In truth, massacres, disease and American Indian tribal politics are what shaped the Pilgrim-Indian alliance at the root of the holiday
In Thanksgiving pageants held at schools across the United States, children don headdresses colored with craft-store feathers and share tables with classmates wearing black construction paper hats. It’s a tradition that pulls on a history passed down through the generations of what happened in Plymouth: local Native Americans welcomed the courageous, pioneering pilgrims to a celebratory feast. But, as David Silverman writes in his new book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, much of that story is a myth riddled with historical inaccuracies. Beyond that, Silverman argues that the telling and retelling of these falsehoods is deeply harmful to the Wampanoag Indians whose lives and society were forever damaged after the English arrived in Plymouth.
Silverman’s book focuses on the Wampanoags. When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, the sachem (chief) Ousamequin offered the new arrivals an entente, primarily as a way to protect the Wampanoags against their rivals, the Narragansetts. For 50 years, the alliance was tested by colonial land expansion, the spread of disease, and the exploitation of resources on Wampanoag land. Then, tensions ignited into war. Known as King Philip’s War (or the Great Narragansett War), the conflict devastated the Wampanoags and forever shifted the balance of power in favor of European arrivals. Wampanoags today remember the Pilgrims’ entry to their homeland as a day of deep mourning, rather than a moment of giving thanks.
We spoke with Silverman, a history professor at George Washington University, about his research and the argument he makes in his book.