Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving in New England. Remembered and retold as an allegory for perseverance and cooperation, the story of that first Thanksgiving has become an important part of how Americans think about the founding of their country.
But what happened four months later, beginning in March 1622, about 600 miles south of Plymouth, I think reflects much more the country’s origins – a history not of peaceful coexistence but of distrust, displacement and oppression.
As a connoisseur of colonial New England and Virginia, I’ve often wondered why Americans tend to pay so much less attention to other English migrants from the same era.
The conquest and colonization of New England played a role, of course. But the experience of the Pilgrims in the early 1620s tells us less about the colonial era than about events along the Chesapeake Bay, where the English had founded Jamestown in 1607.
A captivating origin story
The Pilgrims carved their place in the nation’s history long ago as brave survivors who persevered despite difficult conditions. Poorly prepared for the New England winter of 1620–1621, they benefited when a terrible epidemic raged among the region’s indigenous peoples in 1616–1619, reducing competition for resources.
After enduring a winter in which perhaps half the migrants died, the survivors welcomed the fall harvest of 1621. They survived because local Wampanoags had taught them how to grow corn, the most important crop in much of eastern North America. That November, the Pilgrims and Wampanoags celebrated a three-day festival.
This was the event that now marks the first American Thanksgiving Day, although many indigenous peoples had long had rituals involving giving thanks, and other European settlers had previously proclaimed similar days of thanksgiving – including one in Florida in 1565 and another along the Maine coast in 1607.
In 1623, pilgrims in Plymouth declared a day to thank their god for bringing rain when it seemed their corn crops would wither in a brutal drought. They probably celebrated it at the end of July. In 1777, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, members of the Continental Congress declared December 18 the Thanksgiving Day. The pilgrims were not even mentioned.
In the 19th century, however, the annual Thanksgiving holiday became associated with New England, largely as a result of campaigns to make the Plymouth experience one of the nation’s origin stories. Proponents of this narrative identified the Mayflower Compact as a starting point for representative government and hailed the freedom of religion they saw in New England — at least for Americans of European descent.
For most of the last century, US Presidents have included Pilgrims in their annual proclamations, helping to cement the connection between the holiday and these immigrants.
A tenuous peace is shattered in Virginia
But the events at Plymouth in 1621 that became ingrained in the national narrative were not typical.
A more revealing incident occurred in Virginia in 1622.
English immigrants had maintained a small community in Jamestown since 1607, where colonists struggled mightily to survive. Unable to figure out how to find fresh water, they drank from the James River, even during the summer months when the water level dropped, turning the river into a swamp. The bacteria consumed caused typhus and dysentery.
Despite a mortality rate that in some years reached 50%, the English chose to stay. Their investment paid off in the mid-1610s when an enterprising colonist named John Rolfe planted West Indian tobacco seeds in the region’s fertile soil. The industry soon boomed.
But economic success did not mean the colony would thrive. The initial survival of the English in Virginia depended on the favor of the local indigenous people. By 1607, Wahunsonacock, the leader of a Native American alliance called the Tsenacomoco, had spent a generation forming a confederation of approximately 30 distinct communities along the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. The English called him Powhatan and referred to his followers as Powhatans.
Wahunsonacock could probably have prevented the English from planting their church in Jamestown; Eventually, the Powhatans controlled most of the resources in the region. When the newcomers were starving in 1608, the Powhatans provided them with food. Wahunsonacock also spared Captain John Smith’s life after his people captured the Englishman.
Wahunsonacock’s actions revealed his strategic thinking. Rather than seeing the newcomers as omnipotent, he probably believed the English would become a subordinate community under his control. After a 1609–1614 war between the English and Powhatans, Wahunsonacock and his allies agreed to peace and coexistence.
Wahunsonacock died in 1618. Shortly after his death, Opechancanough, probably one of Wahunsonacock’s brothers, emerged as the leader of the Powhatans. Unlike his predecessor, Opechancanough viewed the English with suspicion, especially when they encroached on Powhatan lands to expand their tobacco fields.
By the spring of 1622 Opechancanough had had enough. On March 22, he and his allies launched a surprise attack. By the end of the day they had killed 347 Englishmen. They might have killed more had not a Powhatan converted to Christianity warned some Englishmen, which would have bought them time to flee.
Within months, news of the violence spread across England. Edward Waterhouse, the colony’s secretary, described the “barbaric massacre” in a short pamphlet. A few years later, an engraver in Frankfurt captured Europeans’ fears of Native Americans in a haunting illustration for a translation of Waterhouse’s book.
Waterhouse wrote of those who died “at the bloody and barbaric hands of this perfidious and inhuman people.” He reported that the victors had desecrated English corpses. He called them “savages” and drew on common European descriptions of “wyld naked natives”. He swore revenge.
Over the next decade, English soldiers launched a brutal war against the Powhatans, repeatedly burning the Powhatans’ fields at harvest time to starve and drive them out.
conflict over cooperation
The orchestrated attack by the Powhatans foreshadowed other indigenous rebellions against aggressive European colonizers in 17th-century North America.
The English response also fit a pattern: any sign of resistance from “pagans,” as Waterhouse called the Powhatans, had to be suppressed in order to encourage European desire to convert Native Americans to Christianity, claim indigenous lands, and the satisfying vociferous European customers for goods made in America.
It was this dynamic—not that of camaraderie found in Plymouth in 1621—that would define the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers for over two centuries.
Before the end of the century, violence also broke out in New England, wiping out the positive legacy of the 1621 festival. In 1675, simmering tensions exploded in a war that spanned the entire region. Per capita, it was among the deadliest conflicts in American history.
In 1970, to mark the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, an Aquinnah Wampanoag elder named Wamsutta pointed to generations of violence against indigenous communities and dispossession. Since that day, many Native Americans have celebrated a national day of mourning instead of Thanksgiving.
Today’s Thanksgiving — with schoolchildren’s paper turkeys and tales of camaraderie and collaboration between the colonists and Native Americans — masks the more tragic legacy of the early 17th century.