The following is an excerpt from the book "LIES My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" by James W. Loewen.
Chapter 3 - The Truth about the First Thanksgiving
By James W. Loewen
Over the last few years, I have asked hundreds of college students, "When
was the country we now know as the United States first settled?"
That is a generous way of putting the question. Surely "we now know as"
implies that the original settlement happened before the United States. I
had hoped that students would suggest 30,000 BC, or some other pre-Columbian
date. They did not. Their consensus answer was "1620."
Part of the problem is the word "settle." "Settlers" were white. Indians did
not settle. Nor are students the only people misled by "settle." One recent
Thanksgiving weekend, I listened as a guide at the Statue of Liberty told
about European immigrants "populating a wild East Coast." As we shall see,
however, if Indians had not already settled New England, Europeans would
have had a much tougher job of it.
Starting with the Pilgrims not only leaves out the Indians, but also the
Spanish. In the summer of 1526 five hundred Spaniards and one hundred black
slaves founded a town near the mouth of the Pedee River in what is now South
Carolina. Disease and disputes with nearby Indians caused many deaths.
Finally, in November the slaves rebelled, killed some of their masters, and
escaped to the Indians. By now only 150 Spaniards survived, and they
evacuated back to Haiti. The ex-slaves remained behind. So the first
non-Native settlers in "the country we now know as the United States" were
The Spanish continued their settling in 1565, when they massacred a
settlement of French Protestants at St. Augustine, Florida, and replaced it
with their own fort. Some Spanish were pilgrims, seeking regions new to them
to secure religious liberty: these were Spanish Jews, who settled in New
Mexico in the late 1500s. Few Americans know that one third of the United
States, from San Francisco to Arkansas to Natchez to Florida, has been
Spanish longer than it has been "American." Moreover, Spanish culture left
an indelible impact on the West. The Spanish introduced horses, cattle,
sheep, pigs, and the basic elements of cowboy culture, including its
vocabulary: mustang, bronco, rodeo, lariat, and so on.
Beginning with 1620 also omits the Dutch, who were living in what is now Albany by 1614. Indeed, 1620 is not even the date of the first permanent British settlement, for in 1607, the London Company sent settlers to Jamestown, Virginia. No matter. The mythic origin of "the country we now know as the United States" is at Plymouth Rock, and the year is 1620. My
students are not at fault. The myth is what their testbooks and their
culture have offered them. I examined how twelve textbooks used in high
school American history classes teach Thanksgiving. Here is the version in
one high school history book, THE AMERICAN TRADITION:
After some exploring, the Pilgrims chose the land around Plymouth Harbor for
their settlement. Unfortunately, they had arrived in December and were not
prepared for the New England winter. However, they were aided by friendly
Indians, who gave them food and showed them how to grow corn. When warm
weather came, the colonists planted, fished, hunted, and prepared themselves
for the next winter. After harvesting their first crop, they and their
Indian friends celebrated the first Thanksgiving.
My students also learned that the Pilgrims were persecuted in England for
their religion, so they moved to Holland. They sailed on the Mayflower to
America and wrote the Mayflower Compact. Times were rough, until they met
Squanto. He taught them how to put fish in each corn hill, so they had a
But when I ask them about the plague, they stare back at me. "What plague?
The Black Plague?" No, that was three centuries earlier, I sigh.
"THE WONDERFUL PLAGUE AMONG THE SAVAGES"
The Black Plague does provide a useful introduction, however. Black (or
bubonic) Plague "was undoubtedly the worst disaster that has ever befallen
mankind." In three years it killed 30 percent of the population of Europe.
Catastrophic as it was, the disease itself comprised only part of the
horror. Thinking the day of judgment was imminent, farmers failed to plant
crops. Many people gave themselves over to alcohol. Civil and economic
disruption may have caused as much death as the disease itself.
For a variety of reasons --- their probable migration through cleansing
Alaskan ice fields, better hygiene, no livestock or livestock-borne
microbes --- Americans were in Howard Simpson's assessment "a remarkable
healthy race" before Columbus. Ironically, their very health now proved
their undoing, for they had built up no resistance, genetically or through
childhood diseases, to the microbes Europeans and Africans now brought them.
In 1617, just before the Pilgrims landed, the process started in southern
New England. A plague struck that made the Black Death pale by comparison.
