The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving

In March 1621, when Plymouth’s survival was hanging in the balance, the Massasoit Ousamequin and Plymouth’s governor, John Carver, declared their people’s friendship for each other and a commitment to mutual defense. Later that autumn, the English gathered their first successful harvest and lifted the specter of starvation. Now, 400 years after that famous meal, historian David J. Silverman sheds profound new light on the events that led to the creation, and bloody dissolution, of this alliance. Click here for an 68-minute video put on by the National Council for History Education on November 4, 2022.

Focusing on the Wampanoag Indians, Silverman (above, left) deepens the narrative to consider tensions that developed well before 1620 and lasted long after the devastating war-tracing the Wampanoags’ ongoing struggle for self-determination up to this very day.

(Above) A 1605 map by Samuel de Champlain shows Plymouth as a thriving Indigenous settlement before the Great Dying, and a map of the tribes at the time shows Sowams, the home of the Pokanokets whose signature of Philip or Metacom is also shown. Ousamequin and 90 of his men happened by Plymouth and took part in the misnamed “First Thanksgiving” in the fall of 1621. A treaty signed that year remained operative until King Philip’s War in 1675, when 50 years of uneasy peace between the two parties would come to an end.

(Above) Silverman talks about William Apes (left) and Frank James (right) who decried the Thankgiving myth that is traditionally taught to school children. This unsettling history reveals why some modern Native people hold a Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving, a holiday which decries the myth of colonialism and white proprietorship of the United States. Silverman’s book, This Land is Their Land, shows that it is time to rethink how we, as a pluralistic nation, tell the history of Thanksgiving.