A more typical occurrence of mistrust, relocation, and persecution in the Jamestown settlement can reveal more about the colonial period than the Pilgrims’ experience.
It has been 400 years since the first Thanksgiving in New England. The tale of that first Thanksgiving, remembered and repeated as an allegory for tenacity and cooperation, has played a significant role in how Americans view the creation of their nation.
However, I think that what happened four months later, beginning in March 1622 roughly 600 miles south of Plymouth, is considerably more representative of the country’s roots. It is a story of mistrust, uprooting, and repression rather than peaceful cohabitation.
I have always questioned why Americans pay so much less attention to other English migrants from the same era as colonial New England and Virginia.
Of course, the conquest and settlement of New England were important. But the events around the Chesapeake Bay, where the English had founded Jamestown in 1607, reveal more about the colonial period than the Pilgrims’ experience in the early 1620s.
An intriguing genesis tale
Long ago, the Pilgrims cemented their position in American history of thanksgiving as intrepid survivors who persisted in adversity. They benefited when a horrible sickness that ravaged the area’s Indigenous peoples from 1616 to 1619 lessened competition for resources since they were ill-prepared for the New England winter of 1620 to 1621.
The migrants survived a winter during which possibly half of them perished, and they were happy to see the 1621 fall crop. Because the Wampanoags had taught them how to grow corn, the most significant crop in much of eastern North America, they could exist. The Wampanoags and Pilgrims celebrated a three-day feast together that November.
Although many Indigenous peoples had long-standing rituals that included giving thanks and other European settlers had previously declared similar days of thanks, including one in Florida in 1565 and another along the Maine coast in 1607, this was the occasion that now marks the first American Thanksgiving.
When it appeared that their corn crop could perish in a severe drought in 1623, the Pilgrims in Plymouth proclaimed a day to praise their God for providing rain. It was probably observed in late July. The Continental Congress proclaimed December 18 as Thanksgiving Day in 1777 amid the Revolutionary War. The Pilgrims were not even mentioned.
But in the 19th century, initiatives to make the Plymouth experience one of the country’s founding myths led to the yearly Thanksgiving holidays being associated with New England. They hailed the religious freedom they observed in New England – at least for Americans of European blood – and pointed to the Mayflower Compact as the foundation for representative governance.
Presidents of the United States have referred to the Pilgrims in their annual proclamations for the majority of the past century, strengthening the connection between the holiday and those immigrants.
Virginia’s shaky peace is broken
However, the events in Plymouth in 1621 that became part of the country’s history of thanksgiving were not typical.
A more eye-opening occurrence occurred in Virginia in 1622.
Jamestown had been home to a little English-speaking colony since 1607, where colonists battled valiantly for survival. They drank from the James River since they could not locate fresh water, even in the summer when the water level plummeted, converting the river into a swamp. They contracted typhoid fever and diarrhea from the bacteria they ingested.
The English chose to stay despite a death rate that in some years surpassed 50%. When a resourceful colonist named John Rolfe sowed West Indian tobacco seeds in the area’s lush soil in the middle of the 1610s, their investment paid off. The business quickly took off.
However, a colony’s economic prosperity did not guarantee its survival. Early English survival in Virginia rested on getting along with the native population. Wahunsonacock, the head of the Tsenacomoco coalition of Native Americans, had spent a century creating a confederation of about 30 different settlements along Chesapeake Bay tributaries by 1607. The English referred to him as Powhatan and his adherents as Powhatans.
Given that the Powhatans possessed most of the local resources, Wahunsonacock might have been able to stop the English from founding Jamestown. The Powhatans gave the immigrants food in 1608 when they were on the verge of famine. Additionally, after his people had caught the Englishman, Wahunsonacock saved the life of Captain John Smith.
Wahunsonacock’s actions showed that he was thinking strategically. He most likely thought the English would become a subordinate community under his rule rather than seeing the newcomers as all-powerful. Following the 1609–1614 English–Powhatan War, Wahunsonacock and his allies endorsed peace and harmony.
In 1618, Wahunsonacock perished. Opechancanough, probably one of Wahunsonacock’s brothers, rose to prominence as a leader of the Powhatans not long after he passed away. Opechancanough, unlike his predecessor, was wary of the English, particularly as they pushed onto Powhatan territories to increase the size of their tobacco farms.
Opechancanough had had enough by the spring of 1622. He and his friends launched a surprise assault on March 22. By the end of the day, 347 Englishmen had been murdered. If a Powhatan who had converted to Christianity hadn’t alerted some of the English, they might have slaughtered more people and given them time to flee.
News of the violence quickly reached England. The colony’s secretary, Edward Waterhouse, wrote a brief pamphlet that described the “barbarous Massacre.” A few years later, a Frankfurt engraver created a chilling image to translate Waterhouse’s book that perfectly encapsulated Europeans’ misgivings about Native Americans.
“Under the bloody and brutal hands of those perfidious and heartless people,” Waterhouse said of those who perished. He claimed that the winners had desecrated English bodies. He used popular European descriptions of “wyld Naked Natives” and termed them “savages.” He vowed retaliation.
The Powhatans were subjected to a cruel war by English troops over the following ten years, who routinely set fire to their fields during harvest time to starve them and drive them away.
Disagreement over cooperation
The planned attack by the Powhatans foreshadowed later Native American uprisings against aggressive European invaders in 17th-century North America.
The English response followed the same pattern: it was necessary to suppress any indication of resistance by “pagans,” as Waterhouse referred to the Powhatans, to advance Europeans’ goals of converting Native Americans to Christianity, claiming Indigenous lands, and appeasing European consumers who were clamoring for American-made goods.
Over more than two centuries, this dynamic—and not the one of camaraderie discovered in Plymouth in 1621—would define the interactions between Native Americans and European immigrants.
Violence broke out before the century ended, destroying the benefits of the feast of 1621. By 1675, long-simmering tensions erupted into a conflict that spread over the area. It was one of the bloodiest wars in American history of thanksgiving regarding deaths per person.
On the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival, an Aquinnah Wampanoag elder by the name of Wamsutta referred to decades of brutality against Native villages and dispossession. Many Native Americans have subsequently commemorated a National Day of Mourning in place of Thanksgiving.
The more terrible legacy of the early 17th century is obscured by the Thanksgiving celebrations of today, which feature turkeys made of construction paper by schoolchildren and stories of friendship and cooperation between the colonists and Native Americans.
Peter C. Mancall, a USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities
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