What really happened during the first Thanksgiving?

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On today’s episode of the 5 Things podcast:

We’ve all heard the story of the first Thanksgiving; Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down together to enjoy the fruits of their labor and feast in friendship. But did it really happen this way? Or is there more to the story? First hand accounts of that day tell a much different version. So where did this version come from? We sat down with USA TODAY reporter Eryn Dion for the real first Thanksgiving story.

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Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below. This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.

Shannon Rae Gre…: Hey there. I’m Shannon Rae Green, and this is 5 Things. It’s Sunday, November 21st. These Sunday episodes are special. We’re bringing you more from in depth stories you may have missed. Thanksgiving is this Thursday. I hope you’ll get to be with people you love, to relax, to break bread, if you’re celebrating. On today’s episode, we’re talking about the historically accurate story of Thanksgiving. It’s not as simple as the story that many Americans were raised on, that pilgrims and Native Americans easily trusted each other and shared a cornucopia of food somewhere near Plymouth rock. I’ve invited US Today network’s, Erin Dionne onto the show to share her reporting into what really happened between the pilgrims and the indigenous people living in New England 400 years ago. They did eat together, but there’s a lot more to that story. Erin, thanks so much for joining me.

Erin Dionne: Yeah, no problem. I love telling this story. I like rocking people’s world with it. You’re not going to think about Thanksgiving again after you hear it.

Shannon Rae Gre…: Thanks so much for doing that for us. That’s exactly why I wanted you here. So tell me, how were you first assigned this story and why did you want to tell it?

Erin Dionne: So last year, 2020 was the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s landing it in Massachusetts in the kind of general Massachusetts area. November 11th, 1620, they dropped anchor off Cape Cod and came ashore at what is now known as Provincetown or P town. And you’ll be forgiven for not knowing that date, not everybody grew up two towns away from Plymouth like I did, and didn’t have it kind of stuffed down their throat from a very early age. But anyway, 400 is a big milestone. And for years, organizations had been planning this year long celebration that was going to be called Plymouth 400. And it was also tied to the founding of Plymouth where the pilgrims eventually settled. And it became kind of the first quote unquote town in the United States. So Ginette had a strong presence in the area through the Cape Cod times, and we have a network of weekly’s there.

And so we decided to pool our resources and do our own project about the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing. The project would be centered around the events, but also stories about the impact that pilgrims have had on New England and the impact that pilgrims had on the US. But as a part of that, we also wanted to include in this project, a restorative justice piece to it and bring the native voices back into that narrative, which included the story that I produced, which deconstructed the myth of the first Thanksgiving and retold that piece of history accurately. And in a way that recentered the story around the Wampanoag people, who were the group of native Americans or Indians who were living in that place at the time. Obviously COVID happened and our project had to shift from sending around the Plymouth 400 event is centering around this Thanksgiving and restorative piece. That’s how we got the project that we ended up with.

Shannon Rae Gre…: Yeah. So tell me more about the native Americans that lived in that area, where the pilgrims landed.

Erin Dionne: The pilgrims landed in P town, and then they kind of moved to a couple places before they eventually settled in Plymouth. But in that whole area were living the Wampanoag people, and the Wampanoag people were basically a series of different tribes. You had the Mashpee Wampanoags who were living around Plymouth. You had the Herring Pond Wampanoags, you had the Aquinnah AOS.

There were a bunch of other tribes and each tribe was kind of an independent functioning cell of itself, but they were united together under the great Sachem who is Massasoit and Massasoit’s job was to basically keep the peace between all of the various Wampanoag tribes. He wasn’t the boss. He had to kind of rule through the goodwill of others, kind of invoking the trust of everybody. He couldn’t order people around, but he was the person who would negotiate with the pilgrims or negotiate with other tribes in the area. Also worth noting is that across the Narragansett bay was the Narragansett tribe who live in what is now Rhode Island. And they were the rivals of the Wampanoag. And so there was a lot of tension happening there between those two groups.

