In the familiar American account of the first Thanksgiving, in 1621, the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth were pious English refugees, one of many boatloads of Europeans who fled the tyranny of the Old World to become a liberty-loving people in the New World. The Indians whom they encountered (rarely identified by tribe) overcame their caution and proved to be friendly (a term requiring no explanation). Their chief, Massasoit, was a magnanimous host who took pity on the bedraggled strangers, taught them how to plant corn and where to fish, and thereby helped them survive their first harsh winters in America. Like Pocahontas and Sacagawea, two of the other famous Indians in American lore, Massassoit’s people helped the colonizers and then moved offstage.
Contrary to the Thanksgiving myth, though, friendliness does not account for the alliance the Wampanoag tribe made with the nascent Plymouth settlement. The Wampanoags had an internal politics all their own; its dynamics had been shaped by many years of tense interaction with Europeans, and by deadly plagues that ravaged the tribe’s home region as the pace of English exploration accelerated. Chief Massassoit—whom historians today generally refer to as the sachem Ousamequin—faced stiff opposition from his own people as he tried to manage the English newcomers and looked for ways to survive the forces of colonization already tearing at the Wampanoags.
The traditional Pilgrim-centered account of the era, according to which the Wampanoags all but consented to their own displacement, comes from documents left behind by English colonists and later white Americans—including missionaries, diplomats, fur traders, curious travelers, and others. Yet to acknowledge that Wampanoag perspectives are distorted or selectively represented in the historical record is not to say they are absent. However imperfectly, those same sources also shine light on how these events looked to the Wampanoags, who had been dealing with European voyagers intermittently since at least 1524 and nearly annually since 1602—that is, years before the Pilgrims arrived.
In 1614, Captain Thomas Hunt had anchored his ship in the harbor of the Wampanoag community of Patuxet—the very site where the colony of Plymouth would be founded six years later—and invited curious members of the tribe onboard. Though meetings between European explorers and Native Americans tended to degenerate into bloodshed, the lure of trade was too enticing for either party to resist. Europeans sought furs, particularly beaver pelts, to sell back home. The Wampanoags wanted to pick through the strangers’ merchandise of metal tools, jewelry, and cloth. And so a number of them—including a man named Tisquantum, or Squanto for short—went aboard Hunt’s vessel.
Hunt double-crossed them, seizing 20 of their men, then stuffing them below decks. Soon seven other Wampanoags farther east at Nauset fell into the same trap, joining their tribesmen on a horrific oceanic journey toward an unimaginable destiny. It would have come as cold comfort when they discovered Hunt’s actual plan to sell them as enslaved people in Málaga, Spain, alongside his catch of fish. That is the last we hear of most of these unfortunate souls, who disappeared into Iberia’s mass of bound laborers drawn from around the globe.
Tisquantum very nearly shared this end but for two strokes of fortune. First, a group of friars blocked his sale, doubtlessly citing a routinely ignored Spanish law that Native Americans should not be enslaved. Then, after an uncertain period of time, Tisquantum made contact with one of Málaga’s many English merchants who, in turn, took him to London.
Finally, in 1618, Tisquantum got his chance to return to his native land. He was introduced to Captain Thomas Dermer, who, back in 1614, had been part of the very exploring and fishing expedition that had kidnapped Tisquantum. By this point, Tisquantum had learned enough English to offer his services to Dermer in exchange for passage home. As it turned out, Dermer was just the right person for such an overture. Dermer’s employer, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, was a prime mover of English colonization schemes and, as such, a collector of captive Native Americans who could serve as cultural brokers.
By 1619, Gorges financed an expedition by Dermer to send the Wampanoag home and see what they could accomplish together. Yet when Dermer set sail for the New England coast that spring, he knew that he was heading to a place with a growing reputation for violence between Native Americans and European explorers. Harrowing stories of the two peoples capturing and killing each other had been in circulation among sailors for years. As for Tisquantum, his heart must have been ready to burst with relief, because five years of forced exile were about to end. Then the worry set in.
Doubtless Tisquantum had already heard from English sailors that a terrible disease had struck the Wampanoags during his absence, but there was no way for him to prepare for what he saw when Dermer’s ship reached American shores. Landing in Maine, the ship sailed south along a coastline usually teeming with people at work in their cornfields and villages. This time, however, there was no one to be seen or heard. Tisquantum’s anxiety must have built with every moment until the ship finally reached Plymouth Harbor, when the grim truth finally emerged. According to Nathaniel Morton, who visited the place in 1622 and went on to become Plymouth colony’s secretary and historian, Patuxet and the surrounding country had turned into “sad spectacles of … mortality”; they exhibited “many bones and skulls of the dead lying above the ground,” like inverted cemeteries. The exuberant homecoming Tisquantum had been imagining for years had instead uncovered a tragedy of epic proportions. The majority of the Wampanoags were dead.
