Americans believe that Thanksgiving is about, well, giving thanks for things like food, shelter, liberty, and football, but few people are aware that there may be a dark side to the holiday.
When we think about Thanksgiving, images of children dressed in tall hats and buckles and paper-made feathered headbands come to mind. Most of us were those children in grade school. We remember what we learned from our teachers — Native Americans taught Pilgrims to sew corn, and they shared a big feast to give thanks for the bounty and friendship they had made.
We weren’t taught about the first-hand accounts of thieving puritans, or the evidence of failed crop, and the bloodshed of hundreds of people.
So who started “Turkey Day”
Historians tell us that the first Thanksgiving, the one where the natives and the pilgrims shared a feast at the same table, happened in 1621. Evidence of it stems from an account in the journal of Edward Winslow, the governor of Plymouth between 1633 and 1644, that the pilgrims held a four day feast with the Wampanoag Indians.
Some dispute that there is evidence of an even earlier date. A written account of settlers proclaiming a day of thanksgiving is said to come from Captain John Woodleefe, who in 1619 lead a group of English settlers to a place they called Berkeley Hundred just 20 miles from Jamestown, Virginia. President George W. Bush gave a speech at Berkeley on November 19 (Monday) quoting the captain’s order that “The day of our ship’s arrival shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” This statement, somewhat altered in his speech from the original, comes from a collection of manuscripts kept by John Smyth, who was one of the founders of Berkeley Hundred.
Thanksgiving as we know it today is based on an event that was celebrated in Europe long before the establishment of Christianity. Just before the coming of winter, people gathered and stored food in order to survive the most barren months ahead. After all the hard work, they often held a harvest festival. The settlers of Berkeley and Plymouth were only acting on a very old tradition. Thanksgiving was not a regularly held event in America until Abe Lincoln established it as a national holiday in 1863, and the date was moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday in November by FDR in 1939.
We’re not even sure the settlers had turkey for their Thanksgiving feast because there is no surviving menu to describe the foods on their plates. It could have been any type of fowl or even venison. The idea that the settlers and Native Americans ate turkey, mash potatoes with gravy, corn, and pumpkin pie is a myth. Turkey may not have come into play until the Civil War, because a turkey could feed more troops than a chicken. According to an article written by James S. Robbins for the National Review in 2004, an editor known as George W. Blunt during the Civil War estimated the need for 50,000 turkeys to feed the union soldiers.
Lazy Pilgrims and Bloodshed
We can be pretty certain the settlers learned how to grow corn from the natives because it was an entirely new crop to them. England did not have cornfields, and if you know anything about corn, it’s an exhausting crop that can drain the soil of important nutrients for the following year. Anthropologists and historians argue that the harvests of 1621 and 1622 were not bountiful.
There are accounts from William Bradford, governor of Plymouth in 1621, that the settlers did not want to work the fields and so began stealing from the Native Americans—from their graves and their homes.  This seems to conflict with Winslow’s journal, if the accounts are referring to the first three years of the Plymouth settlement.
If the harvest was as poor as anthropologists and historians claim, I’m not sure how they supported the four-day long supper mentioned by Winslow; unless the pilgrims were sharing the very same food they had stolen from the Native Americans. Wouldn’t that be something?
Meanwhile, according to my Anthropology professor from undergrad school, the Native Americans were growing restless. They were uncomfortable with the lazy pilgrims who were using their land, taking their food, and forcing Christian beliefs on their children. My professor even went as far as to claim the settlers were stealing the children of the Powhatans to raise them as Christians. If there is any solid evidence to back this up, I haven’t found it, but it certainly caught my attention.
A year after the alleged first Thanksgiving of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Native Americans back-lashed and slaughtered hundreds of settlers at Berkeley and Martins Hundred in Virginia. Many of the settlers who had once given thanks beside Captain Woodleefe were killed. Oddly enough, despite this bloodshed in which it is believed nearly 400 English settlers were killed, the site of Berkeley Hundred has been the host of many national Thanksgiving events, including this year.
There is more to the story than I suspect we’ll ever know, since what we do know is based on obscure written accounts and oral tradition. How much of it is true and how much of it is fabricated, it’s hard to say?
At least this Thanksgiving you’ll have something interesting to talk about — everyone enjoys a little blood at the dinner table.
