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What they didn't teach you about the first Thanksgiving in school

The story of the first Thanksgiving, as told to American children, goes something like this: When the Pilgrims first made it to Plymouth Rock, they suffered through a desperate winter and had great difficulty surviving. But eventually, and with the help of Squanto the friendly Indian, they learned how to grow food. Finally, despite mistrust on both sides, the Pilgrims and Indians ended up making peace and eventually sharing a feast together, which we commemorate today on Thanksgiving.

This story isn't exactly inaccurate. But it omits several key details that are crucial to understanding why this truce between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag confederation was reached — details of both dreadful tragedy and political scheming.

In his fascinating book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, journalist Charles Mann reviewed much scientific and historical research that cumulatively upended several long-held American beliefs of what the "New World" was like before Europeans arrived. Here are several key details drawn from his section on the Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag — details that make clear the first Thanksgiving was no mere triumph of friendship and kindness, but instead a coldly considered political alliance born out of necessity.

1) It wasn't just the Pilgrims who were weak — the Wampanoag had recently been decimated by disease

Massasoit at Plymouth

A 1754 depiction of Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoag confederation, visiting the Plymouth Colony. (MPI/Getty Images)

The Pilgrim-centric narrative of the first Thanksgiving focuses a great deal on the colonists' weakness and troubled arrival in North America. And in fact, they were quite weak — they arrived on the Mayflower only shortly before the winter of 1620 began, and half of them died in the ensuing months. The help from the Wampanoag, and the peace with them, was crucial to the colonists' survival.

While that's all true, the picture changes quite a bit when one realizes that the Wampanoag had very recently become incredibly weakened themselves. Just five years earlier, there had been 20,000 or so Wampanoag subjects — but after an unimaginably rapid and horrific spread of infectious disease (inadvertently brought by Europeans), all but a thousand or so had died by 1621:

MANN: "Based on accounts of the symptoms, the epidemic was probably of viral hepatitis, according to a study by Arthur E. Speiss, of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and Bruce D. Spiess, of the Medical College of Virginia... Beginning in 1616, the pestilence took at least three years to exhaust itself and killed as much as 90 percent of the people in coastal New England.

In just a few years, whole villages near the coasts were depopulated, and Wampanoag power was decimated. So when Massasoit and his group of about 90 Wampanoag came to feast with the Plymouth Bay colonists, they were actually bringing a fair portion of their remaining strength. They still outnumbered the Plymouth colonists, about 50 of whom had survived that first winter. But far from being in a position of security and power, the Wampanoag were instead reeling from a recent dreadful catastrophe.

2) The Wampanoag were out to make an alliance against a rival tribal group

Massasoit

A statue of Massasoit overlooks Plymouth Harbor in 2013. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor / Getty)

Again and again in his book, Mann makes the point that the strategies Native Americans first pursued when encountering European colonists often had much more to do with counterbalancing their own longtime rivals, who were known and consistent threats, than the Europeans themselves.

Such was the case in the area we now call New England, where, according to Mann, "the massive death toll created a political crisis" for the Wampanoag — because while many of them had been wiped out, a powerful rival people to the west, the Narragansett, has been basically untouched. "Because the hostility between the Wampanoag and the neighboring Narragansett had restricted contact between them, the disease had not spread to the latter. Massasoit's people were not only beset by loss, they were in danger of subjugation," Mann writes.

This provides the context for the alliance between Massasoit and the Plymouth colonists. From the Wampanoag perspective, the Narragansett had been known and dangerous fixtures of the international scene for years, while the Europeans arriving had only small numbers. So Massasoit agreed to ally with the Plymouth colonists explicitly in hopes of using them against the Narragansett. The alliance was agreed to in March 1621, and the "first Thanksgiving" — actually three days of feasting to celebrate a successful harvest season — occurred that fall.

3) Squanto was much more than a mere "friendly Indian"

Squanto 1911 illustration

A 1911 depiction of Squanto teaching the Plymouth colonists how to plant corn with fish. (Public domain / Aaron Walden)

Though we actually aren't completely sure he attended the feast, the one Wampanoag name likely most familiar to Americans is Squanto (though his true name was actually Tisquantum). The stories accurately tell that he taught the Pilgrims better techniques for growing maize, and helped them survive.

But Tisquantum's motives — and his true history — are far more tangled and tragic, and his story is one of the most fascinating parts of Mann's book. A member of the Patuxet tribe of the Wampanoag confederation, Tisquantum encountered some Europeans about seven years before that first Thanksgiving — and was kidnapped. His kidnapper was Thomas Hunt, a former lieutenant of John Smith — yes, the one from the Pocahontas story. Hunt brought Tisquantum and 26 other captives to Spain, where he intended to sell them. But they were freed by the Catholic Church, which was known for advocating against mistreatment of Native Americans.

Tisquantum then made it to London, where he both learned English and managed to finagle passage back to North America on a fishing boat headed for Newfoundland. After a tangled series of events, he finally made it back to Massachusetts in 1619 — and discovered that his entire tribe had been wiped out by disease. "Patuxet had been hit with special force," Mann writes. "Not a single person remained. Tisquantum's entire social world had vanished."

Tisquantum was now a man without a tribe — especially because his long association with the Europeans now made him distrusted by the remaining Wampanoag, and he soon ended up their captive. Yet his knowledge of English made him extremely useful as a translator, and he used his firsthand accounts of European cities to argue to Massasoit that getting the English on his side would be a good idea.

So Tisquantum did indeed help teach the colonists how to grow food, serve as a translator for them, and help build the political alliance with the Wampanoag. But that's not all he wanted — he was actually plotting to rebuild his decimated Patuxet tribe, with himself as the leader:

MANN: "Recognizing that the Pilgrims would be unlikely to keep him around forever, Tisquantum decided to gather together the few survivors of Patuxet and reconstitute the old community at a site near Plymouth. More ambitious still, he hoped to use his influence on the English to make this new Patuxet the center of the Wampanoag confederation, thereby stripping the sachemship from Massasoit, who had held him captive. To accomplish these goals, he intended to play the Indians and English against each other."

Indeed, in the spring of 1622 — just months after the first Thanksgiving — Tisquantum attempted to trick the colonists into believing Massasoit was going to attack them, so they would strike against him first.

The plan didn't end up working, and Tisquantum's trickery was exposed. But afterward, tensions between the two sides ended up heightening anyway — because Massasoit demanded Tisquantum's execution for this treachery and the Pilgrims refused to give him up. Trade between the two sides soon halted.

However, later that year, Tisquantum got sick and died suddenly. The peace agreement between the Wampanoag and the Plymouth colonists stood for 50 years — to the eventual great benefit of the Europeans and the detriment of the Wampanoag. When war finally did break out, the Europeans triumphed — in part because the Wampanoag numbers had been so dreadfully reduced by disease. "Their societies were destroyed," Mann writes, "by weapons their opponents could not control and did not even know they had." Check out his book 1491 for much, much more.