The traditional pictures of Thanksgiving turn the Indians into bit players. The Pilgrims sit at a long table sharing their bounty with the Wampanoag, one member of the tribe maybe lugging a deer into the clearing.
Not so. Indians outnumbered Pilgrims by roughly two to one at the feast. Half of the Mayflower’s passengers had died within a few months of their arrival 10 months earlier, and the Wampanoag were the only reason the rest of them were alive.
Under their leader, Massasoit, they had nurtured the English, formed an alliance with them and offered them large expanses of real estate. They had taught the Pilgrims to live off the land; the fish, game and corn they were eating in the fall of 1661 came courtesy of Wampanoag generosity.
Massasoit was no useful idiot, though. His once-large tribe had been just been devastated by plague introduced by white fishermen; the Wampanoag were being subjugated by the powerful Narragansett tribe. If the Pilgrims were using him, he was shrewdly using the Pilgrims to rebuild his power and counter the Narragansetts.
As always, history turns out to be more complex than the stereotypes – including the more recent stereotypes of rapacious Europeans slaughtering Indians on sight. In the first few decades of Plymouth Plantation, whites and Indians got on surprisingly well.
Much of the reason was economic: Indians and Europeans alike were profiting from the trans-Atlantic fur trade. Because of the plague, there was land enough for both. Some whites and Indians developed deep friendships.
Writing shortly after the “first thanksgiving,” Edward Winslow painted a rosy picture of white-Indian relations that must have contained a large kernel of truth.
“We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us,” he wrote. He described the Wampanoags as “very loving” and “very trusty, quick of apprehension, ripe-witted, just.”
A half century of white expansion later, after Massasoit’s death, the goodwill was gone, and a war almost as devastating as the plague exploded across New England.
Those first decades, though, show that radically different Americans can find common ground and even prosper together. For that lesson, we give thanksgiving.