When Abraham Lincoln ordered the first Thanksgiving back in 1861, he did so at just the right time. Traditionally, there is no better story of determination to fill the pages of our country’s narrative than that of the pilgrims breaking bread with a potentially hostile tribe, the Wampanoag. The English separatists (mostly referred to as pilgrims, but sometimes mistakenly referred to as Puritans) had landed in Plymouth Rock back on December 21, 1620. Their initial relationship and their subsequent meals with the natives provided Lincoln with the inspiration to instill even more inspiration in the American public as the perils of Civil War loomed.
The pilgrims were taught by the Wampanoag beginning in March of 1621 how to work the land, which essentially gave them the tools to survive New England’s harsh winters. What better way to arouse national pride than to celebrate the perseverance and moxie of these resilient people who, for decades, lived and worked peacefully with the Wampanoag? Lincoln believed that the pilgrims’ tales of struggle would help the American public through yet another profound national crisis, the Civil War, and so Thanksgiving was officially declared a national holiday in 1863.
Yet there is hardly any mention of the Wampanoag tribe’s tales of struggle. With the encouragement of their chief, Massasoit, who died in 1660, the natives had for decades helped their new neighbors continue to adjust to their surroundings and thrive since their arrival in Plymouth. But by 1676, one of Massasoit’s sons was dead of a suspected poisoning, and the other son, having taken the English name King Philip, had waged a bloody war against the pilgrims in order to preserve his people’s way of life. King Philip was eventually killed, his body was drawn and quartered then his head paraded in triumph around Plymouth. In an ironic twist, it was discovered that King Philip’s murderer was a fellow Wampanoag who had sided with the settlers. The broken bonds of brotherhood ended what is known as King Philip’s War, but this familial division played a huge role nearly two hundred years later during the Civil War. Again families were torn apart as members chose to defend the North or the South, sometimes finding relatives on opposing sides of the war.
So exactly whose history is our country celebrating these days? Jay Parini’s mention of Rome’s mythical founders, the twins Romulus and Remus, draws a close parallel to how America’s narrative came to be defined. The legendary tale of the two youngsters, who were left in the wilderness and cared for by a mythological she-wolf, “spoke to Roman ambitions, with their brutal self-confidence, their aura of centrality and mission”. And while the pilgrims were not, nor did they ever believe they were, children of mythical gods, Lincoln chose to uphold their tales of pluck and self-determination as such. Like Rome, the threads of America’s narrative continue to “drive this people forward, even to explain the transformation from republic to empire”, a term with which America has become synonymous. Parini believes that America’s people have no ethnic uniformity, so our myths and ambitions “lend an aura of destiny” to the tales we pass on and become the parts of our nation’s history that we continue to teach.
If you’re so inclined, you can read Jay Parini’s essay The American Mythos here (unfortunately, it’s not free). Other recommended readings are Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower and Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, about the landings of the pilgrims and the Puritans, respectively. Pilgrims and Puritans are often confused with one another, as if they were the same group of people with the same beliefs and ways of life. Not so. Twenty years separated the Puritans’ arrival from the original pilgrims’ landing, which is easily forgotten as both happened nearly 400 years ago. However, the pilgrims never accused each other of practicing witchcraft. That was a purely English tradition that came ashore with the more religious Puritans.
An aside: I still cannot spell Massachusetts without looking it up first. It’s so aggravating.