Part One: The Pequot Massacre
On Thursday, millions of people in the United States will sit down with family members they barely like and eat an awkward meal together. Perhaps you’ll have to endure the ramblings of your sister’s boyfriend Deuce (Thaddeus) as he says “at the first Thanksgiving everyone got along, what’s wrong with America now days are our own divisions.”
If you’re anything like me, your family has already heard how the Thanksgiving Story was romanticized by a magazine editor to be barely true, or you’ve discussed how FDR changed the date of holiday to extend the Christmas shopping season. In short – your family has probably already told you to “keep your liberal views” to yourself at the table, while everyone else spouts off incorrect information about the holiday and what America lacks now-days.
Well. If this is you – I have you covered. Welcome to Part One of the Thanksgiving Legacy you never knew about. The Pequot Massacre.
Pilgrims Vs. Puritans
First, I want to note. The people involved in the Pequot Massacre were largely Puritans. The Puritans are NOT the Pilgrims. Seriously, they aren’t. The Puritans wanted to leave England and create a “city upon a hill”, which is to say they wanted to create a cool kids club that everyone in Britain would look at and want to be like. The Pilgrims – the ones who celebrated the “first” Thanksgiving – arrived on the Mayflower and landed on what they called Plymouth. They were religious separatists who wanted nothing to do with Britain. Pilgrims were poor, and had very small numbers. Puritans were middle class, and came in droves.
Also, neither group landed here first. In fact – the Pilgrims arrived in New England in 1621 – Jamestown was founded in 1607, cannibalism occurred in Jamestown in 1609-1610, and the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. So no. Pilgrims and religion did not “found” America. Profit, labor, and exploitation “founded” America.
Let me set the scene. It’s 1637. Settlers in New England have “claimed” land that was occupied by Native Americans, the Pequots. Obviously, these settlers have no real authority over this land, but this is what we call a “borderland”. Which is to say, it’s an area where two or three very different groups come in conflict with one another. And by conflict, I mean fighting. Borderlands are generally violent spaces, drought with tension and misunderstandings. That’s exactly what had happened between the New England colonists and the Pequots. As the colonists encroached on Native land and trade, the Pequots fought back. Sporadic fighting occurred on both sides, leaving a handful of dead in its wake.
In May of 1637, a group of armed colonists marched into the Native American territory, calling themselves the “sword of the Lord.” The group was made up of men from various New England colonies, including Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut. The men surrounded the Pequot village, and the massacre began. The colonists lit the houses on fire and killed anyone trying to escape, shooting them or cutting them down with swords. Men, women, and children were killed. Upwards of 700. Families attempted to escape their burning houses and were callously slaughtered, not by the dozens, but by the hundreds. This was not a fight, not a war, this was a massacre. Not only that, it was a premeditated massacre.
Over the course of the next two months, the colonists and their allies, decimated the Pequots in a series of other attacks. By the end of the summer of 1637, most of the Pequot nation was dead. Those who survived, the Puritans sold into slavery – yes, the New England colonists engaged in the slave trade, they were enslavers and sellers of Native Americans and Africans.
So, sixteen years after the first “Thanksgiving”, the New England colonies and the Native Americans were killing each other over land and trade disputes, and the colonists were fighting dirty, ambushing and killing without remorse. In killing Pequots, colonists could gain land, maximize profit by selling people into enslavement, and take resources and trade routes for their own.
This was only a first step. The 1670’s brought King Phillips War. Join me on Thursday for Part II of “The Thanksgiving Legacies Parades Never Taught You”