Today we think it was the bubonic plague, although pox and influenza are
also candidates. British fishermen had been fishing off Massachusetts for
decades before the Pilgrims landed. After filling their hulls with cod, they
would set forth on land to get firewood and fresh water and perhaps capture
a few Indians to sell into slavery in Europe. On one of these expeditions
they probably transmitted the illness to the people they met. Whatever it
was, within three years this plague wiped out between 90 percent and 96
percent of the inhabitants of southern New England. The Indian societies lay
devastated. Only "the twentieth person is scarce left alive," wrote British
eyewitness Robert Cushman, describing a death rate unknown in all previous
human experience. Unable to cope with so many corpses, survivors fled to the
next tribe, carrying the infestation with them, so that Indians died who had
never seen a white person. Simpson tells what the Pilgrims saw:
The summer after the Pilgrims landed, they sent two envoys on a diplomatic
mission to treat with Massasoit, a famous chief encamped some 40 miles away
at what is now Warren, Rhode Island. The envoys discovered and described a
scene of absolute havoc. Villages lay in ruins because there was no one to
tend them. The ground was strewn with the skulls and the bones of thousands
of Indians who had died and none was left to bury them.
During the next fifteen years, additional epidemics, most of which we know
to have been smallpox, struck repeatedly. Europeans caught smallpox and the
other maladies, to be sure, but most recovered, including, in a later
century, the "heavily pockmarked George Washington." Indians usually died.
Therefore, almost as profound as their effect on Indian demographics was the
impact of the epidemics on the two cultures, European and Indian. The
English Separatists, already seeing their lives as part of a divinely
inspired morality play, inferred that they had God on their side. John
Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, called the plague
"miraculous." To a friend in England in 1634, he wrote:
But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300
miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the small pox which
still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this
place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not fifty, have put
themselves under our protect....
Many Indians likewise inferred that their God had abandoned them. Cushman,
our British eyewitness, reported that "those that are left, have their
courage much abated, and their countenance is dejected, and they seem as a
people affrighted." After all, neither they nor the Pilgrims had access to
the germ theory of disease. Indian healers offered no cure, their religion
no explanation. That of the whites did. Like the Europeans three centuries
before them, many Indians surrendered to alcohol or began to listen to
These epidemics constituted perhaps the most important single geopolitical
event of the first third of the 1600s, anywhere on the planet. They meant
that the British would face no real Indian challenge for their first fifty
years in America. Indeed, the plague helped cause the legendary warm
reception Plymouth enjoyed in its first formative years from the Wampanoags.
Massasoit needed to ally with the Pilgrims because the plague had so
weakened his villages that he feared the Narragansetts to the west.
Moreover, the New England plagues exemplify a process which antedated the
Pilgrims and endures to this day. In 1492, more than 3,000,000 Indians lived
on the island of Haiti. Forty years later, fewer than 300 remained. The
earliest Portuguese found that Labrador teemed with hospitable Indians who
could easily be enslaved. It teems no more. In about 1780, smallpox reduced
the Mandan's of North Dakota from nine villages to two; then in 1837, a
second smallpox epidemic reduced them from 1600 persons to just 31. The
pestilence continues; a fourth of the Yanomamos of northern Brazil and
southern Venezuela died in the year prior to my writing this sentence.
Europeans were never able to "settle" China, India, Indonesia, Japan, or
most of Africa because too many people already lived there. Advantages in
military and social technology would have enabled Europeans to dominate the
Americas, as they eventually dominated China and Africa, but not to "settle"
the New World. For that, the plague was required. Thus, except for the
European (and African) invasion itself, the pestilence was surely the most
important event in the history of America.
What do we learn of all this in the twelve histories I studied? Three offer
some treatment of Indian disease as a factor in European colonization. LIFE
AND LIBERTY does quite a good job. AMERICA PAST AND PRESENT supplies a fine
analysis of the general impact of Indian disease in American history, though
it leaves out the plague at Plymouth. THE AMERICAN WAY is the only text to
draw the appropriate geopolitical inference about the importance of the
Plymouth outbreak, but it never discusses Indian plagues anywhere else.
Unfortunately, the remaining nine books offer almost nothing. Two totally
omit the subject. Each of the other seven furnishes only a fragment of a
paragraph that does not even make it into the index, let alone into
Everyone knew all about the plague in colonial America. Even before the
Mayflower sailed, King James of England gave thanks to "Almighty God in his
great goodness and bounty towards us," for sending "this wonderful plague
among the savages." Today it is no surprise that not one in a hundred of my
college students has ever heard of the plague. Unless they read LIFE AND
LIBERTY or PAST AND PRESENT, no student can come away from these books
thinking of Indians as people who made an impact on North America, who lived
here in considerable numbers, who settled, in short, and were then killed by
disease or arms.
ERRAND INTO THE WILDERNESS
Instead of the plague, our schoolbooks present the story of the Pilgrims as
a heroic myth. Referring to "the little party" in their "small,
storm-battered English vessel," their story line follows Perry Miller's use
of a Puritan sermon title, ERRAND INTO THE WILDERNESS. AMERICAN ADVENTURES
even titles its chapter about British settlement in North America "Opening
the Wilderness." The imagery is right out of Star Trek: "to go boldly where
none dared go before."