Shannon Rae Gre…: Yeah. It sounds fairly democratic, which I think you noted in your story.

Erin Dionne: Yeah, you could… It was a much more sophisticated system than the Pilgrim myth would lead you to believe that they came here and everything was kind of disorganized and people were living in the woods. I mean, where the pilgrims landed was really the summer resort of the Wampanoag people. And that’s why when they landed there in November, nobody was there because that’s where they summer, because it’s close to the water, they can catch fish and sell fish. They were actually where they winter in their winter resort, if you will.

Shannon Rae Gre…: I love that. It makes sense. So tell me about what happened between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag people and how that led to the first Thanksgiving story and the overall mythos that comes with it.

Erin Dionne: So the important thing to know, going into the Thanksgiving story is that, in about 1615 or 1616, a pandemic swept through the Wampanoag people, not unlike the pandemic that came our people in 2020, the Wampanoags were devastated by this pandemic. They didn’t have kind of the infrastructure or the knowledge to treat whatever illness this was. They haven’t identified what illness it was, but whatever it was, I mean, whole villages were wiped out. And so just as that illness was beginning to recede, the pilgrims showed up and all of a sudden here, kind of out of nowhere, this group of Europeans appears on P town. Now the Wampanoags and the other tribes in the area had actually had contact with Europeans for about a century before the pilgrims showed up. So some of them spoke English, they were familiar with Europeans, but the thing was Europeans usually brought conflict with them. Many of their interactions with Europeans, up until that point, either involved Europeans taking native Americans as slaves and bringing them across the ocean or cultural misunderstandings that ended in violence.

And in fact, the Wampanoags had just driven off a pack of Europeans who had been living in the very spot or had tried to establish in the very spot that the pilgrims had just landed. So the pilgrims land and the Wampanoags are in a very delicate position because they are so weakened by this pandemic and the Narragansett’s are pushing on their borders. And the Narragansett’s had not been impacted by the pandemic at all. They are at full strength and so Massasoit has a difficult decision to make. Does he let these Europeans come ashore and establish and possibly make them allies, while keeping in his mind that previous encounters with the Europeans had gone very, very badly? Or does he drive them off, which potentially wastes… Not wastes, but results in the loss of warriors. Of strong men that could be later used to fight off the Narragansett’s.

So he holds back and lets them come ashore. And let me tell you, the pilgrims do not make a good case for themselves when they come ashore. They’re starving, they’re seasick, they’re ill. They come ashore and what do they do? They immediately start digging up Wampanoag graves, and they even remark at the time that they know that they’re graves and they start digging them up, trying to find any food that may have been buried with the Wampanoag people who were buried there. So they’re going through, and they’re taking the stores of corn, whatever else that they had been buried with, dried fruit, vegetables, pumpkins, squash, anything, and they’re bringing it back to the ship. And the Wampanoags are watching these people being like, “Are you kidding me?” But they hang back and they let the pilgrims kind of establish themselves a little bit.

And they don’t actually approach the pilgrims formally until February. And this is after a very hard winter for the pilgrims. About half of them died in that first winter, they landed in November. They couldn’t get enough shelters built for people to come off the ship. So many of the pilgrims had to stay on the ship and they died of starvation, cold, illness, and the such in February the Wampanoags and Massasoit decide to formally approach the pilgrims and kind of establish diplomatic relations. And that was a deeply unpopular move among the rest of the Wampanoags and Massasoit knew that he was taking a big risk and doing that because many of the Wampanoags really wanted to kill the pilgrims and just get rid of them and be rid of whatever threat this could be. And Massasoit knew that he was taking a big risk in doing that.

