A Reflection on the First Thanksgiving.

It is fashionable now to conflate the 250 year American experience between the European settlers and the Native Americans as simply one of oppression and displacement. Or, as one friend put it: “I’m Thankful that a bunch of European religious fanatics came over and displaced the native population.”

But it wasn’t like that at the First Thanksgiving, or for about 35 years thereafter. In failing to appreciate the efforts of English settlers and Wampanoag tribes in the region to live together in peace in the first three decades of English migration to Plymouth, we ignore both that a better world was possible — and that we have the capacity to build a better world today . . .


Squanto of the Massachusetts Tribe and Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag Tribe welcomed the initial settlers from the Mayflower, and the first Thanksgiving was a testimony to their peaceful coexistence as a growing multicultural society. The Wampanoag Chief Massasoit formed a friendship with Miles Standish and Governor Bradshaw, which Standish and Bradshaw reciprocated. In 1623, after a series of weather disasters led to a poor harvest and poor game hunting, a number of members of the Massachusetts tribe decided to raid the Plymouth colony. Massasoit warned Standish of the impending attack. Standish set up an ambush and wiped out the raiding party, resulting in an end in hostilities between local tribes and the Plymouth Colony settlers until Bradshaw’s death in 1657.


Following the battle of 1623, and until the death of these three leaders, peace existed between the English settlers of Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay and the local tribes. They enjoyed free trade, and Wampanoag and Massachusetts tribes people mingled freely with the growing English colony. A puritan missionary worked with members of the Massachusetts tribe to develop a written alphabet for Algonquin speaking Massachusetts tribe. In time, some members of the local tribes converted and formed their own villages of “praying Indians.” These villages were, at first, integrated into the local economy without prejudice, as were the non-Christian tribe members.


Throughout their lives, Standish and Bradshaw went to great lengths to cultivate friendly relations with Massasoit, and Massasoit responded likewise. At a public ceremony in Wampanoag lands, Bradshaw made a gift of a magnificent horse coat that Massasoit had previously admired. Massasoit responded by giving his two sons English names (Alexander and Philip) in addition to their names in Algonquin.


So What Happened?


What happened was “the Great Migration.” Tens of thousands of English settlers landed in New England and set up new colonies. These new settlers had little interest in respecting the “native savages” and felt in no way bound by the laws and treaties of Plymouth Colony. New settlements, encroaching on the lands and hunting and fishing grounds of the local tribes, sprang up rapidly in what would be the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.


As long as Standish, Bradshaw and Massasoit lived, they worked to keep the peace and maintain friendly relations — at least between Plymouth colony and the Wampanoag. After Bradshaw’s death in 1657, to paraphrase the Bible, “there arose a new Governor who did not know Massasoit or Squanto.” Plymouth Colony began to follow in the path of the other English settlements in the region, passing laws to discriminate against non-Christianized Native Americans and prohibiting peaceful commerce. Things worsened when Massasoit’s heir, his older son Alexander, took sick while visiting Plymouth colony and was arrested on trumped up charges. After this, and after Plymouth and the other colonies forced a treaty on Massasoit’s other son (and heir to Alexander) Philip requiring disarmament of the local tribes, Philip formed a confederacy with the surrounding tribes the ultimately culminated in “King Philip’s War.” The war inflicted significant casualties on both sides. The colonists were able to negotiate settlements piecemeal among the tribal confederacy assembled by Philip (many of whom had traditionally been hostile toward each other), reducing the lands of native tribes further.
So What About The First Thanksgiving?


Our modern tradition of Thanksgiving is not actually based on the First Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown be damned. Our modern national Thanksgiving is based on Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation calling for a day of Thanksgiving and prayer “on the last Thursday in November” in 1863. It was finally settled by law during the New Deal as an economic measure.


But people tie it all back to the First Thanksgiving anyway, so it is useful to consider that First Thanksgiving as well. It was not simply a Thanksgiving Day to God established by the Puritans. It was a feast of Thanksgiving by the Puritans for their friends who had helped preserved the colony — the tribes of the Massachusetts and the Wampanoag. It was a genuine and sincere effort by those present to build a better world. They ultimately failed, but they tried for as long as their generation lasted.


In our family, the tradition that has emerged is to focus not on the First Thanksgiving but on Lincoln’s proclamation, which is the basis of the modern holiday of Thanksgiving. We read Lincoln’s proclamation aloud and toast the Union and the end of slavery (The Emancipation Proclamation having gone into effect January 1, 1863). But this year I am also reflecting on the First Thanksgiving.


It was not, as so many choose to remember it today, the first hypocritical opening to an era of oppression, dispossession and diaspora — although that is ultimately what occurred. Rather, I view it as an alternative America that might have been, one genuinely founded on mutual respect in a multicultural society. Like so many aspirations to noble ideals, it ultimately failed. But those who attended the First Thanksgiving tried to make it real and build a better world. And it is a sign — if we can bear to break our habits of snark and mockery — that we can still try to build a better world.


To consider the First Thanksgiving should not undermine or in any way whitewash the evils that followed. To the contrary, I would hope that by considering the world as it might have been, we can appreciate the tragedy of the world as it became. There was nothing intrinsic to the English and European immigration that required them to be racist savages despoiling the Native American tribes. It was a deliberate choice, by the inflowing tide, to regard the Native Americans as — in the words of the Declaration of Independence — “merciless Indian savages.” But that also means that we are free to choose again. We can be true to the promise of the First Thanksgiving and its genuine effort to build a better world based on multicultural respect and mutual aid.


The choice is ours. Bitterness or repentance? Mockery or mutual respect? Suspicion and cynicism, or trust and optimism? We can choose again, if we choose to remember the whole of history, acknowledging the evils done while recognizing the struggle to live up to our ideals. And if enough of us choose hope over fear, to make our ideals real rather than abandon them when inconvenient, then to quote the prophet Micah:  “And all shall sit beneath their vine, and their fig tree, and none shall make them afraid, this the mouth of the Lord has promised. And let each nation walk in the name of their god, and we shall walk with them in the name of the Lord our God, in peace, for ever and ever.”


Happy Thanksgiving.


  1. I’m impressed that Gov. Bradshaw lived for over 200 years, from the 1600s until 1857, outliving Andrew Jackson.

    Any chance you meant Wm. Bradford who died in 1657?

  2. Yes indeed. Thanks for pointing this out.

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