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The confusing story of Thanksgiving

Mel Rising Dawn Cordeiro

Managing Editor

Image via Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Ask most New England Native Americans and they will tell you that Thanksgiving Day is known as our National Day of Mourning. Since 1970, Natives have gathered in Plymouth, Massachusetts on Thanksgiving Day to drum, sing, honor our ancestors and take part in a peaceful demonstration reminding everyone that Natives still exist.

The “real” Thanksgiving came to be during President Abraham Lincoln’s administration, resulting from the 1863 hanging of 38 Dakota men after the Dakota-Sioux tribe physically fought federal agents over not receiving their share of federal rations. Lincoln in turn formed the Thanksgiving holiday during this period of Civil War to improve relations between the north and the south, as well as to help improve relations between the Natives and the whites.

Some say that the “first” Thanksgiving dates back to 1673 when Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor, John Winthrop, declared a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the colonial soldiers who took part in the Pequot War.

There is no evidence to support that the Wampanoags, or any Natives for that matter, were even invited to dine with the settlers. Whatever the true circumstances may be surrounding their docking, the pilgrims settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts due to the harsh winter conditions they stumbled upon. Historians don’t even agree on if the Pilgrims initially wanted to settle in Virginia, but one thing they can agree on is that the colonists brought diseases with them that wiped out the Native populations.

Did you know that the true story of Squanto is not the version we were taught?

Squanto, who’s real name was Tisquantum, was a member of the Patuxet band of the Wampanoag tribe. Before the Mayflower even arrived, he, along with another group of Native Americans, were captured by explorers and sold into slavery somewhere around 1614. Having the help of the Catholic Church, Tisquantum escaped his captors and ended up in England. During his time there, he learned English and returned to America around 1619.

Upon returning to his village of Patuset, Tisquantum found nothing but a village in ruins, the longhouses in ash and nothing but the bones of his tribesmen. The death rates from illness due to “white man’s diseases” was rampant and rapid. Oftentimes, there was no time to bury the dead. Tisquantum came to realize that was the lone survivor of his village. For the sake of general knowledge, it is estimated that during the time period before this epidemic, there were roughly 69 Wampanoag villages, averaging about 1,000 people per village. Roughly 75% of the Wampanoag population was lost to this epidemic. There are theories of what disease, or diseases, caused the epidemic, but in actuality, no historian is entirely certain.

Now, dear reader, you know exactly where the village of Patuxet is. Perhaps you’ve traveled to that village, as it is a popular tourist destination. Many Massachusetts school children have also taken field trips there as well. Actors perform “living history” presentations. Patuxet is known today as Plymouth Plantation. After the Natives of Patuxet were gone, Plymouth Plantation was settled. It is unclear if the elimination of Patuxet was intentional, but that is unlikely due to the conditions of the pilgrims when they landed. They were tired, weak, hungry and sickly from their journey, only to arrive in a strange land.

Speaking of Tisquantum, however, Sachem Massasoit made use of Tisquantum’s English skills when he originally saw the pilgrims as a potential ally against the Narragansett tribe. If you recall from an earlier article, the Narragansett and Wampanog aren't getting along with each other at this point in time. Tisquantum translated for Massasoit, though he was not trusted and was actually held captive. Rather than continue to live a life of servitude, Tisquantum allied and lived with the pilgrims and taught them survival skills to deal with the winter season. He served as a guide as well. It is unknown if he was with the pilgrims through the harvest seasons, of which there are three, but it is known that through his translations, the pilgrims and the Wampanoags created an alliance where they would look out for each other.

Tisquantum, however, was still labeled a traitor by Massasoit and the Wampanoag tribe. Ironically, he was not a traitor for teaching the pilgrims how to plant crops, or even for speaking English. Instead, Tisquantum was creating unrest between both the Wampanoag and the pilgrims by making false claims that Massasoit was secretly planning an attack on the pilgrims. This statement was exposed as a lie and greatly upset the Wampaqnoag people. For his transgression of treason, the pilgrims should have turned him back over to Massasoit, but they refused to do so. In response, the Wampanoags shunned Tisquantum.

Tisquantum’s story concludes in 1622, when he fell ill with a fever and passed away.

Happy Thanksgiving, Anchors and Anchor friends. As you indulge in your turkey and fixings, remember to thank ol’ honest Abe for setting aside a day to spend lots of time with your family.


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