He was taking a risk in losing the trust of the other Wampanoag tribes and also taking a risk in that this is all going to go south. Spoiler alert, it does, but he couldn’t have possibly known that at the time. So diplomatic relations with the pilgrims are established, the pilgrims get on their feet a little bit fast forward, and you get to November and the pilgrims decide that they want to have a Thanksgiving. Now, Thanksgivings are a pretty standard cultural practice among Christians at that time. And among other cultures where they take a day and they have a Thanksgiving fast, which is actually the Thanksgiving. They fast all day. And it makes them really, really grateful for all of the things that they have. And then they break the fast with a big feast. So they do that and they get a little rowdy during the Thanksgiving feast part of it.

And they start shooting in the air. And that alerts the Wampanoags who are nearby saying, why is all of this shooting happen? Are we under attack? Is it finally happening? Are the Europeans turning on us? And they show up and they’re like, what’s going on? And the pilgrims are like, “Oh, we’re just having a feast, whatever.” And so the Wampanoags kind of invite themselves into the feast and it is… At first, it’s a little awkward. They’re like “Why are all…” And it’s all warriors too. It’s not like the women and children, it’s all big warriors and it’s a little awkward, but eventually things are kind of smoothed out through the help of a lot of alcohol. And everybody’s kind of having a grand time. And that really is the Thanksgiving feast.

Now, with the amount of attention that it gets, you would think that it was this really big grand thing. But really, if you look at the first person reports at the time, it’s about a paragraph, maybe that, if you look at Mort’s Relation, which is published in 1622, and it’s kind of the first first person account of the establishing of the pilgrims. It’s literally a paragraph, maybe and a half, it’s a blip on the radar. So it’s kind of amazing that this little thing became such a big part of the American mythos.

Shannon Rae Gre…: Yeah. So exactly to the point that you’ve just made I have a question. How did this inaccurate story get cemented into our culture when it comes to the holiday of just Thanksgiving and that the native Americans were invited that they just trusted each other?

Erin Dionne: So the story of how the Thanksgiving myth became cemented actually has very little to do with what actually happened on Thanksgiving and has everything to do with the cultural hierarchy within our country. And who gets to set what the history of the country is. So for much of American history, nobody cared about the pilgrims. Unless you were from Plymouth, Massachusetts, or that surrounding area, nobody cared about them. America wasn’t enough of a thing for a very long time to really need an origin story. And frankly, people were more focused on surviving than looking back in the past and trying to find a common story and a reason for why we were all here. They were here. They wanted to get on their lives. Thanksgiving was created as a federal holiday by Abraham Lincoln during what is probably the least thankful time in American history, which was the Civil War.

In 1863, he declares that the last Thursday in November will be a Thanksgiving Day, no mentions of the pilgrims. He’s just really co-opting that already established tradition of giving things that we had talked about. This is 1863. It’s a time of great upheaval. It’s a time when a lot of people were arriving into America from abroad, and those people who were arriving into America, they were not like the people who had established America and who had been living there for several centuries at this point. Many of them were from Southern Europe or elsewhere. They were from Italy. They were from Greece. They were from Macedonia. They were from that Mediterranean area. And so they looked different and they sounded different and they spoke different languages. And more than that, they were Catholic, which really upset a lot of the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant people who established deep roots in America.

And so this is when good old, New England Protestants who had been really nurturing the story of the pilgrims started using this story as the founders of America, as a sort of cultural bludgeon to claim their spot on the top of America’s hierarchy. So you fast forward a little bit and the United States is really taking its place on the world stage. American pride really becomes a thing. And so Americans do start looking for an origin story. The problem is, when you look back at how America became America, it’s really not a nice picture. They look back and they find slavery. They find the Indian wars, they find the Trail of Tears. They find a lot of blood and things that don’t really make for a tasteful story. And that’s where New England, who had been holding onto the pride of the pilgrims swoops in and says, “Here have this bloodless story about English separatists who came to America through resilience and, bonus points faith in God, built the foundation of this country.”

