Every fifth grader thinks she knows the story of Thanksgiving. It goes something like this: In the winter of 1620 a small group of puritan Separatists from England settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, hoping to start a new life free from religious persecution. The pilgrims couldn’t have arrived at a worse time; the harsh winter – aggravated by diseases of deficiency like scurvy – wiped out nearly half of them by the time they had their first contact with the local Wampanoag tribe in March 1621. The natives, led by their chief Massasoit, signed a peace treaty with the settlers, taught them how to farm and fish, and pretty much paved their path to early success. The pilgrims were grateful, and to celebrate their first harvest, the 53 survivors of the original Mayflower contingent (just four of them women) joined 90 of Massasoit‘s men in a three-day feast of fowl, Indian corn, barley, peas, squash, shellfish and venison.
It’s a heart-warming tale, and for the most part it’s also true. Documents confirm that a small group of pilgrims did indeed celebrate a harvest festival with some local natives at the start of their second year in the New World. But that celebration was never called Thanksgiving, nor did it become a ritual celebrated with any regularity. Instead, the first official Thanksgiving – while much less idyllic – more accurately reflects the tenuous relationship between white settlers and Native Americans that characterized America’s settlement. But you probably didn’t learn about this Thanksgiving in grade school.
It came 16 years after the Puritans first winter, when Massachusetts Bay Governor William Bradford designated “a day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequots” — and the only natives present were those taken captive during the bloody raid that preceded it.
The Pequot Massacre, as it is known, took place on May 26, 1637, and was the coup-de-grace that capped nearly four years of skirmishes between the Pequot Nation — a tribe of approximately 8,000 that spanned most of Connecticut — and a coalition of four early colonies and their native allies. What started as an isolated trading dispute escalated when Western Niantic allies of the Pequot murdered a notorious English privateer named John Stone and his crew in retaliation for a separate attack that killed the Pequot chief Tatobem. In July of 1636, the murder of a second English trader committed by Narragansett Indians and wrongfully blamed on the Pequot sparked a series of Puritan raids and Native retaliatory strikes that continued through the spring of 1637.
On the day of the massacre, two colonial officers — Captain John Mason from Connecticut and Captain John Underhill from Massachusetts Bay Colony — led a group of several hundred men, including a contingent of Narragansett and Mohegan warriors, to the Pequot settlement in modern day Mystic, Connecticut. Just before dawn they attacked, and after being repelled by the inhabitants they decided that instead of taking the village they would simply burn it. The men set alight some 80 huts housing roughly 800 inhabitants and ambushed those who tried to escape, killing them with rifle shots. Those Pequot “lucky” enough to survive the initial volley were hacked or clubbed to death by the Narragansett and Mohegan warriors, who — according to Captain Underhill — remarked disapprovingly on the ferocity of the English assault: “It is naught, it is naught, because it is too furious, and slays too many men.”
Governor Bradford described the massacre in his History of Plymouth Plantation:
Those that scraped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escapted. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.
Bradford’s estimates proved low, and it is now believed that as many as 700 Pequot died that day, most of them women and children. In the aftermath of the siege, survivors were hunted down and slain or sold into slavery, amounting to what was, for all intents and purposes, an ethnic cleansing of the tribe. The English even went so far as to outlaw the name “Pequot.” (The tribe held on by a thread, and today there are approximately 1,500 members living in southeastern, Connecticut.) For decades after the Pequot Massacre, annual religious ceremonies and thanksgiving fast days were dedicated to its memory. (Thanksgiving was made an official federal holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, less than a year after he authorized what remains to this day the nation’s largest ever mass execution — the hanging of 38 Sioux men in Mankato, Minnesota in December 1862.)
In his book New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians 1620-1675, the historian Alden T. Vaughan called the Pequot War a game changer that had a “profound” effect on the nature of English-Native American relations:
Overnight the balance of power had shifted from the populous but unorganized natives to the English colonies. The destruction of the Pequots cleared away the only major obstacle to Puritan expansion. And the thoroughness of that destruction made a deep impression on the other tribes.
Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered every Thanksgiving around Cole’s Hill at Plymouth Rock for a National Day of Mourning to remember the Pequot and what happened to them in 1637. This Thanksgiving, before we dig into the bounty this nation has given us, let’s all take a moment to mourn with them and remember that there are two sides to every story.