COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | LARRY STIRLING

The truth about Thanksgiving

Nations survive by nurturing positive myths about themselves. There is nothing wrong with that when one considers the alternative, which is chaos.

Most of us have grown up with a gauzy scenario that somewhere at sometime in the distant past, some very nice people showed up in America and were sooo nice that they were welcomed by the local natives we absurdly call “Indians,” though they were not from India.

A Thanksgiving celebrating the mythical marriage of the two cultures was thereafter born.

This mythicalized Thanksgiving is valued by all of us non-natives for psychologically granting us a permanent welcome and legitimacy, thereby removing the guilt of having invaded the other’s lands.

Historians put the date of the first Thanksgiving at around harvest time in 1621, a year after Pilgrim Puritans landed there.

They brought the religious tradition of harvest-thanksgiving with them.

The surviving passengers of the original Mayflower voyage brightened up their dreary existence by staging their tradition in their new habitat for the first time.

Contrary to the kumbaya myth, the local natives were not invited to the first thanksgiving and only learned about the event when — in response the shots fired by the Pilgrims during “fowling” (hunting for birds) — the local Wampanoag tribal leader Ousamaequin Massassoit and his warriors believed they were under attack.

Arriving at the scene with 60 or so armed men, the Wampanoags were belatedly welcomed with offers of food from the small larder of the “Plimouth” colony.

Appalled at the deficiency, Massassoit ordered his warriors to go hunting. They returned with several deer, thereby saving the party, which then went on for three days.

However, the happy outcome of this misunderstanding came only after a series of fortuitous events that gave the English settlers a toehold on the North American continent.

Contrary to another favorite myth, that Columbus discovered America, the truth is that there has been European interaction with the American continents for probably at least 9,000 years.

Had the original plans of the Mayflower captain to land by heading up the broad expanse of the Hudson River (not really a river at that point, but an oceanic estuary) the passengers would have been certainly killed.

North American tribes had been repeatedly visited by marauding ship’s crews who stole their food, kidnapped their members and left disease behind.

So it was the collective policy of coastal tribes to repel anyone who attempted to land.

Blown north, the Mayflower landed in the active territory of the Wampanoag tribe, which had recently suffered from the beginnings of “the great die off” that left their Pawtuxet location vacant.

They had also recently suffered a severe defeat in an ongoing war with another tribe.

The Wampanoag leadership allowed the Pilgrims to settle in the abandoned location, assuming that they would die as their fellow tribesmen had.

The hardship of that winter is well known and many Pilgrims did die, but from privation rather than some local disease to which they were probably immune.

During the succeeding summer season, Samoset, a sagamore (underchief) from the Maine tribe of the Monhegans, unrestrained by Wampanoag politics, strolled into the Pilgrim settlement and established contact.

Natives from Maine often encountered English ships and sailors, so Samoset spoke broken English.

Hobbled by the language problem, Samoset recruited the more famous, and devious, Tisquanto (Squanto) to help out.

Squanto was facile in English and other languages because he had been captured and taken to Spain to be sold as a slave. There he was manumitted by a group of Spanish priests who intervened to save Squanto and others.

Squanto traveled throughout Europe, learned European ways, and knew of their greed for gold. He conned a group of investors into an expedition back to North America, from which he jumped ship and swam home.

Squanto convinced Wampanoag chief Massasoit that the Pilgrims and their guns could be of value in his wars.

That proved to be true and thus a powerful alliance was struck that saved the Pilgrims from destruction.

Thanks to the Pilgrim guns being used on the side of the Wampanoag, Massasoit became the boss of all the territory he cared to conquer.

That was the real reason the “Indians” of the first Thanksgiving were so happy to go hunting and cooperate.

A grateful Massasoit ceded substantial portions of land to the Pilgrims on which they flourished.

What Massasoit did not figure on was that the English would write home and invite thousands of people to join them, subsequently encroaching on far more land than the previously grateful Wampanoags ever intended.

After the death of Massasoit, one of his five children had himself renamed “Philip” and succeeded his father as chief.

Philip declared war on the new wave of English settlers.

What followed was a bloodbath and is billed as the most destructive war per capita in the history of the nation: “King Philip’s War.”

The Wampanoag lost that war. Ever since, our Thanksgiving holiday has been viewed as a day of mourning among Native Americans.

I recounted the economic crippling of Native Americans by our government in a previous column (Why is Tonto not rich?)

Shouldn’t we do something about that?


Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to larry.stirling@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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