A few months ago I learned that I am directly descended from a married couple, William and Susanna White, who arrived on these shores in 1620 aboard the Mayflower. While most people are proud to have ancestors who were Pilgrims, I have very mixed feelings about it because I also have a quantum of Native American blood. Here’s why I’m somewhat mortified about my Pilgrim heritage:
In a few days, we celebrate Thanksgiving, and school children will be hearing the myth about its founding, how the Pilgrims and Indians sat down to a meal together as friends and celebrated the harvest.
Like most myths, it has elements of truth, but it also totally ignores a dark side of the Plymouth Colony and other early settlers, the fact that in less than two decades they killed off nearly every member of the native tribes that had lived there for thousands of years and forced the rest onto reservations and stole their lands.
The local Indians were already wary of the English when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. Earlier exploratory missions had routinely slaughtered the indigenous people and rounded them up to be taken to England and sold as slaves. Squanto, of the Thanksgiving story, spoke English because he had been one of the natives kidnapped and taken to England as a slave, but managed somehow to return home.
The colony’s crops failed in 1621, and they were saved from starvation through the efforts of Squanto, who had managed to grow 20 acres of corn. Though the Native Americans were suspicious of the English colonists, they nevertheless taught them their agriculture and fishing skills. Without these skills, the Pilgrims, half of whom died anyway, would have completely perished. They owed their very lives to the Indians.
Following the harvest, the colonists invited one Indian chief to come for a feast. To their horror, he arrived with 90 of his tribesmen who all joined them for the celebration. The Indians were never invited back and some historians argue that the main purpose of the invitation was to negotiate with the chief for their land.
The Pilgrims also cleverly set local tribesmen against each other, preferring to let the Indians kill each other off rather than doing it themselves. When a chief refused to cooperate with their treachery, he was beheaded and his head displayed at Plymouth Colony.
The Pequot Tribe occupied lands in the Plymouth area. Shortly after the arrival of the Pilgrims, many of the native inhabitants began to fall sick and die. Given the description of their deaths, smallpox was probably the disease which devastated the Pequots. The Pequots were estmated to number about 8,000 when the Pilgrims arrived. By 1637, disease brought by the Pilgrims had reduced their numbers to 1,500.
On the orders of the colonial governor, about 700 Pequots were slaughtered by the colonists in a massacre in 1637. The Indians were holding their green corn festival when an armed band of colonists surrounded the village by night and killed nearly everyone including women and children. Here is a description of the massacre written by William Bradford:
“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.”
By the end of 1637, only a handful of Pequot were still alive. The massacre set the precedent for what would become a more than 200-year genocide of Native Americans. Massachusetts Colony also initiated the reservation system which would become the model for the isolation and deprival of the indigenous peoples.
Perhaps historian Gilbert Mercier said it best: “In other words, celebrating Thanksgiving is as if Germany had a day of celebration for the Holocaust. Thanksgiving is the American Holocaust.”