The Pilgrims had intended to go to Virginia, where there already was a
British settlement, according to the texts, but "violent storms blew their
ship off course," according to some texts, or else an "error in navigation"
caused them to end up hundreds of miles to the north. In fact, we are not
sure where the Pilgrims planned to go. According to George Willison, Pilgrim
leaders never intended to settle in Virginia. They had debated the relative
merits of Guiana versus Massachusetts precisely because they wanted to be
far from Anglican control in Virginia. They knew quite a bit about
Massachusetts, from Cape Cod's fine fishing to that "wonderful plague." They
brought with them maps drawn by Samuel Champlain when he toured the area in
1605 and a guidebook by John Smith, who had named it "New England" when he
visited in 1614. One text, LAND OF PROMISE, follows Willison, pointing out
that Pilgrims numbered only about thirty-five of the 102 settlers aboard the
Mayflower. The rest were ordinary folk seeking their fortunes in the new
Virginia colony. "The New England landing came as a rude surprise for the
bedraggled and tired [non-Pilgrim] majority on board the Mayflower," says
Promise. "Rumors of mutiny spread quickly." Promise then ties this unrest to
the Mayflower Compact, giving its readers a uniquely fresh interpretation as
to why the colonists adopted it.
Each text offers just one of three reasons---storm, pilot error, or
managerial hijacking--to explain how the Pilgrims ended up in Massachusetts.
Neither here nor in any other historical controversy after 1620 can any of
the twelve bear to admit that it does not know the answer---that studying
history is not just learning answers--that history contains debates. Thus
each book shuts students out from the intellectual excitement of the
Instead, textbooks parade ethnocentric assertions about the Pilgrims as a
flawless unprecedented band laying the foundations of our democracy. John
Garraty presents the Compact this way in AMERICAN HISTORY: "So far as any
record shows, this was the first time in human history that a group of
people consciously created a government where none had existed before." Such
accounts deny students the opportunity to see the Pilgrims as anything other
than pious stereotypes.
"IT WAS WITH GOD'S HELP...FOR HOW ELSE COULD WE HAVE DONE IT?"
Settlement proceeded, not with God's help but with the Indians'. The
Pilgrims chose Plymouth because of its cleared fields, recently planted in
corn, "and a brook of fresh water [that] flowed into the harbor," in the
words of TRIUMPH OF THE AMERICAN NATION. It was a lovely site for a town.
Indeed, until the plague, it had been a town. Everywhere in the hemisphere,
Europeans pitched camp right in the middle of native populations---Cuzco,
Mexico City, Natchez, Chicago. Throughout New England, colonists
appropriated Indian cornfields, which explains why so many town
names---Marshfield, Springfield, Deerfield--end in "field".
Inadvertent Indian assistance started on the Pilgrims' second full day in
Massachusetts. A colonist's journal tells us:
We marched to the place we called Cornhill, where we had found the corn
before. At another place we had seen before, we dug and found some more
corn, two or three baskets full, and a bag of beans. ..In all we had about
ten bushels, which will be enough for seed. It was with God's help that we
found this corn, for how else could we have done it, without meeting some
Indians who might trouble us. ...The next morning, we found a place like a
grave. We decided to dig it up. We found first a mat, and under that a fine
bow...We also found bowls , trays, dishes, and things like that. We took
several of the prettiest things to carry away with us, and covered the body
up again. A place "like a grave!"
More help came from a live Indian, Squanto. Here my students are on familiar
turf, for they have all learned the Squanto legend. LAND OF PROMISE provides
an archetypal account.
Squanto had learned their language, the author explained, from English
fishermen who ventured into the New England waters each summer. Squanto
taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, squash, and pumpkins. Would the small
band of settlers have survived without Squanto's help? We cannot say. But by
the fall of 1621, colonists and Indians could sit down to several days of
feast and thanksgiving to God (later celebrated as the first Thanksgiving).
What do the books leave out about Squanto? First, how he learned English. As
a boy, along with four Penobscots, he was probably stolen by a British
captain in about 1605 and taken to England. There he probably spent nine
years, two in the employ of a Plymouth merchant who later helped finance the
Mayflower. At length, the merchant helped him arrange passage back to
Massachusetts. He was to enjoy home life for less than a year, however. In
1614, a British slave raider seized him and two dozen fellow Indians and
sold them into slavery in Malaga, Spain. Squanto escaped from slavery,
escaped from Spain, made his way back to England, and in 1619 talked a ship
captain into taking him along on his next trip to Cape Cod.
