One reason is that spinning an artful narrative out of the messy details of a conquering people can sometimes lead to very much heat and very little light. Take the Pilgrims, for example. In 1620, Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower naming the land Plymouth Rock, but the village was already named Patuxet and the Wampanoag Indians had lived there for thousands of years prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival.
We like to believe in a festive first Thanksgiving celebrating shared life in the “New” world between the Indians and the Plymouth settlers, yet the truth, as much as it can be ferreted out from the revisions and counter-revisions of historians appears dramatically different.
In 1621, Pilgrims did have a feast but it was not repeated years thereafter. So, it wasn’t the beginning of a Thanksgiving tradition nor did Pilgrims call it a Thanksgiving feast. Pilgrims perceived Indians in relation to the Devil (in Governor William Bradford’s words, they (the Indians) were “savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and most treacherous.”) and the more probable reason they were invited to the feast was for the purpose of eventually negotiating a treaty that would secure the lands for the Pilgrims.
From Colonial Times down to the present, the story of the “Pequot Massacre” has been told and retold:
In 1636 ninety armed settlers went to raid Block Island, off the coast, because a white man had been found killed on his boat nearby Whet the armed party landed, they found that the Indians of had gone into hiding; they burned the villages and crops and returned to the mainland, where for good measure they burned down some Pequot villages. The English went after these Pequots and told them that they were held responsible for the murder. The Pequots had to hand over ‘the remaining murderers’ and provide assurances about future behavior. The Pequots ‘obstinately’ refused (words of an English eyewitness) and in the resulting fight several Pequots were killed and wounded, and their belongings destroyed or carried off. Thus started the Pequot War…
Historian Francis Jennings writes:
Mason proposed to avoid attacking Pequot warriors which would have overtaxed his unseasoned, unreliable troops. Battle, as such, was not his purpose. Battle is only one of the ways to destroy an enemy’s will to fight. Massacre can accomplish the same end with less risk, and Mason had determined that massacre would be his objective.
The colonist army surrounded a fortified Pequot village on the Mystic River. At sunrise, as the inhabitants slept, the Puritan soldiers set the village on fire.
“We must burn them!‘” Mason is reported as having shouted, running around with a firebrand and lighting the wigwams. “Such a dreadful terror let the Almighty fall upon their spirits that they would flee from us and run into the very flames. Thus did the Lord judge the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies.“
The next day, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children.” It was signed into law that, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”
It seems the present Thanksgiving “celebration” is based historically on some mixture of the 1621 meeting between the Indians and the new Pilgrim colony, and the Puritan commemoration of the Pequot massacre.