‘HEY JEFF,” said a person I didn’t recognize.
In lieu of responding I just looked up.
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” he asked.
“Not much, I’m working.”
“On Thanksgiving?” he asked. “That sucks.”
I shrugged, trying to end a line of conversation I didn’t start. There’s always that customer who tries to engage in gossip or complaints about your place of employment or about your boss or your manager, at the place least suited to such discourse.
“That is pretty Scroogelike,” he said.
“Scrooge? It’s not even Thanksgiving yet.”
“Well, who’s a Thanksgiving villain, then?”
Indeed. Halloween has witches, Easter has Pontius Pilate, the Fourth of July has the British, even Cinco de Mayo has the French and who doesn’t like taking pot shots at them?
“If you are really looking for a Thanksgiving villain,” another customer interjected. “I suggest the Pilgrims themselves.”
We both looked at him in surprise.
We all know the story of how the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, suffered terrible hardships and only made it through that first winter with the help of the Native Americans, after which the two peoples shared a harvest celebration that we now commemorate every year. It is part of our national identity. Sure it is a highly embellished fanciful tale, one that Abraham Lincoln himself used as a political tool more than 200 years later as a way of healing the wounds of our bitter Civil War.
Two Pilgrim-related facts that actually did happen:
• The Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact on Nov. 11, 1620, which many historians consider a foundational governing document that eventually led, at least in spirit, to the formation of the United States.
• In the spring of 1621, Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag Indians signed a formal treaty with those same Pilgrims, who were now settled at Patuxet (currently Plymouth, Mass.). It is considered to be the first written treaty between an indigenous New World people and the English settlers. In late October 1621, Massasoit and 90 of his tribesmen attended a harvest feast at Plymouth that lasted for three days.
However, the rest of the story rarely gets told.
Fifty years later those English settlers, whose ranks by then had swollen to 80,000 (while the Native American population had shrunk to about 10,000, mainly because of diseases brought by those white settlers) provoked a war with Massasoit’s son, the Chief Metacomet, whom the Pilgrims named King Philip. Philip was also the name of the previous Spanish king, a Catholic and archenemy of England. Spurred on by disease and waves of English expansion, Metacomet and his people began to fight back. After a particularly ugly incident where members of the Wampanoag tribe were tried and executed acrimoniously by the colonists, Metacomet declared war.
The ensuing war lasted three years and cost about 7,500 lives. The Native Americans sacked and burned many English settlements, including the largest settlement of the time, at Springfield. On March 12, 1676, they even attacked Plymouth Plantation. The town held out, but the colonial capital of Providence was burned to the ground. Eventually superior numbers and the ability to resupply from England turned the tide, and the Native Americans were defeated. Many Wampanoag were enslaved and sold in the West Indies, or used as household servants in New England. Metacomet was captured. As Massachusetts’ Increase Mather, Cotton Mather’s father, describes it:
“Captured, King Philip was taken and destroyed, and there was he (like as Agag was hewed in pieces before the Lord) cut into four quarters, and is now hanged up as a monument of revenging Justice, his head being cut off and carried away to Plymouth, his Hands were brought to Boston.”
So ended the peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. In 2011 the United States issued a $1 coin commemorating the Wampanoag Treaty, featuring the hands of Massasoit and John Carver symbolically exchanging a ceremonial peace pipe after signing the peace alliance. No mention is made of what followed.
In 1868, the U.S. formerly suspended treaty making with the Native Americans — five years after Lincoln officially recognized Thanksgiving as a national holiday.