It happens that Squanto's fabulous odyssey provides a "hook" into the plague
story, a hook that our texts choose to ignore. For now Squanto walked to his
home village, only to make the horrifying discovery that, in Simpson's
words, "he was the sole member of his village still alive. All the others
had perished in the epidemic two years before." No wonder he throws in his
lot with the Pilgrims, who rename his village "Plymouth!" Now that is a
story worth telling! Compare the pallid account in LAND OF PROMISE. "He had
learned their language from English fishermen." What do we make of books
that give us the unimportant details--Squanto's name, the occupation of his
enslavers--while omitting not only his enslavement, but also the crucial
fact of the plague? This is distortion on a grand scale.
William Bradford praised Squanto for many services, including his
"bring[ing] them to unknown places for their profit." "Their profit" was the
primary reason most Mayflower colonists made the trip. It too came from the
Indians, from the fur trade; Plymouth would never have paid for itself
without it. Europeans had neither the skill nor the desire to "go boldly
where none dared go before.|" They went to the Indians.
"TRUTH SHOULD BE HELD SACRED, AT WHATEVER COST"
Should we teach these truths about Thanksgiving? Or, like our textbooks,
should we look the other way? Again quoting LAND OF PROMISE. "By the fall of
1621, colonists and Indians could sit down to several days of feast and
thanksgiving to God (later celebrated as the first Thanksgiving)."
Throughout the nation, elementary school children still enact Thanksgiving
every fall as our national origin myth, complete with Pilgrim hats made of
construction paper and Indian braves with feathers in their hair. An early
Massachusetts colonist, Colonel Thomas Aspinwall, advises us not to settle
for this whitewash of feel - good - history.
"It is painful to advert to these things. But our forefathers, though wise,
pious, and sincere, were nevertheless, in respect to Christian charity,
under a cloud; and, in history, truth should be held sacred, at whatever
Thanksgiving is full of embarrassing facts. The Pilgrims did not introduce
the Native Americans to the tradition; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal
harvest celebrations for centuries. Our modern celebrations date back only
to 1863; not until the 1890s did the Pilgrims get included in the tradition;
no one even called them "Pilgrims" until the 1870s. Plymouth Rock achieved
ichnographic status only in the nineteenth century, when some enterprising
residents of the town moved it down to the water so its significance as the
"holy soil" the Pilgrims first touched might seem more plausible. The Rock
has become a shrine, the Mayflower Compact a sacred text, and our textbooks
play the same function as the Anglican BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER, teaching us
the rudiments of the civil religion of Thanksgiving.
Indians are marginalized in this civic ritual. Our archetypal image of the
first Thanksgiving portrays the groaning boards in the woods, with the
Pilgrims in their starched Sunday best and the almost naked Indian guests.
Thanksgiving silliness reaches some sort of zenith in the handouts that
school children have carried home for decades, with captions like, "They
served pumpkins and turkeys and corn and squash. The Indians had never seen
such a feast!" When his son brought home this "information" from his New
Hampshire elementary school, Native American novelist Michael Dorris pointed
out "the Pilgrims had literally never seen `such a feast,' since all foods
mentioned are exclusively indigenous to the Americas and had been provided
by [or with the aid of] the local tribe."
I do not read Aspinwall as suggesting a "bash the Pilgrims" interpretation,
emphasizing only the bad parts. I have emphasized untoward details only
because our histories have suppressed everything awkward for so long. The
Pilgrims' courage in setting forth in the late fall to make their way on a
continent new to them remains unsurpassed. In their first year, like the
Indians, they suffered from diseases. Half of them died. The Pilgrims did
not cause the plague and were as baffled as to its true origin as the
stricken Indian villagers. Pilgrim-Indian relations began reasonably
positively. Thus the antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history,
but honest and inclusive history. "Knowing the truth about Thanksgiving,
both its proud and its shameful motivations and history, might well benefit
contemporary children," suggests Dorris. "But the glib retelling of an
ethnocentric and self-serving falsehood does no one any good." Because
Thanksgiving has roots in both Anglo and Native cultures, and because of the
interracial cooperation the first celebration enshrines, Thanksgiving might
yet develop into a holiday that promotes tolerance and understanding. Its
emphasis on Native foods provides a teachable moment, for natives of the
Americas first developed half of the world's food crops. Texts could tell
this--only three even mention Indian foods---and could also relate other
contributions from Indian societies, from sports to political ideas. The
original Thanksgiving itself provides an interesting example: the Natives
and newcomers spent the better part of three days showing each other their
Origin myths do not come cheaply. To glorify the Pilgrims is dangerous. The
genial omissions and false details our texts use to retail the Pilgrim
legend promote Anglocentrism, which only handicaps us when dealing with all
those whose culture is not Anglo. Surely, in history, "truth should be held
sacred, at whatever cost."
Reproduced without permission from James W. Loewen
Corrections by Frank Smith, November 29, 2002
This page stolen from http://www.trinicenter.com/historicalviews/thanksgiving.htm