Let’s give thanks for selective memories on Thanksgiving

November 21, 2006 | By | 8 Replies More

Everyone knows that the United States was first settled in 1620.  Everyone is wrong.

We celebrate a wildly distorted history of Thanksgiving year after year.  On Thanksgiving, we solemnly give thanks that we have enough food to allow our families to overeat.  For the sake of holiday decorum, we avoid the thought that we could actually be doing something to help millions of people starving to death elsewhere in the world.  We could splurge a bit less on the big holiday meal, for instance, then send life-saving donations to relief agency to save some real lives.  But that would be such a downer on the holiday.  Instead, let’s spend time with those people we love and think happy thoughts about Thanksgiving.

After all, we celebrate holidays to be happy, to bond family and friends.  And it is a good thing to keep in touch with family and friends. To keep the room happy, though, we need to focus mostly on happy things and to avoid thinking about facts, memories or courses of conduct that might interfere with that happiness.  Other than watching our favorite football team lose the big game, what could possibly interfere with the flow of happiness on Thanksgiving?  Here’s one thing: the truth about Thanksgiving.

With Thanksgiving approaching, I decided that it would be good medicine to re-read the chapter on Thanksgiving in James Loewen’s iconoclastic classic, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995). It was well worth the effort.

The first “settlers,” of course, were the indigenous Americans, “Indians,” who settled the North American continent at least 9000 years ago, perhaps much longer.  To suggest that anyone other than Native Americans first “settled” this land is a silly proposition with racist overtones.

Setting aside the fact that Native Americans were here first, we shouldn’t forget that African slaves still preceded the Pilgrims by almost 100 years.  Those first African slaves arrived in present day United States as part of the San Miguel de Gualdape colony (most likely located in the Winyah Bay  area of present-day South Carolina, founded by Spanish explorer Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón  in 1526. As indicated in the above Wikipedia article, the ill-fated colony was almost immediately disrupted by a fight over leadership, during which the slaves revolted and fled the colony to seek refuge among local Native Americans, where they remained.

And that’s just the earliest pre-Pilgrim settlers.  As Loewen points out, “in 1565 the Spanish massacred the French Protestants who had settled briefly at St. Augustine Florida and establish their own fort there.”  And don’t forget those other early settlers who came here seeking religious liberty: “these were Spanish Jews, who settled in New Mexico in the late 1500s.”  Loewen also points out that much of the American Southwest “has been Spanish longer than it has been ‘American.'”  For this reason, Loewen suggests that American history books should begin with stories from the West Coast.  But there’s more: the Dutch were living in what is now Albany by 1614.  Further, British settlers established a permanent settlement at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.

Most of us were taught otherwise, of course.  We learned that in 1620 the Pilgrims landed near Plymouth Harbor and that they were aided by friendly Indians who gave them provisions, leading up to the first Thanksgiving, which the Pilgrims celebrated with their new Indian friends.

I don’t know how those Pilgrims put up with those stinky Indians.  Oh, wait!  Loewen describes that it was the other way around:

Residents of northern Europe and England rarely bathed, believing it unhealthy, and rarely removed all of their clothing at one time, believing it immodest.  The Pilgrims smelled bad to the Indians.  Squanto tried, without success, to teach them to bathe.”

We talk about the Black death and the bubonic plague as being incomparable tragedies.  Within three years prior to 1620, however, diseases brought by the Europeans, including hepatitis, smallpox, chickenpox and influenza killed between 90% and 96% of the native Americans living in coastal New England.

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, called the plague “miraculous.”  In 1634 he wrote to a friend in England: “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 smallpox 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 50, have put themselves under our protection.

Loewen argues that “these epidemics probably constituted the most important geopolitical event of the early 17th century.”

Not all of the native inhabitants died of disease, however.  Loewen points out that the Pilgrims received Indian assistance on their second full day in Massachusetts.  Some of that assistance was voluntarily given.  Not all of it.  The Pilgrims wrote in their own journals that they burglarized the houses and graves of the Indians.  They “found” corn and other food, writing that “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.”  That’s a theme that regularly appears through our national history:  we see something we want and we declare that it is ours, regardless of who really owns it.   Then we celebrate that we took it.

But what is the true history of the holiday of Thanksgiving?  Loewen reveals these facts, which he terms “embarrassing”:

The Pilgrims did not introduce the tradition; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries.  Although George Washington did set aside days for national Thanksgiving, our modern celebrations date back only to 1863.  During the Civil War, when the union needed all the patriotism that such an odd service might muster, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday.  The Pilgrims had nothing to do with it; not until the 1890s did they even get included in the tradition.  For that matter, no one used the term “Pilgrims” until the 1870s.

In Memory Distortion: How Minds, Briain, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (1995), Michael Kammen writes that the Pilgrim mission was an abject failure, based on the original purpose of the mission.  The Pilgrim mission was not designed to be a permanent relocation.  The Pilgrims planned to create a “New Jerusalem” that would be so successful, “a model community in covenant with the Almighty, that they would eventually be recalled in glory to re-create their New Jerusalem at home.”  An opportunity to assert their religious freedom arose in 1642 when civil war broke out between the Royalists and the Calvinists in England.  Nonetheless, they stayed in the New World.  Their mission statement was no longer to return back to England, but it changed into a new mission to “convert and Christianize heathen peoples in the New World.”  This morphing of mission statements happens all the time.

With regard to the the changed mission statement of the Pilgrims, Kammen writes that

Memories can readily, with scant embarrassment or challenge, he quietly repressed within a generation and replaced by alternative explanations, credible and defensible for human impulses of the most elemental sort–such as relocating to a brave New World in quest of religious purity and autonomy.