Dermer’s life was in danger too, though he seems to have been oblivious to it. After dropping off Tisquantum at Cape Cod, Dermer proceeded to Martha’s Vineyard, where he was stunned to be greeted by a Wampanoag who spoke “indifferent good English.” The man, whose name was Epenow, was another former captive of Dermer’s employer. Dermer believed that Epenow had gotten over his former plight, insofar as he “laughed at his own escape and reported the story of it,” as the English captain recorded their exchange. Indeed, in broken English he invited Dermer to return to the Vineyard to trade for furs after the captain completed his voyage down the coast to Virginia. The Englishman’s greed led him right into Epenow’s snare.
Dermer returned to southern New England in June 1620 to take up Epenow’s offer, but he should have thought twice. Tisquantum rejoined the expedition and told the English captain that the Wampanoags would not welcome the visit. According to Dermer’s account, Tisquantum warned that an English vessel had recently visited the Wampanoag community of Pokanoket, invited “many” of the people aboard, and then “made a great slaughter with their murderers”—that is, small cannons—even though the Wampanoags “offered no injury on their parts.” The identity of the captain who committed this outrage went undocumented, but to the Wampanoags it hardly mattered. He was just one more in a string of overseas brutes who left them with “an inveterate malice to the English”—all of them.
Eager for riches, Dermer pressed on to the Vineyard anyway. When he went ashore, the landing party was attacked, and all but one of his men were killed. Dermer himself was badly injured before escaping to the mother ship, and died after sailing back to Virginia for medical treatment. The sailors who had remained on the main vessel during the attack lived to tell this tale. Tisquantum escaped from the fray alive, whereupon the Vineyard Wampanoags transferred him to their primary sachem, Ousamequin. The great leader knew this bilingual globe-trotter would be useful whenever the strangers returned.
Just months later, the Mayflower appeared off Cape Cod.
The Wampanoags were deeply divided over what to do with these new arrivals, given the enslavement, murder, and disease that Europeans had inflicted on them. Ousamequin favored cultivating the English as military allies and sources of metal weaponry to fend off the Narragansett tribe to the west, who had escaped the epidemic and were using their newfound advantage in strength to reduce the Wampanoags to tributaries. In later years, Ousamequin frankly acknowledged that he was willing to have peace with the English because, as Plymouth’s William Bradford and Edward Winslow recounted, “he has a potent adversary in the Narragansetts, that are at war with him, against whom he thinks we may be of some strength to him, for our pieces”—guns—“are terrible to them.” Ousamequin also seems to have believed that the English had weaponized disease, which he hoped to put to Wampanoag use. At one point, according to the fur trader Thomas Morton, he asked his English friends to send the plague against another sachem—probably the Narragansett leader Canonicus—whose territories bordered the Wampanoags’.
Yet many Wampanoags bitterly disagreed with Ousamequin. Some of them attributed the epidemic to a curse put on them by a shipwrecked Frenchman whom they had held as a slave. According to New England’s Memorial, an early volume of colonial history, the Frenchman had admonished the Indians “that God was angry with them for their wickedness, and would destroy them, and give their country to another people.” A number of Wampanoags feared that the Pilgrims were conquerors of this prophecy and therefore favored cutting them off. Others, Epenow among them, saw the Pilgrims as belonging to the same class of men who had been slaving and slaughtering their way along the coast. Why allow such scoundrels to gain a foothold in Wampanoag country?
These tensions nearly destroyed Plymouth and the Wampanoag polity along with it. A Wampanoag sachem named Corbitant conspired with the Narragansetts to unseat Ousamequin and put Plymouth to the knife. It took an English military strike orchestrated by Ousamequin to snuff out this fire. A year later, Ousamequin warned Plymouth that Wampanoags from the Vineyard and Cape Cod were plotting with the Massachusett tribe to attack Plymouth and a small English fur-trade post to the north. He foiled the scheme by directing an English attack, this time against the Massachusett tribe. It was his way of warning Wampanoag dissidents that they would be next if they continued to undermine his leadership.
The so-called first Thanksgiving was the fruit of a political decision on Ousamequin’s part. Violent power politics played a much more important role in shaping the Wampanoag-English alliance than the famous feast. At least in the short term, Ousamequin’s league with the newcomers was the right gamble, insofar as the English helped to fend off the rival Narragansetts and uphold Ousamequin’s authority. In the long term, however, it was a grave miscalculation. Plymouth and the other New England colonies would soon go on to conquer Ousamequin’s people, just as the Frenchman’s curse had augured and just as the Wampanoags who opposed the Pilgrims feared that they would.
Throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th, the work of most American historians contributed to a powerful narrative in which the Pilgrims laid the foundations for the United States so it could fulfill its manifest destiny. Since the 1960s, historians have approached the sources from a different angle, and serious, critical history tends to be hard on the living. Seeing Native Americans and other marginalized groups as our fellow citizens, and concerned with how triumphalist historical narratives have buttressed chauvinism in American foreign policy and white supremacy on U.S. soil, scholars have more and more focused on people of all complexions, classes, sexes, and conditions, not just the victors. It is not easy to recover the experiences of such historical actors given the silences and biases of records compiled overwhelmingly by powerful interests. Yet careful reading, resourcefulness, perseverance, and imagination sometimes can bring previously ignored or suppressed stories to the fore. The result is not only better history, but a better path forward for our society.