The first Thanksgiving, as history textbooks have informed generations of students, brought the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony together with local Algonquian-speaking Indians in 1621. Natives and newcomers shared a harvest meal, which most likely included maize (“Indian corn”), various root crops, turkey and venison.
But the good times did not last. Sixteen years after that banquet, colonists went to war with the Pequots, the original inhabitants of modern-day Rhode Island and southwestern Connecticut, because they feared these natives were preparing to drive the settlers out. At the height of the war, the English and their Narragansett allies surrounded a Pequot village on the banks of the Mystic River, set it on fire and slew the Indians who ran for their lives.
According to William Bradford, then governor of Plymouth Plantation, about 400 Pequots died that night. One English witness, anticipating that the colonists’ actions would arouse accusations that they had not acted like good Christians, resorted to a biblical defense, claiming that God had sanctioned their actions. From that moment forward, natives and newcomers in the area looked at each other with suspicion.
Yet war between colonizers and indigenous peoples was not inevitable. When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, the Algonquian speakers of the region had little anxiety about them. The Indians did not know that the Pilgrims feared the “wild men,” as Bradford called them. Indeed, some colonists sympathized with the Indians, many of whom succumbed to an epidemic, possibly of plague, that raced through the region with deadly efficiency in 1617.
One Englishman who sought friendship with the Indians was Thomas Morton, an Anglican who believed that colonists and natives of what was becoming “New England” could find a way to live side by side. Morton, a bitter foe of Bradford and other Pilgrims -- he referred to their military leader Myles Standish as “Captain Shrimp” -- tried to create a different kind of colonial settlement. Had he gotten his way (as the Pilgrims feared he would), there likely would have been far less violence between natives and newcomers, and a much greater chance that the spirit of that first Thanksgiving would have lasted.
Modern Americans often forget that it was difficult for the English to establish successful communities on the Eastern seaboard. Earlier efforts at colonization -- on Baffin Island in northern Canada in the 1570s, in Newfoundland in 1583 and in Maine in 1607 -- failed. The English colony at Jamestown, on the banks of Chesapeake Bay, remained precarious throughout the early 17th century. In March 1622, the people of Tsenecommacah (the English called them Powhatans) launched a series of raids that killed 347 colonists.
Morton wanted to avoid such bloodshed in Plymouth by making alliances with Indians. He learned the local Algonquian language, and in 1625 he helped establish a new town at Ma-re-mount -- later Merrymount (modern Quincy, Massachusetts) -- where he hoped to trade with the Indians. The village attracted enough English and natives that its founder’s actions soon aroused the colony’s officials. Morton and his followers fashioned a maypole from an 80-foot pine tree and danced around it, following folk customs in Europe. It was so tall that other colonists used it as a landmark. Morton also offered his Indian neighbors firearms and alcohol.
The Pilgrims fumed at these endeavors. They likened the maypole to the biblical calf of Horeb, the golden idol that ancient Israelites danced around as they awaited Moses’s return from Mount Sinai. Morton’s presence in the territory began to represent a threat to the Plymouth community. Bradford claimed the residents were profane and that Morton headed “a School of Atheism.” In 1628, the authorities arrested him and sent him back to England.
Morton soon returned, however, this time running afoul of the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Plymouth was a separate colony until it was absorbed into Massachusetts in 1691.) Morton’s adversaries included Governor John Winthrop, who was delighted when a local court judged Morton guilty of the rather implausible claim that his actions had harmed Indians and that he had committed other unnamed misdemeanors. In September 1630, colonial authorities deported him again and ordered his house burnt down.
‘New English Canaan’
During his second time back in England, which lasted more than a decade, Morton wrote a small book titled “New English Canaan,” which offered a perspective of early New England quite different from Bradford’s. Rather than attribute the plight of natives (and everyone else) to the unfolding of a divine plan, Morton acknowledged that the actions of the English threatened indigenous communities. The Massachusett Indians, he noted, called the colonists “wotawquenange” -- “cutthroats.”
In his book, Morton excoriated colonial authorities for their treatment of the natives, especially Winthrop, whom he compared to the biblical figure of Ananias, struck dead by God for lying to the apostle Peter. Morton also reported what he had learned from the Massachusett sachem Cheecatawback about how the Pilgrims had mistreated Indians -- for instance, by defacing the grave of the sachem’s mother. Morton declared that the local Algonquians had much to offer to the English and could show the colonists how to make a profit from the land. His book was published in 1637, the year of the Pequot War.
By 1644, Morton was back in Massachusetts and soon found himself facing charges that he had committed treason against colonial officials. The evidence consisted of both his book and reports that he had tried to have the Massachusetts charter revoked. Banished for a third time, Morton fled to the small settlement of Acomenticus (modern York, Maine). By the time of his death, in 1646 or 1647, there was little reason to hope that a multicultural New England might ever exist.
Despite periods of relative peace, tensions between natives and newcomers remained high. In the mid-1670s, Metacom’s War, also known as King Philip’s War, raged across New England. By the time it ended, thousands of natives and hundreds of colonists were dead, and the colonists had sold captive Indians into slavery. The casualty rate, measured as a percentage of the entire population in New England, made this the deadliest war in American history.
Morton’s account of early New England remains a monument more important than the rock made famous by the Pilgrims’ arrival in America, or the meal they later shared with natives. Thanks to Bradford and other Anglo-American leaders, Thanksgiving would turn out to be only a brief moment of cooperation that faded as settlers learned how to survive without local aid and cultural tensions escalated into violence.
Morton never relinquished his dream that profitable coexistence was possible, and could last not merely for a day of feasting but forever. On the fourth Thursday in November we might remember his vision. This peaceable troublemaker who danced around the maypole deserves a place in American history alongside the turkey-eaters of Plymouth.
(Peter C. Mancall, a professor of history and anthropology at the University of Southern California, is the author of “Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson -- A Tale of Mutiny and Murder in the Arctic” and is now writing “American Origins,” which will be Volume 1 of the Oxford History of the United States.)
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