One man drove the real history of Thanksgiving more than any other, though he was not English. Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag nation, deserves far more credit in the history of this event than he is typically given. Though English sources refer to him as a king, in truth, he was the most powerful leader in a confederacy of Wampanoag villages. These villages came together when necessary, though other leaders, as noted by English commentators, proved jealous of Massasoit’s position.
It was Massasoit who reached the first treaty with the English, indeed he seems to be the one who proffered the accord in the first place. Through this treaty, which lasted several decades, the Wampanoag found respite, for a time, and the English laid their roots.
In the years proceeding that fateful feast at Plymouth, Massasoit must have looked around at his nation and his people and been filled with fear. Disease spread into his homeland from European colonies farther south in Virginia, and farther north in Quebec. Family, friends, and neighbors fell sick. While some no doubt recovered, the vast majority of the Wampanoag nation did not. If Massasoit walked amongst his people, he would have found bodies lying unburied, birds picking the bones clean. “Thousands of them died,” an Englishman, William Bradford later recounted. “They not being able to bury one another, their skulls and bones were found in many places lying still above the ground, where their houses and dwellings had been.“1
Current estimates place the death rate among the Wampanoag at 90% between the years 1616 and 1619.2 Long thought to have been smallpox, recent research has yielded evidence that the plague may have, in fact, been leptospirosis, also known as 7-day fever.3
Eventually, though population levels never returned to where they had been, whatever contagion had razed the Wampanoag nation seems to have subsided. History would soon, however, deal Massasoit and the Wampanoag another blow.
The Wampanoag had long been surrounded by European colonists, actively trading with the settlers of New France, and had received European visitors to their shores for over a century. But, in 1620 English colonists made the first permanent European settlement at Plymouth. The land they found, however, resembled more of a graveyard, than the thriving community it had once been.
Records kept by Bradford, tell of the horrors that the Wampanoag endured. After journeying forty files from Plymouth to visit Massasoit, the colonists, “found his place… the soil good, and the people not many, being dead and abundantly wasted in the late great mortality which fell in all these parts about three years before the coming of the English, wherein thousands of them died.”4
Fortunately for Massasoit, the English colonizers who washed up on shore aboard the Mayflower proved completely inept. Having lived largely in cities in England, and then the Netherlands, prior to traversing the Atlantic, few, if any, of the ‘Pilgrims’ had the wherewithal to hunt or farm. And, when they did happen to catch a rabbit or deer, butchering the animal presented its own challenges. Austere folk, the Puritans, desperately trying to survive, often turned to the age old Christian tradition of fasting to appease God.5
Massasoit no doubt knew of the English settlers’ condition. William Bradford, recalling the early days of the Plymouth colony, wrote of how “the Indians came skulking about” the settlement. Most likely serving as Wampanoag scouts, these men would have reported to Massasoit on what they had seen. Watching from a safe distance, Wamponoag scouts would have noted that over the course of two or three months, during the hardest parts of the New England winter, half the English settlers died. Overcome by “the scurvy and other diseases” brought on by the arduous task of crossing the Atlantic, only 50 or so of those who came ashore in the Mayflower still drew breath when spring arrived.6
What the colonists lacked in knowledge, experience, and numbers, they made up for in guns and powder. Again, while we can’t know what Massasoit was thinking, as he left no written records, English powder backing up his warriors could very well have seemed like the best of a bad situation. The Narragansett, the largest nation in New England at the time and enemies of the Wampanoag, had not suffered the same devastating effects of the 1616 plague, protected by their geographical isolation from white settlers.7 In comparison to their traditional foe, the starving English colonists seemed like no threat at all.
Seeing an opportunity, Massasoit and the Wampanoag sent an emissary in the early spring, most likely selected for his ability to speak “broken English.” Bradford recorded this man’s name as Samasett, and told of how he acquainted “them with many things concerning the state of the country in the east-parts where he lived… as also of the people here, of their names, number and strength; of their situation and distance from this place, and who was chief amongst them.”8
During the first of several visits by Wampanoag parties, Samasett and his cohorts, which included Tesquantum, laid the groundwork for a more formal political parlay, and “made way for the coming of their great Sachem… Massaoit.” Having made up his mind that they needed the English, and the English needed them, Massasoit crafted a treaty with the governor of the Plymouth colony. The terms of the treaty, as recounted by an eye witness, Edward Winslow were six-fold:10
1. That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people.
2. And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him.
3. That if any of our tools were taken away when our people are at work, he should cause them to be restored, and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the like to them.
4. If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, he should aid us.
5. He should send to his neighbor confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
6. That when their men came to us, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them, as we should do our pieces when we came to them.
And the alliance, though born of mutual necessity more than amity, received its share of tests. In one of the chapters of his Relation or Journal of the Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plymouth, Edward Winslow described how “the Narragansetts had spoiled some of Massasoit’s men, and taken him.” Fearing what “what was become of our friend Massasoit,” the English, Winslow in tow, “set out ten armed men.” Marching into Narraganset territory, the English aided their Wampanoag allies in brining Massasoit home.11 The alliance had proven its worth.
About a year after the Wampanoag and Puritans reached their agreement, the feast that Americans would one day call the first Thanksgiving took place. While the fanciful histories American children are taught in schools tell us the Pilgrims invited their saviors, the Wampanoag, to sup with them in mutual celebration, nothing could be further from the truth. While the Wampanoag, and men such as Tisquantum (or Squanto) assisted their new allies in farming and hunting, the Puritans viewed their native allies as savages, people living in the woods, without knowledge of god or civilization.
Despite lacking an invitation, Massasoit and his people appear in the records the English left of the feast. And though it did not go off as later generations would portray it, this ‘first Thanksgiving’ started with a bang. Writing of the event, Winslow recalled12:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms…
Still considering Plymouth their land and believing the Puritan occupants only remained there due to the Wampanoags’ good graces, Massasoit must have been startled by the gun fire coming from the village. Their allies were either under attack or making war on the Wampanoag — neither of which could stand. The Wampanoag sent a party to Plymouth. Winslow remembered how “many of the Indians” appeared in the village, “and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men” now mingled amongst the colonists.
Realizing no threat existed, the shots having been fired in celebration, Wampanoag warriors “went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantain and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.”13 The feast was on.
- William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, Vol. 1, 220.
- Áine Cain, The true story behind Thanksgiving is a bloody struggle that decimated the population and ended with a head on a stick, Business Insider, November 20, 2017.
- Wikipedia, Wampanoag
- Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, 220.
- Richard Greer, The True Story of Thanksgiving, Life, November, 22, 2016.
- Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, 199-201.
- Exactly How New England’s Indian Population Was Nearly Wiped Out, New England Historical Society.
- Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, 199-201.
- Edward Winslow, Relation or Journal of the Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plymouth
- Rebecca Beatrice Brooks, The History of the First Thanksgiving, HistoryofMassachussetts.org.