I always thought that the Pilgrims who arrived in Plymouth were the first Europeans to disembark in what is now New England. It turns out that Native Americans had been trading with Europeans for over a hundred years prior to the pilgrims’ arrival.
In fact, it was that trading that caused the site where the Pilgrims landed to be unoccupied. It had previously been a Wampanoag village; all of whose inhabitants had died of diseases brought by those first European traders.
The fact that Squanto (also known as Tisquantum) spoke perfect English was because he had been a slave; taken to England years before but freed by his master.
This devastation wrought upon the Native cultures at that time caused huge political instability among the neighboring tribal nations. Into this, entered the pilgrims on the Mayflower.
Despite this chaos, however, the pilgrims agreed to a workable treaty with the Wampanoag who were teetering on war with the Narragansett to their west. It was the pilgrims who agreed because they were in a vastly disadvantaged position. In fact, the pilgrims didn’t stand a chance of survival without Native American help and the first Thanksgiving was truly a time to celebrate this partnership.
Shortly afterward, however, things began to deteriorate. More ships from England arrived and they held other Separatists who viewed the Native Americans as nothing more than animals. These new arrivals (unfortunately our UCC forebears) set in motion a policy of “convert or be killed” when it came to Native Americans. Slaughter on both sides followed but the Native Americans stood little chance against the growing number and superior firepower of the English.
A long and sad history followed for Native cultures.
That’s a context-snapshot of the first Thanksgiving. It was a three-day feast. It was a convocation of shared friendship sandwiched between the decimation of the Wampanoag, Massachusett, Narragansett, Nauset, and Abenaki first by disease and then later by war.
It is a hard and terrible history.
I don’t think, however, that it is cause to abandon the holiday of Thanksgiving or our remembrance of the first celebration. Here’s why: That celebration was a brief light of hope and optimism in the middle of a tension-filled, tragic time.
And in our world today—so filled with distrust, anger, and polarization–we need moments like that to buoy us and remind us of what is possible.
See you in church,