The Pilgrim’s treaty with the Wampanoag lasted fifty years. This would not have happened had the Wampanoag felt imposed on or exploited. Indeed, at that first Thanksgiving—a three-day feast-The Wampanoag numbered about ninety, while only fifty of the settlers were still alive. Had the Wampanoag decided to end the peaceable encounter, things would not have gone well for the residents of Plymouth.
The treaty did, however, have practical advantages for the Wampanoag. They had lost a substantial population in the years before the Mayflower arrived. An epidemic that probably began as a disease communicated by European fishermen had swept the coast and had hit the Wampanoag especially hard. They feared their traditional enemy, the Narragansett tribe, would wipe them out. The people in Plymouth rose to the occasion and sent out armed expeditions against the Wampanoags’ enemies.
Thanksgiving might be seen not simply as a feast of gratitude, but also as the cementing of a military alliance in perilous times.
The Wampanoag weren’t imagining things. Coastal New England was inhabited by native peoples as long as 7,500 years ago. But not the same native peoples. Whole cultures flowered and disappeared. About five thousand years ago, coastal New England belonged to a population archaeologists call the “Red Paint People,” after the red ocher they buried with their dead. The Red Paint People stand out because of their remarkable maritime skills. Without metal tools of any sort, they hunted swordfish—a dangerous quarry–in the open ocean from dugout canoes. But these folks suddenly disappeared about 3,800 years ago. There are competing explanations but the simplest is that they were overrun and either were killed off or fled.
In fact, from what we can piece together of the New England past, the area was likely never at peace. The Red Paint people were well supplied with weapons, not all of them for hunting. Jacques Cartier passed through the area in the 1530s and 40s and found Iroquoian-speaking Indians. When Samuel de Champlain touched coastal Maine in 1603, all the people were gone. Archaeologist Bruce Bourque suggests “probably because its inhabitants had been driven out by warfare.”[i]
A genuine historical record began once English colonists established their beachheads on the New England coast, and those records depict endless native warfare, often directed towards the extermination of rival tribes. So, the Wampanoag in the 1620s had well-justified fears. They were survivors of a tradition of thousands of years of unending and brutal warfare. One might not think that the New England littoral was so rich in resources that it was worth the contest, but war is about more than resources. It is also about pride.
Most years, I find some occasion to comment on the Mayflower Compact and the remarkable ability of the Pilgrims and the non-Pilgrim “Strangers” who arrived with them to invent a workable form of self-government. In many ways, they set the example that would later shape American independence.
But this year, we celebrate Thanksgiving in the shadow of war. And not only war, but the kind of brutal, all-in war that the native peoples of New England knew all too well. These days, we once again hear the counter-narrative that demotes the Pilgrims as “settler colonialists” who stole land from the Indians and exploited them. The Pilgrims for sure had their hard edges, and later, English settlers responded to the attacks of Native Americans with their own kinds of ferocity.
But let us give thanks that we are at least moderately safe in this new age of barbarism. Things could be a lot worse, and they will get that way if we do not gratefully maintain the power needed to keep order in a world that is always ready to dispose of those who cannot defend themselves.
[i] I’ve drawn from Bruce Bourque. The Swordfish Hunters: The History and Ecology of an Ancient American Sea People. Piermont, New Hampshire: Bunker Hill Publishing. 2012.
Herbert M. Sylvester. Indian Wars of New England. Three Volumes. Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clarke Company. 1910.
Peter W. Wood. 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project. New York: Encounter Books. 2020