ITHACA, N.Y. – Educator and storyteller Perry Ground says almost everything Americans learn about the history of Thanksgiving is a made-up story. At Plimoth Plantation in 1621, there was no turkey. The English settlers weren’t called Pilgrims. The Mayflower didn’t land ashore on the boulder now known as Plymouth Rock.
English settlers and Native Americans really did feast together in 1621 though, and according to Ground it was a cross-cultural celebration worthy of emulating.
“It was two very different groups of people who came together in peaceful coexistence,” Ground told an audience of about 60 people, young and old, at Monday’s “Rethinking Thanksgiving: A Native American Perspective on an American Holiday” event at the Tompkins County Public Library. It was his fourth year giving the talk in Ithaca.
Ground is a member of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, which belongs to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy spanned upstate New York before European colonization. Usually, Ground’s storytelling focuses on Haudenosaunee culture, but over the years he has become a self-described “expert on Thanksgiving.”
Ground said there’s a limit to what we can know about the feast at Plimoth Plantation. Only one written record of the event exists: a letter sent back to England by Edward Winslow, who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower, sharing news of the settlers’ successful harvest.
“For three days we entertained and feasted,” Winslow wrote, with “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men.”
When the Mayflower set sail for North America, Winslow was one of 102 passengers. By the time the Mayflower anchored off the coast of Cape Cod in the fall of 1620, one person had died and one had been born. By the time the settlers feasted with more than 90 of their Wampanoag neighbors, only 53 remained.
The settlers, who called themselves “the Saints” and were known as separatists to their countrymen in England, had endured a long winter and spring of sickness and starvation after landing in Massachusetts. “They did not have bad intentions coming here,” Ground said, but desperation had led to tension with nearby indigenous communities.
Starving, the settlers dug up corn they found buried in the sand. The corn belonged to the Patuxet, a member tribe of the Wampanoag Confederacy that governed the area.
Ground said some contemporary critics seize on conflict between the settlers and Wampanoag to fit Thanksgiving within the arc of colonial conquest. In fact, he said, the Plimoth governor had a meeting with the Wampanoag sachem, or chief, Massasoit. The governor apologized for stealing the corn, and the sachem forgave him.
In Ground’s modernized re-telling, Massasoit said, “Alright, I can dig that, but you’ve gotta pay it back.’”
By fall, Winslow wrote, “Our corn did prove well.” The harvest came through. The settlers paid their debt to the Wampanoag. By then, the groups had agreed to a peace treaty, and with a feast they strengthened their trust.
Ground does not sugarcoat the violence inflicted on indigenous people by Europeans. After holding for 50 years, the peace treaty between the settlers and Wampanoag ended as brutal fighting swept the region. At the same time, Ground cautions against painting all of North American colonial history with a broad brush.
“The ‘first Thanksgiving’ we saw was very good,” he said. “When I think of that harvest festival, I don’t think of something bad.”
Ground said the settlers and Wampanoag who gathered likely ate venison, corn and turnips. They might have had waterfowl and they might have seasoned dishes with eel. Pumpkin was probably on the menu, but certainly not pie, what with their lack of sugar and dairy. Peas were expected, but weren’t available due to a poor yield.
Over three days, the group danced and played music. “Amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes,” Winslow wrote – they fired guns for sport. They might have played a dice game called hubbub or raced canoes, Ground speculated.
Ground said it is clear from Winslow’s letter that “to this group of people, it wasn’t even a thanksgiving.” At the time, a thanksgiving was a religious day of prayer and fasting, quite the opposite of the raucous harvest feast.
The Thanksgiving we now celebrate has little to do with the feast in 1621. It wasn’t until 1863, with a declaration from Abraham Lincoln, that Thanksgiving became an official holiday. The declaration followed an intense lobbying effort by Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the most popular women’s magazine of the day.
Hale popularized the idea of a Thanksgiving feast in a novel and shared recipes and table-setting ideas in the Godey’s Lady’s Book. She is responsible for Thanksgiving traditions from turkey to pumpkin pie.
While contemporary Thanksgiving rituals can’t be traced to the “first Thanksgiving” celebration in Plimoth, Ground said we might look back to the feast as a model for the current holiday. “I wish that was the ideal we’d stuck with – peaceful coexistence and sharing cultures,” he said.
Featured image: Perry Ground presents the “Re-thinking Thanksgiving: A Native American Perspective on an American Holiday” at the Tompkins County Public Library. (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice)