a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Thanksgiving — everything you know is wrong

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 21st, 2007

The real thanksgiving story is much more interesting than the one we’ve learned. That story about Squanto, the friendly Indian? Even the name is wrong. From Chapter 2 of 1491, by Charles C. Mann:

More than likely, Tisquantum was not the name he was given at birth. In that part of the Northeast, tisquantum referred to rage, especially the rage of manitou, the world-suffusing spiritual power at the heart of the coastal Indians’ religious beliefs. When Tisquantum approached the Pilgrims and identified himself by that sobriquet, it was as if he had stuck out his hand and said, Hello, I’m the Wrath of God.

But he taught the Pilgrims that bit with the fish, right? Well, yes… but there may be a little more to it than that:

So little evidence has emerged of Indians fertilizing with fish that some archaeologists believe that Tisquantum actually picked it up from European farmers. The notion is not as ridiculous as it may seem. Tisquantum had learned English because British sailors had kidnapped him seven years before… In his travels, Tisquantum stayed in places where Europeans used fish as fertilizer, a practice on the Continent since medieval times.

Big deal with helping anyway — it was the smart thing to do, European technology outclassed Indians in every way, right? Not so much:

…the natives soon learned that that most of the British were terrible shots, from lack of practice — their guns were little more than noisemakers. Even for a crack shot, a seventeeth-century gun had fewer advantages over a longbow than may be realized. Colonists in Jamestown taunted the Powhatan in 1607 with a target they believed impervious to an arrow shot. To the colonists’ dismay, an Indian sank an arrow into it a foot deep. […] When the Powhatan later captured John Smith, [historian] Chaplin notes, Smith broke his pistol rather than reveal to his captors “the awful truth that it could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly.”

At least they all sat down together in peace and harmony for that first Thanksgiving? Well, they weren’t that fond of eachother — what really united them was grousing about the neighbors:

By fall the settlers’ situation was secure enough that they held a feast of thanksgiving. Massasoit showed up with ninety people, most of them young men with weapons. The Pilgrim militia responded by marching around and firing their guns in the air in a manner intended to convey menace. Gratified, both sides sat down, ate a lot of food, and complained about the Narragansett. Ecce Thanksgiving.

However, I insist on believing there were cranberries. Happy Thanksgiving!

5 Responses to “Thanksgiving — everything you know is wrong”

  1. Paul Says:

    Re: Squanto
    Considering that when he returned home after his capture, he found his entire tribe dead from a plague that had ravaged the area, I think it’s far more likely the name he gave himself flowed from that rage, rather than a silly melodramatic gesture towards the English.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Hey, Paul — happy Thanksgiving! I imagine you’re preparing some kind of stuffed Gila monster dish there in Las Vegas? 🙂
    As I understand it from rereading/skimming the other day, Tisquantum had the name from adolescence on — well before his odyssey to Europe and back. I think it was his official “pnies” (sort of bodyguard/aide de camp to the sachem, or village chief) name. But Mann may be wrong about that, or I may have misunderstood what I read.

  3. Paul Says:

    No, we had desert tortoise on the menu. They’re all over the place around here. 😉
    You know, your version of Squanto’s name would actually make a lot more sense. Kind of like naming himself Darth Vader or something.
    Also, there was no cranberry sauce, because they didn’t have the sugar to make it.

  4. eRobin Says:

    Well, I was raised in CT and we complain about the Narragansett to this day.

  5. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Well, there you go! It’s a venerable tradition spanning hundreds of years. Pass the mashed potatoes.

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