1 Walch, Timothy, Thanksgiving Day Myths, Cultural World, [http://culturalworld.wordpress.com/2007/11/15/thanksgiving-day-myths/]
2 Snopes.com, Thanksgiving myths, [http://www.snopes.com/holidays/thanksgiving/beliefs.asp]
3 Robbins, James S., Giving Thanks in War Time, National Review, 2004, [http://www.nationalreview.com/robbins/robbins200411240851.asp].
4 Geoff Metcalf, [http://www.geoffmetcalf.com/firsttday_19991126.html]
5 Mann, Charles C., Unnatural Abundance, New York Times, [http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/25/opinion/25mann.html?_r=1&n=Top/Reference/ Times%20Topics/Subjects/T/Thanksgiving%20Day&oref=slogin]
vietnam vet says
I’am inclined to believe this history’ lesson is closer to the truth.
it would appear,we the people’like to paint a rosy picture.
of how wonderfull our ancestors were.
I would’nt be surprised to find them more savage’then the native american they came in contact with. the native indian was blamed for incident’s, they had nothing to do with.
scalping was not introduced by the indian.the french introduced it.it became popular after the introduction.of trade knives.( metal) just a bit of gore. for thankgiveing day.
Interesting gory tid-bit of fact, Vet. I was not aware the French were the ones who introduced the scalping. Thanks!
Cutting to the Chase of a Long-time Debate
Author James Axtell’s research for his essays uncovered archaelogical, written, and linguistic evidence that points to an Indian origin of scalping. There have been pre-historic sites in North America where remains with lesions on the skull suggesting a scalping victim have been unearthed. Written accounts from European explorers during the 1500’s and 1600’s provide historical evidence of the practice. In 1535, Jacques Cariter saw “the skins of five men’s heads, stretched on hoops…” Samuel de Champlain’s travels to Canada and New England provided him with tales of scalping after a battle in 1609: “Approaching the shore each took a stick, on the end of which they hung the scapls (testes) of their slain enemies…” These stories bring up three points for Axtell to use in his argument. The first is the novelty of scalping to the European observer. Next, there is the evidence of skill and art involved that suggest a long tradition of the practice. Finally, the words that are used to describe “scalp” and “scalping” had no set vocabulary and no universal translation in European languages, but Indians of different backgrounds and languages had nouns and verbs to refer to the specific use of the terminology. Without a word for the action or object, it is unlikely that the European cultures had conceived of what they witnessed prior to their introduction to Native American customs, and therefore unlikely that it had been a practice brought to the New World by them.
vietnam vet says
alway’s will be a debate.that articale.was printed in a book called.
heritage in canada. I suspect different tribe’s, picked up the practice as they came in contact with other tribes. some may very well have picked it up from the french.
vietnam vet says
no less than takeing' ears in vietnam. more commonly' done when and enemy soldier or soldiers were killed in ambush etc. of which it would be difficult to carry said body. back to the L Z or command post.it was not a practice well accepted in some circle's. after all civilian ears'would suffice as well. there was a big stink in 1969on operation meade river.
when the korean marines' started butchering prisoners.
these guy's are bad to the bone.it was first believed our unit,
was responsible.but we were cleared of all charges. ear's fingers,scalp's etc includeing head's.were typical trophy's.not uncommon to see a skull on a pole being carryed as a staff. skull was highly polished with tooth paste until it turned a bright white. there's ugly' in every war. semper -fi.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a Greek historian from Ionia who lived in the 5th century BC (ca. 484 BC–ca. 425 BC) often referred to as the Father of History, wrote about scalping in Asia in his Melpomene (iv.,64, Laurent’s translation) (found in Notes on Scalping, by Richard F. Burton, Anthropological Review, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=1368-0382%28186402%292%3A4%3C49%3ANOS%3E2.0.CO%3B2-L&size=LARGE&origin=JSTOR-enlargePage):
“Of the first enemy a Scythian sends down, he quaffs the blood; he carries the heads of all that he has slain in battle to the king; for when he has brought a head, he is entitled to a share of the booty that maybe taken: not otherwise. To skin the head, he makes a circular incision from ear…”
(Note: I was unable to get the rest of the article from JSTOR at this time)
I have read that scalping was also used in Europe and Africa as well. We know for certain they were taking heads during early wars, why not scalps too?
