A Not-So Traditional Thanksgiving

An article describing the conflicting versions of the history of Plymouth, Massachusetts and the controversy surrounding its celebration of Thanksgiving. This is a great learning opportunity for students – they will learn to question history and who writes it.
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Updated on: August 16, 2000

A Not-So Traditional Thanksgiving

"Welcome to the 17th century", reads the sign as you approach the Pilgrim village at Plimoth Plantation in southeast Massachusetts. Inside the stockade fence, the "character interpreters" dressed in handmade Pilgrim costumes, affect a solemn demeanor, and speak in a lilting Elizabethan English. Ask them about George Washington, and they look at you blankly. "George who?" It's 1627, after all.

These days, Plimoth Plantation is more than just a theme park of "feel good" history, however. It is one example of the cultural war that has emerged over the traditional depiction of the peaceful Pilgrim and Indian Thanksgiving.

At issue are two competing views of America and American history: on one side, the American past as a heroic account of the birth of freedom and democracy; on the other, the nation's past as a brutal tale of conflict, racism, and the decimation of native peoples.

Heroic Founding or Original Sin?

For years, "America's Hometown," as Plymouth prides itself, has been the custodian of the myth of America's founding. There is Plymouth Rock, of course, enshrined under its granite portico, and the Mayflower II, moored in the harbor. There is Plimoth Plantation and Pilgrim Hall and the Mayflower Society, even the Plymouth National Wax Museum. Each Friday afternoon in August and on Thanksgiving Day, visitors can watch the Pilgrim Progress procession, in which 51 townspeople—dressed in Pilgrim garb, banging drums, and carrying Bibles, muskets, and hurlberds—march past Plymouth Rock and towards the site of the old meetinghouse, just as the original settlers did back in 1627.

Over the years, the other, less celebratory, side of Plymouth's history has been largely ignored. Plymouth, after all, was originally a place of Indian settlement called Pawtuxet ("Place of the Little Falls"), evacuated a few years before the arrival of the Pilgrims, due to a plague believed to have been brought (unwittingly) by European fishermen. It was also the place where, in the aftermath of King Philip's War, the head of Philip himself was carried into town on a spike and left to stand at Town Square for two decades.

For several decades now, the militant group, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE), has staged demonstrations in Plymouth each Thanksgiving, some of which have turned ugly. Renaming Thanksgiving the "National Day of Mourning," their intention is to awaken the country to the darker side of Plymouth.

The Original Culture War

As the town of Plymouth looks for a way out of a polarized situation, it is finding that differences are not so easy to reconcile. Ironically, the town got into its current predicament by winning a very different culture war a century and a half ago.

Plymouth has not always been at the top of the historical heap. It was a largely forgotten backwater until December 22, 1820, when Daniel Webster traveled down from Boston to speak at the Bicentennial celebrations of the landing of the Pilgrims. Webster was considered the greatest orator of his day. But on that occasion, before 1500 people in the wooden meetinghouse where the First Parish church stands today, he surpassed even himself. "We have come to this Rock," he declared, "to record here our homage for our Pilgrim Fathers; our sympathy in their sufferings;our gratitude for their labors; our admiration of their virtues; our veneration of their piety..."

Forefathers of the Nation?

Webster's Plymouth oration, as it became known, marked the beginning of the elevation of Pilgrims to the status of forefathers of the nation. In the 19th century, a newly independent America was searching for its identity. It needed a founding myth. There were two principal candidates: Plymouth and Jamestown, Virginia. Jamestown had a certain advantage; the colony there had been established 13 years before Plymouth. But Plymouth offered moral authority, thanks in part to Daniel Webster.

The native peoples weren't in the running, of course: in his Bicentennial speech, Webster himself had dismissed the Indians of New England as "roving barbarians," while Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830 pushed the tribes of the southern states westward beyond the Mississippi.

The campaign to make a regional holiday into a national celebration was realized on October 3, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a federal holiday—Thanksgiving Day.

