The first Thanksgiving is a key chapter in America’s origins story – but what happened in Virginia four months later mattered much more

In the 19th century, there was a campaign to link Thanksgiving to pilgrims. Bettman/Getty Images

Peter C. Mancall, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving in New England. Remembered and told as an allegory of perseverance and cooperation, the story of that first Thanksgiving has become an important part of how Americans view the founding of their country.

But what happened four months later, from March 1622 some 600 miles south of Plymouth, is, I believe, far more representative of the country’s origins – a story not of peaceful coexistence but of mistrust, displacement and repression.

As a scholar of colonial New England and Virginia, I have often wondered why Americans tended to pay so much less attention to other English migrants of the same era.

The conquest and settlement of New England mattered, of course. But the experience of the Pilgrims in the early 1620s tells us less about the colonial era than about events in Chesapeake Bay, where the English had established Jamestown in 1607.

A compelling origin story

Pilgrims etched their place in the nation’s history long ago as brave survivors who persevered despite harsh conditions. Ill-prepared for the New England winter of 1620–1621, they took advantage of a terrible epidemic that raged among the native peoples of the region from 1616–1619, which reduced competition for resources.

After enduring a winter in which perhaps half the migrants succumbed, the survivors welcomed the fall harvest of 1621. They survived because the local Wampanoags had taught them to grow corn, the most popular crop. important in much of eastern North America. In November, Pilgrims and Wampanoags shared a three-day feast.

It was the event that now marks the first American day of Thanksgiving, even though many indigenous peoples had long had 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 Maine. coast in 1607.

A Native American woman presents a turkey to a pilgrim.
A 1912 postcard depicts goodwill and cooperation between Native Americans and settlers. Samantha Vuignier/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1623, Plymouth Pilgrims declared a day to thank their God for bringing rain when it looked like their corn crop might wither in a brutal drought. They probably celebrated it at the end of July. In 1777, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, members of the Continental Congress declared Thanksgiving Day for December 18. Pilgrims were not even mentioned.

In the 19th century, however, the annual Thanksgiving holiday became tied to New England, largely as a result of campaigns to make the Plymouth experience one of the nation’s origin stories. Proponents of this narrative identified the Mayflower Compact as the starting point for representative government and praised the religious freedom they saw in New England – at least for Americans of European descent.

For most of the last century, American presidents have mentioned the pilgrims in their annual proclamation, helping to solidify the connection between the holidays and these immigrants.

In Virginia, a tenuous peace is shattered

But the events in Plymouth in 1621 that came to be written into the national narrative were not typical.

A more telling incident took place in Virginia in 1622.

Since 1607, English migrants had maintained a small community in Jamestown, where the settlers struggled mightily to survive. Unable to figure out how to find fresh water, they drank from the James River, even during the summer months when the water level dropped and turned the river into a swamp. The bacteria they consumed caused typhoid fever and dysentery.

Despite a mortality rate that reaches 50% in some years, the English decide to stay. Their investment paid off in the mid-1610s when an enterprising settler named John Rolfe planted West Indian tobacco seeds in the region’s fertile soil. The industry quickly exploded.

But economic success did not mean that the colony would prosper. The early survival of the English in Virginia depended on the good graces of the local native population. By 1607, Wahunsonacock, the leader of an alliance of natives called Tsenacomoco, had spent a generation forming a confederacy of about 30 separate communities along the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. The English called him Powhatan and referred to his followers as Powhatans.

Wahunsonacock could probably have prevented the English from establishing their community at Jamestown; after all, the Powhatans controlled most of the resources in the area. In 1608, when the newcomers were on the brink of starvation, the Powhatans provided them with food. Wahunsonacock also spared the life of Captain John Smith after his people captured the Englishman.

Wahunsonacock’s actions revealed his strategic thinking. Rather than seeing the newcomers as all-powerful, he probably thought the English would become a subordinate community under his control. After a 1609–1614 war between the English and the Powhatans, Wahunsonacock and his allies agreed to peace and coexistence.

Wahunsonacock died in 1618. Shortly after his death, Opechancanough, probably one of Wahunsonacock’s brothers, became a chief of the Powhatans. Unlike his predecessor, Opechancanough viewed the English with suspicion, especially when they pushed into Powhatan lands to expand their tobacco fields.

By the spring of 1622, Opechancanough had had enough. On March 22, he and his allies launched a surprise attack. By the end of the day they had killed 347 Englishmen. They could have killed more, except that a Powhatan who had converted to Christianity had warned some of the English, giving them time to escape.

Within months, news of the violence spread through England. Edward Waterhouse, the Colonial Secretary, details the “Barbarian Massacre” in a short pamphlet. A few years later, a Frankfurt printmaker captured European fears of Native Americans in a haunting illustration for a translation of Waterhouse’s book.

Engraving of Native Americans massacring settlers.
Matthäus Merian’s woodcut depicts brutal bloodshed in Jamestown, shaping European attitudes toward Native Americans. Wikimedia Commons

Waterhouse wrote of those who died “under the bloody and barbarous hands of this treacherous and inhuman people”. He reported that the victors had desecrated English corpses. He called them “savages” and resorted to common European descriptions of “Wyld Naked Natives”. He swore revenge.

Over the next decade, English soldiers waged a brutal war against the Powhatans, repeatedly burning the Powhatans’ fields at harvest time in an attempt to starve and drive them away.

Conflict over cooperation

The orchestrated Powhatan attack anticipated further Native rebellions against aggressive European colonizers in North America in the 17th century.

The English response, too, fit a pattern: any sign of resistance by “pagans,” as Waterhouse called the Powhatans, had to be suppressed to advance the European desire to convert Native Americans to Christianity, claim native lands, and to satisfy European customers who were clamoring for goods produced in America.

It was this dynamic – not that of the brotherhood found in Plymouth in 1621 – that would define the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers for more than two centuries.

Before the end of the century, violence also erupted in New England, erasing the positive legacy of the 1621 holiday. In 1675, simmering tensions exploded into a war that spread across the region. Per capita, it was one of the deadliest conflicts in American history.

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In 1970, an Aquinnah Wampanoag elder named Wamsutta, on the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival, pointed to generations of violence against Indigenous communities and dispossession. Since that day, many Native Americans have observed a National Day of Mourning instead of Thanksgiving.

Today’s Thanksgiving — with schoolboys’ construction paper turkeys and the tale of camaraderie and cooperation between settlers and Native Americans — obscures the more tragic legacy of the early 17th century.

Peter C. Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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