The foundational U.S. myth

All societies survive on myths – whether fraudulent, foundational or both – but one of the most widely of those celebrated among Western world nations (other than Christmas and which encompasses both) is the US Thanksgiving holiday.

For those few who may not know it, Thanksgiving is a federal holiday in the United States, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November which has been celebrated nationally on and off since 1789, when a proclamation by President George Washington made it a public holiday after a request by Congress and after another affirmation by Lincoln.

These days much of its popularity stems from the fact that, because it happens on a Thursday, it gives Americans the rare chance to have a long weekend; clog up airports around the country; and, lead to the massacre of many turkeys other than the one traditionally ‘pardoned’ by the US President.

If it had been a hamburger with chips in the years under the Trump administration it might not have been spared and simply added to the Trump obesity. But even the grabber in chief couldn’t diss this part of the myth. Although what might happen if he is re-elected is an open question.

The core of the myth dates back to March 1621 when one of the various British expeditions, the starving Mayflower Plymouth Pilgrim Fathers, was allegedly rescued by the local First Nations people, the Wampanoags, who offered them food and welcomed them to the land.

This was roughly about the time of the Roanoke settlement (if they had all ended up like that the world might have been a better place) and other English settlements in what is now the US and when various nations were seeking to either find the North West Passage or exploit the cod fisheries off the Newfoundland and north eastern US coasts.

David J. Silverman’s 2019 book, This Land is Their Land, tells the story in time for the 400th anniversary given some date confusion because the Pilgrim Fathers were operating, like the English, on the Julian Calendar.

Silverman starts by demolishing the myth of the wilderness found by the colonists and instead details the sophisticated society and agricultural systems of the locals. He also describes how earlier Europeans mariners were not ‘explorers’ but slavers who raided the Wampanoag capturing people for sale in Spain and thence to other places.

The Pilgrim Fathers arrived after earlier Europeans who came to the land had left behind a devastating epidemic – probably small pox – which killed much of the population. They found paths, cemeteries and sophisticated agriculture and corn storage places. Needless to say they desecrated the burial places, raided the crops and stole the stored corns.

When the Wampanoag’s sachem (chief) Ousemaquin, finally made contact with the newcomers they were in dire straits suffering from hunger and a high death rate. They were lucky enough that he was prepared to assist them in return for assistance in terms of providing guns, goods and assistance to help him dealing with other nations in the area.

It was always from the Wampanoag’s perspective a quid pro quo. From the Mayflower lot it was a form of submission. From there things went downhill and the myth was born that the sacheme had arrived at a particularly low point for the Plymouth lot to provide them with food, submission and admittance to the country – thanksgiving for their arrival in other words.

As Silverman says: “Subtly the Thanksgiving myth buttresses this fallacy by making the Mayflower passengers the dynamic initiators of contact with a Wampanoag population that seems to be have been waiting passively to be discovered.”

From then on things got worse and the English were lucky that the Wampanoags did not take the opportunity to wipe out the small European population when they had the chance. From there things went downhill culminating 50 years later in the belated attempt to do that in King Phillip’s War when Ousemaquien’s descendants fought back against the arbitrary seizure of land, exploitation and massive discrimination.

It should be said, on the basis of both Silverman and Jill Lepore’s 1998 book, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American identity, that the English had managed to divide the First Nations in the area; recruit the Christianised Wampanoag to do what Christians of the time did – massacre each other; and, exploit traditional tribal divisions (particularly the Mohawks’ attitude to the Wampanoags)

Families revered in US history – such as the Winslows – were deeply involved in the destruction of the Wampanoag society and for centuries after in policies which fraudulently deprived the First Nations of property; enslaved them and sent them to the Caribbean to die on plantations; and, in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries used legal artifices to deprive them of land and create a new form of debt-laden enslavement.

And while disease and slavery ravaged the Wampagoan population the Pilgrims started to experience rapid population growth. In a healthier environment than England average ages got to 60 and women were regularly having up to eight children suggesting how much the Mayflower Puritans loved sex.

By the 20th century successive governments insisted that the Wampagoans had lost their identity and tried to deprive them of the odd bits of land they still controlled of the area they once dominated.

Today, for most Americans, Thanksgiving is just a long weekend with lots of food (based on a mythical view of the food eaten back in 1621), while many schools and communities continue to put on pageants featuring primitive ‘Indians’ thankfully providing feasts to Pilgrims even though there are now considerable efforts to counter this myth with reality.

Even the town of Plymouth is now grudgingly and incrementally coming around although, in 1997, the Plymouth police pepper sprayed a local activist who protested that Thanksgiving was actually a day of mourning.

Silverman says: “If how we tell history is one of the ways we shape our present and future, we can do no better than to rethink the myth of the First Thanksgiving and its role in the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Equally Australians could do no better than rethink Australia Day and perhaps even Anzac Day.