It didn’t matter that what they sold was a completely sanitized to the point of being mythological. It played well with the intended audience. And so this all becomes really cemented in 1963, a hundred years after Lincoln’s first Thanksgiving address. President John F. Kennedy, who is from Massachusetts. And the Kennedy compound is in Hyannis, which is on Cape Cod, which is where all of this Pilgrim stuff was happening. Kennedy invokes the pilgrims in his declaration. He says “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of Thanksgiving. On that appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of fields, for the love which bound them together, and for the faith, which united them with their God.” You’ll notice no mention of the Wampanoags here. And that is really the moment when the Thanksgiving myth is cemented in American popular culture, and is really when the history of the pilgrims became the history of the United States. And thus far the history of Americans.

Shannon Rae Gre…: That’s so helpful to explain that. There’s a lot there to unpack. You talked with people who are members of tribes, who are trying to bring the documented facts to light. What did these indigenous folks share with you? What did they want people to know?

Erin Dionne: I think mostly what they wanted people to know is that they still exist. They’re still here. And for many Americans, myself included, we have the luxury of thinking of these things as something that happened 400 years ago, it was a singular event that happened 400 years ago. For them, this is something that is still happening. I talked to a medicine man for the Mashpee Wampanoags, his name is Troy Currants. And he told me how his grandfather was sent to a residential school where they made him cut his hair. They kind of beat the Wampanoag language out of him. He lost his language, and that was his grand father. That is only two generations back. And for a long time, the Wampanoags did not have their language. They had lost it. And it’s really only recently through the great efforts of people within that tribe, that they are starting to get that language back.

He said that right now, they have kind of the first generation of Wampanoag youth who are now teenagers who are growing up with the Wampanoag language. They are growing up speaking English, but also having the Wampanoag language as a household language. And that is something that they have not had for many generations. Of the 69 tribes of Wampanoags who lived in Massachusetts and this area at the time, only three survived, the Mashpee, the Herring Pond, and the Aquinnah. But they’re still here, and they are still working to preserve their culture and bring their culture back. And they still face so many hardships and roadblocks because of what happened here, because of the loss of their land, because of the loss of their culture, because of the loss of their language. And so I think that is really what many of the people that I spoke to wanted to stress.

And the other thing that they wanted people to know is that Americans need to understand their past in order to be able to become better in the future. When you learn the history of the pilgrims and the history of Thanksgiving through this extremely sanitized lens, in a way that really lacks the context of everything that happened, it really leaves you unprepared to understand the things that are happening today.

If you grow up not understanding that history, it makes it really difficult, if not impossible to look out and see Black Lives Matter protests and understand what that’s about, to understand the movement to remove Confederate statues, to understand the movement, to remove Columbus statues, to understand the movement to stop celebrating Columbus day. You just don’t have the ability to reconcile that because you don’t have that basis of knowledge of your history. And it also makes it really difficult to understand where you need to go as a country, makes you really susceptible to propaganda. It makes you really susceptible to kind of populist political movements. Understanding this really helps you understand your history, where you came from, and where you as a country need to go.

Shannon Rae Gre…: Erin, this Thanksgiving, thank you for helping us be able to do that, especially helping me.

Erin Dionne: No problem. If people are looking to learn more about this, I would suggest digging up the story. There’s a lot more in there including kind of a quick hit version of four things that your kindergarten teacher told you that aren’t true about the pilgrims. I would also highly recommend reading the book This Land is Their Land, which is a telling of the history of the pilgrims centered around the Wampanoags. And it goes really in depth. And it’s going to absolutely blow your mind probably from the first page.

Shannon Rae Gre…: I’m excited. Erin, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Erin Dionne: No problem. My pleasure.

Shannon Rae Gre…: You can read Erin Dionne’s story at the links I’ve included in the episode notes. If you liked this episode of 5 Things, write us a review on Apple Podcast. I want to say thanks to Alexis Davies for her help editing this episode and to Emily Brown for suggesting this story. Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning with 5 Things you need to know for Monday. Thanks for listening. I’m Shannon Rae Green. I’ll see you next time. Until then you can keep up with me on Twitter, where I’m at Shannon Rae Green.

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