A Not-So-Traditional Thanksgiving, Part 1

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Part 1: The Original Culture War

by Neil Miller
Statue of Massasoit, Wampanoag chief

During the National Day of Mourning rally in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Andres Araica prayed at a statue of Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe.

At issue are two competing views of America and American history:
a heroic account of the birth of freedom and democracy, and a brutal tale of conflict, racism, and the decimation of native peoples.

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 halberds—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?

Webter'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.

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