Apparently they also have archaeological evidence that dates back to the Late Archaic Period (ca. 2500-1000/500 BC) at the McClung Museum of scalping in America. http://mcclungmuseum.utk.edu/research/renotes/rn-09txt.htm
I think it’s pretty evident that scalping was happening in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas at the same time, and that it had little or nothing to do with introducing it one way or the other. In war, to prove the number of men you’ve killed (or to take power over them or disgrace them as the Norse have been said to do), you take a head, or easier still–a scalp. I don’t think we can claim it was a trait that belonged solely to one group of people or another, but a wide spread practice that is a dark side of human nature.
vietnam vet says
very well said mac.it only take's and incident or atrocity to turn well trained troop's in to psycho's. 1st battalion 9 th marines.were takeing head's as trophy's.
need less to say' the (NVA) north vietnamese army did'nt take too kindly to that fact.and ambushed the unit. nearly slaughtering, the intire company.bayoneting the wounded.there fore carrying the name for ever more as the walking dead.booby trap's were used on both side's.grenade's were booby trapped by unscrewing the spoon.and scrapeing off the delay.that was done by removeing the blasting cap.scrapeing the powder off of the fuse. reasemble mark and x under the spoon. drop it just off of a trail.just so it can still be seen.along comes charlie.attempt's to use said grenade,BOOM sorry charlie we removed the delay.defective rifles were a common C.I. A. trick they blew up in there face. and the list goes on . the officers as a rule did not condone such behavior.but then officer's ( grunt ) seldom lasted more than 3 month's.they were being killed off so fast.they only had to do 3 month's, in the field. compared to our. inlisted men 's tour of 12 month's & 20 day's.which left us with in experienced officers.
Being of a military background, I am a geek for the study of warfare, both ancient and modern. I believe one can learn an awful lot from the people who have gone on before them. Anyway….
The taking of heads from your enemy has been around since the dawn of conflict. Scalping came about because logically it is easier to carry the scalp of your enemy than his entire head. Especially if you have a lot of enemies!
Personally, I believe scalping /beheading was done for it’s profound physiological effect on both the victor and victim (or their people). As civilizations become civilized though it is looked upon as barbaric. It is still practiced throughout the world and even broadcasted in the Internet a time or two. I must say, it had a very profound effect then.
But warfare is barbaric by nature and as long as we have two people who have a difference of opinion we will always have conflict. Conflict, more often than not, results in warfare (sadly).
The 90's equivalent was the spectacle of seeing our soldier's bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia.
With the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, those that would do us harm are coming up with new and more gruesome ways to exploit the media for their gains. How about the internet postings of beheadings by Islamic extremists? All efforts to shock the country's collective conscience and weaken our resolve.
vietnam vet says
dell the pilot's,were mercenary's…. better known as contractors. a cleaner term. & more often used since the 90's.
human just the same. and it set's a stage,as to where insanity begin's.
with no end in sight.
cry 'havoc' and let slip the dog's of war.
I think if you check the records you'll find that those pilots were Regular Army, members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). The ground element was comprised of Army Rangers (10th Mountain Division) and Delta Force(1st SFOD-D). Two Delta snipers, Shughart and Gordon, were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. No contractors.
A Bill Clinton botch job from the get go…travesty.
vietnam vet says
dell I will stand corrected' I do recall reading and article.the pilot's were vietnam vet's & mercenary's. the incident was black hawk down. I also agree' another tragedy.
at least we can discuss something on this forum other than the you-know-what that you-know-who is doing down there in you-know-where. It's refreshing.
vietnam vet says
true so true. but what makes the dagger' unique.is you don't have to wait two week's to get trounced.it takes a week to print. then a week' to get a reply useing the tried& true method of the press.
vietnam vet says
as a matter of fact. one of my favorite complaint's is welfare. or public assistance.did some ranting about it in the penny saver.
well some crazy's daughter just happened to be getting it. well he some how managed to track me down by phone. called my wife some choice word's. and had a few kind word's for me. since I retrieved his phone number I was able to determine who and where the caller was. that ended his calling quick. maryland is still lagging behind.trying to find solutions to welfare. I suggest get a job and keep it. by all right's I'am 100% percent disability ( congestive heart failure ) I work every day. my brother is on the heart transplant list. he work's every day. and we thank those employers who allow us the right too work. so we do not have to ask for assistance. sem -per fi.