On a national level, we seek consensus and stability driven by a profound loyalty to our flag and country.  Kammen writes about the price for achieving such political stability:  “stability is achieved at a price: a tendency to depoliticize the civic past by distorting the nation’s memories of it-all in the name of national unity, stability, and the state building.”  Nonetheless, the “distortion or even the manipulation of collective memory does not always, or inevitably, occur for cynical or hypocritical reasons.”  Motives for national memory distortion “range from the nine to moralistic or didactic . . . too self-serving . . . to utterly malicious.  Here’s another, more recent example:  When we decide that making the world safe from weapons of mass destruction is no longer convenient, we might decide that our military is in Iraq to save the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein or to bring democracy to the people or to fight the terrorists over there so that they won’t fight us in America.

How powerful is the national urge to cleanse and purify our memories?  Loewen tells the story of Frank James, a living member of the Wampanoag tribe, who in 1970 was asked by the State of Massachusetts to give a speech commemorating the Pilgrims’ landing.  Frank James wrote such a speech but it was deemed inappropriate by state officials despite its complete historical truth.  Thus, he was not allowed to read the following words:

Today is a time of celebrating for you . . . but it is not a time of celebrating for me.  It is with heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.  The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and the stolen their corn, wheat, and beans . . . Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoags, knew these facts; yet he and his people welcomed and befriended the settlers . . . little knowing that . . . before 50 years were to pass, theWampanoags . . . and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them . . . although our way of life is almost gone and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts. .  . what has happened cannot be changed, but today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important.

The secular ritual of Thanksgiving illustrates the ways in which secular rituals are similar to religious rituals.  When we want–really really want–to celebrate a ritual, we take all steps necessary to make sure that no facts interfere with the facts as we desire them to be.   We solemnly mold the facts to fit our needs.  When it comes to religion and politics–they are so very often fact-free zones.  This is not to suggest that there is nothing worthy of celebrating at Thanksgiving.  This is not to suggest that the Pilgrims were evil. As Loewen points out in his book, the Pilgrims were admirable in many respects.

On the other hand, Thanksgiving is a good example of the fact that we have very few evidence-based holidays.  If you doubt this, try bringing up the uncontested historical facts concerning Thanksgiving (or, say, Columbus Day) around your holiday dinner table and you’ll see that, whatever it is that we are celebrating, it is not historical truth.

Perhaps, this year, we should celebrate the factually nuanced and morally ambiguous story of Thanksgiving.  Perhaps doing this will help us to discover a deeper and more meaningful story that will resonate better than those two-dimensional facades of Pilgrims that most of us dwelled on in grade school.

Now, pass the turkey please.

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Category: American Culture, Culture, History, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. Gina says:

    While I agree with your post to a great degree, I do question what is wrong with one day in November spending time with friends or family and feeling gratitude. I would dare say that all of us need to be a bit more grateful for the blessings (for lack of a better term) in our lives. Especially here in the U.S. Would you not agree?

    I am vegetarian and passionate about animal welfare, so have a few reasons other than those you mention to be upset with the American Thanksgiving tradition – namely a ridiculous amount of turkeys being slaughtered for this day of overconsumption – but still I think it good there is one day a year when people are to be grateful.

  2. hogiemo says:

    Erich, you are an immoral nihlist and will burn. Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. Deb says:

    'Revisionist' history, indeed. One would think that history was history because a fact is just a fact, but it is revised continually. There is a very interesting series on how historical "facts" are revised just starting on NPR. This morning's story was about how history textbooks change with time. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?stor

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Ben Franklin also wrote about the early relationship between English settlers and Native Americans, in his wonderful essay, "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America," a copy of which can be found here: http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=129/.

  5. Jason Rayl says:

    All conquerors try to assert that the conquered either had it coming or are subsequently better off for having been conquered. Sometimes it has actually been true, but even then it doesn't justify the conquering. But the ocnquering goes on. Look at Darfour–there's nothing going on there except a world class land grab, and if the U.N. thinks differently they have fewer brains at their disposal than I thought.

    The thing that seems to make what Europeans did to native Americans so odious is that, for the most part, these were conquerors whose world was part of the Enlightenment. There was sound argument available to counter manifest destiny. It didn't matter.

    But Lincoln's establishment of Thanksgiving was hardly hypocritical. He wanted Neuvo-Americans to take a day to celebrate what they actually had, regardless how they got it, and reflect on the idea that it might not necessarily have turned out that way.

    It would have been interesting to see what Lincoln would have done in a second term with Indian policy. Not much, I imagine. The cultures simply didn't have room to accomodate each other over the issue of property.

    I'm currently reading THE DIVIDED GROUND by Alan Taylor, which chronicles what happend to the Six Nations of the Iroquois in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. Very instructive.

    But—I was born in 1954. I did not displace anyone to live where I do. I understand but reject any argument that I am in any way responsible for something that happened centuries ago. Which is why I neither celebrate nor mourn the so-called Pilgrim's Landing. I won't take credit for what they did, nor accept the blame. I think both practices are self-deluding and ultimately pointless.

    But I like the day off.

  6. Geez, I didn't need to be reminded of all that. I think in this case I will plead naive. I will play the role of the dumb american this time, so i don't spoil thanksgiving for the family. I feel like being a Christian again for a couple days. Sorry spaghetti monster, im eating turkey tomorrow.

    This is America, and for all the whining we do, maybe its time to give thanks for what we have by acting like it. This comment has no purpose.

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    The official history is written by the winners, and they don;t like to be remembered for the evil they do.

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