, Native peoples
of North America had widely practiced taking war captives from other tribes as hostages
The remaining captives were sold to British plantation colonies in
the West Indies to be worked to death in a new form of slavery that served the emerging
capitalist world market. And with that, the merchants of Boston made a historic discovery:
the profits they made from the sale of human beings virtually paid for the cost of seizing
One account says that enslaving Indians quickly became a "mania
with speculators." These early merchant capitalists of Massachusetts started to make
genocide pay for itself. The slave trade, first in captured Indians and soon in kidnapped
Africans, quickly became a backbone of New England merchant capitalism.
Thanksgiving in the
In 1641 the Dutch governor Kieft of Manhattan offered the first
"scalp bounty"--his government paid money for the scalp of each Indian brought
to them. A couple years later, Kieft ordered the massacre of the Wappingers, a friendly
tribe. Eighty were killed and their severed heads were kicked like soccer balls down the
streets of Manhattan. One captive was castrated, skinned alive and forced to eat his own
flesh while the Dutch governor watched and laughed. Then Kieft hired the notorious
Underhill who had commanded in the Pequot war to carry out a similar massacre near
Stamford, Connecticut. The village was set fire, and 500 Indian residents were put to the
A day of thanksgiving was proclaimed in the churches of Manhattan.
As we will see, the European colonists declared Thanksgiving Days to celebrate mass murder
more often than they did for harvest and friendship.
The Conquest of New England
By the 1670s there were about 30,000 to 40,000 white inhabitants in
the United New England Colonies--6,000 to 8,000 able to bear arms. With the Pequot
destroyed, the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonists turned on the Wampanoag, the tribe
that had saved them in 1620 and probably joined them for the original Thanksgiving Day.
In 1675 a Christian Wampanoag was killed while spying for the
Puritans. The Plymouth authorities arrested and executed three Wampanoag without
consulting the tribal chief, King Philip.
As Mao Tsetung says: "Where there is oppression there is
resistance." The Wampanoag went to war.
The Indians applied some military lessons they had learned: they
waged a guerrilla war which overran isolated European settlements and were often able to
inflict casualties on the Puritan soldiers. The colonists again attacked and massacred the
main Indian populations.
When this war ended, 600 European men, one-eleventh of the adult men
of the New England Colonies, had been killed in battle. Hundreds of homes and 13
settlements had been wiped out. But the colonists won.
In their victory, the settlers launched an all-out genocide against
the remaining Native people. The Massachusetts government offered 20 shillings bounty for
every Indian scalp, and 40 shillings for every prisoner who could be sold into slavery.
Soldiers were allowed to enslave any Indian woman or child under 14 they could capture.
The "Praying Indians" who had converted to Christianity and fought on the side
of the European troops were accused of shooting into the treetops during battles with
"hostiles." They were enslaved or killed. Other "peaceful" Indians of
Dartmouth and Dover were invited to negotiate or seek refuge at trading posts--and were
sold onto slave ships.
It is not known how many Indians were sold into slavery, but in this
campaign, 500 enslaved Indians were shipped from Plymouth alone. Of the 12,000
Indians in the surrounding tribes, probably about half died from battle, massacre and
After King Philip's War, there were almost no Indians left free in
the northern British colonies. A colonist wrote from Manhattan's New York colony:
"There is now but few Indians upon the island and those few no ways hurtful. It is to
be admired how strangely they have decreased by the hand of God, since the English first
settled in these parts."
In Massachusetts, the colonists declared a "day of public
thanksgiving" in 1676, saying, "there now scarce remains a name or family of
them [the Indians] but are either slain, captivated or fled."
Fifty-five years after the original Thanksgiving Day, the Puritans
had destroyed the generous Wampanoag and all other neighboring tribes. The Wampanoag chief
King Philip was beheaded. His head was stuck on a pole in Plymouth, where the skull still
hung on display 24 years later.
The descendants of these Native peoples are found wherever the
Puritan merchant capitalists found markets for slaves: the West Indies, the Azures,
Algiers, Spain and England. The grandson of Massasoit, the Pilgrim's original protector,
was sold into slavery in Bermuda.
Runaways and Rebels
But even the destruction of Indian tribal life and the enslavement
of survivors brought no peace. Indians continued to resist in every available way. Their
oppressors lived in terror of a revolt. And they searched for ways to end the resistance.
The historian MacLeod writes: "The first `reservations' were designed for the `wild'
Irish of Ulster in 1609. And the first Indian reservation agent in America, Gookin of
Massachusetts, like many other American immigrants had seen service in Ireland under
The enslaved Indians refused to work and ran away. The Massachusetts
government tried to control runaways by marking enslaved Indians: brands were burnt into
their skin, and symbols were tattooed into their foreheads and cheeks.
A Massachusetts law of 1695 gave colonists permission to kill
Indians at will, declaring it was "lawful for any person, whether English or Indian,
that shall find any Indians traveling or skulking in any of the towns or roads (within
specified limits), to command them under their guard and examination, or to kill them as
they may or can."
The northern colonists enacted more and more laws for controlling
the people. A law in Albany forbade any African or Indian slave from driving a cart within
the city. Curfews were set up; Africans and Indians were forbidden to have evening
get-togethers. On Block Island, Indians were given 10 lashes for being out after nine
o'clock. In 1692 Massachusetts made it a serious crime for any white person to marry an
African, an Indian or a mulatto. In 1706 they tried to stop the importation of Indian
slaves from other colonies, fearing a slave revolt.
Looking at this history raises a question: Why should anyone
celebrate the survival of the earliest Puritans with a Thanksgiving Day? Certainly the
Native peoples of those times had no reason to celebrate.
A little known fact: Squanto, the so-called "hero" of the
original Thanksgiving Day, was executed by the Indians for his treacheries.
But the ruling powers of the United States organized people
to celebrate Thanksgiving Day because it is in their interest. That's why they
created it. The first national celebration of Thanksgiving was called for by George
Washington. And the celebration was made a regular legal holiday later by Abraham Lincoln
during the civil war (right as he sent troops to suppress the Sioux of Minnesota).
Washington and Lincoln were two presidents deeply involved in trying
to forge a unified bourgeois nation-state out of the European settlers in the United
States. And the Thanksgiving story was a useful myth in their efforts at U.S.
nation-building. It celebrates the "bounty of the American way of life," while
covering up the brutal nature of this society.
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