It wasn't until the 1890s that the Pilgrims began to be associated with Thanksgiving, however. The early tourism at Plymouth "was all around the landing on the Rock and the Mayflower Compact," according to Peggy Baker, director of the Pilgrim Society. "The starting of America was the thing."

But even as the Pilgrim story became the story of America, the town of Plymouth was becoming a symbol of protest. As early as 1836, at a Boston lecture on King Philip's War, Pequot Indian minister William Apess urged "every man of color" to mourn the day of the landing of the Pilgrims—and to bury Plymouth Rock in protest. A century and a half later, his wish came true.

Native Americans Soundings

The year was 1970, and the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims was to be celebrated at a banquet in Plymouth. State officials asked Frank B. James, president of the Federated Eastern Indian League, to be one of the speakers. James prepared a speech in which he accused the Pilgrims, among other misdeeds, of robbing a cache of corn from Wampanoag graves, when they first landed on the Upper Cape. According to James's account, state officials informed him he could not deliver such a speech and offered to write it for him.

James never addressed the banquet. On Thanksgiving of that year, hundreds of Indians from around the country gathered by the statue of Massasoit on Cole's Hill to protest James's treatment. It was the first National Day of Mourning. The protesters buried Plymouth Rock twice that day.

"We buried it, and they went down and raked it off," says James. "We buried it again. We have been there every Thanksgiving since then—in snow, hail, rain."

National Day of Mourning

Organized by UAINE, the National Day of Mourning rally on Cole's Hill became as much a part of Plymouth Thanksgiving tradition as the Pilgrim Progress procession. Butit was an uneasy coexistence. UAINE identified the Pilgrims as the source of all evils, accusing them of introducing "sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and anti-gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores," as one UAINE member put it in a speech.

On Thanksgiving 1994, UAINE militants forced their way into the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, where an interfaith service traditionally took place after the Pilgrim Progress parade; they refused to leave until permitted to speak. Two years later, on Thanksgiving 1996, UAINE confronted the Progress on the streets of Plymouth. With the police nowhere in evidence, the demonstrators forced the latter-day Pilgrims to cut short their parade, pushing them back towards the harbor. The symbolism was lost on no one.

There are obstacles to reconciliation on the Plymouth side as well as the Native American side. One is the Pilgrim Progress procession—a delight to tourists but, with its muskets and halberds, a hated symbol to many Indians, particularly to UAINE. On that subject, the Plymouth Historical Alliance (PHA), the grouping of local historical organizations that organizes the procession, is firm. The Progress represents a "snapshot in time," according to the PHA's Annette Talbot.

Talbot says any decision to "pretty it up," by getting rid of the offending muskets and halberds, would destroy the historical accuracy. "If we are going to modify it, why do it?" she asks. For her part, the Pilgrim Society's Peggy Baker sees the Progress as "the celebration of the survival of a group of people. There is no reason for this to be the only interpretation of history, but it is a legitimate one."

Crisis of Fragmentation

In major respects, the culture war over Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrim Progress and the other historical symbols of the town goes beyond Plymouth—to what historian Jill Lepore calls "the crisis of fragmentation in this country." It raises questions as what kind of nation we want to be, whether in fact we can ever be one nation at all.

"On the basic civic stage," says Lepore, "it is our obligation to examine our American heritage in all its wonder and brutality. We have to find a way to acknowledge that both cultures—the Native Americans who lost their land and the Europeans who settled here—are constituent of what it is to be an American. We have inherited both those heritages. We can't claim just one."

Sometimes monuments and memorials have the ability to bring those seeming opposites together. One example is the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D. C. In a single place, Lepore argues, the memorial demonstrates our capacity "to embrace history with many sides," to portray both "the moral anguish of a nation and the personal sacrifice and courage of its soldiers."

What Kind of Nation Do We Want to Be?

Could some creative person achieve this in Plymouth—create a landmark of the early European settlement and its brutal underside? Maybe Plymouth is a good place to start, after all. "If Plymouth can't have both a day of Thanksgiving and a Day of Mourning," Lepore says, "then how can we expect America to have both, too?"

Return to Thanksgiving: Multiple Perspectives lesson plan

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