Ahead of the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving, a new look at the Plymouth colony's founding events, told for the first time with Wampanoag people at the heart of the story.
In March 1621, when Plymouth's survival was hanging in the balance, the Wampanoag sachem (or chief), Ousamequin (Massasoit), and Plymouth's governor, John Carver, declared their people's friendship for each other and a commitment to mutual defense. Later that autumn, the English gathered their first successful harvest and lifted the specter of starvation. Ousamequin and 90 of his men then visited Plymouth for the "First Thanksgiving." The treaty remained operative until King Philip's War in 1675, when 50 years of uneasy peace between the two parties would come to an end.
400 years after that famous meal, historian David J. Silverman sheds profound new light on the events that led to the creation, and bloody dissolution, of this alliance. Focusing on the Wampanoag Indians, Silverman deepens the narrative to consider tensions that developed well before 1620 and lasted long after the devastating war-tracing the Wampanoags' ongoing struggle for self-determination up to this very day.
This unsettling history reveals why some modern Native people hold a Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving, a holiday which celebrates a myth of colonialism and white proprietorship of the United States. This Land is Their Land shows that it is time to rethink how we, as a pluralistic nation, tell the history of Thanksgiving.
George Washington University history professor Silverman (Thundersticks) deconstructs the "Thanksgiving myth" in this revealing study of the 1621 gathering at Plymouth colony between Puritan colonists and Wampanoag Indians that inspired the holiday. A confederation of local tribes, the Wampanoag had recently been decimated by an infectious disease brought by Europeans (Wampanoags credited the epidemic to supernatural causes) and were under threat from their rivals, the Narragansett. Wampanoag chief Ousamequin entered into a "mutual defense pact" with the Pilgrims, Silverman writes, and brought 90 men to the colonists' fall harvest celebration in order to help cement the agreement. But an influx of settlers in the decades following the 1629 establishment of Massachusetts Bay Colony led to increased tensions and occasional outbursts of violence between natives and Pilgrims, setting the stage for King Philip's War in 1675. That brutal conflict shifted the balance of power in the region so dramatically, Silverman notes, that the Wampanoag were nearly wiped out over the next two centuries. Silverman sketches the Wampanoag story up to the present day, giving voice to such tribal activists as Frank James, who declared Thanksgiving a "National Day of Mourning" in 1970. This lucidly written and convincingly argued account of the most "American" of traditions deserves to be read widely.