The “Thanksgiving” holiday is yet another occasion for the U.S. to paper over its history in order to present America as some sort of beacon of hope and freedom for the world. In fact, the events the holiday is meant to commemorate marked the beginning of a doctrine based on imperialist expansion, genocide of Indigenous peoples, and never-ending warfare, accompanied by the routine whitewashing of historical events.
The cancer that is European colonialism had already begun wiping out entire indigenous tribes in places like the Caribbean Islands and elsewhere in the Americas at the hands of the Portuguese and Spanish imperialists over 120 years before the so-called “Puritans” or “Pilgrims” of England landed in Plymouth in 1620. These pilgrims didn’t come simply to escape religious repression and live in a land where everyone was free to practice their religion freely as they pleased, as is so often taught in schools. They had embarked on a spiritual journey with a specific religious doctrine that held that they were God’s Chosen Ones tasked with a civilizing mission to Christianize the “savages” and “heathens” of the dark world. These so-called “savages” they spoke of also saved their lives in the winter of 1620-1621. The indigenous Wampanoag people, who inhabited an area in modern-day Massachusetts, saw these pale-faced foreigners in a state of near starvation. But instead of letting the colonizers wither away and die, the Wampanoag showered them with kindness, sharing with them the food they’d cultivated and teaching them the necessary skills to hunt and survive. This would prove to be a mistake, as these were no ordinary foreigners.
The European settlers, of the belief that God had anointed them His standard bearers thus making them superior, credited their seemingly miraculous survival not to the Wampanoags, but to their God. This is where the origins of what was later to be the “Thanksgiving” holiday lie, and there is very little evidence of there ever having been some big feast held in which the Pilgrims and American Indians merrily celebrated their supposed bountiful blessings. In fact, the English Pilgrims were about to reveal a level of ruthlessness that was completely alien to the Wampanoag or any other indigenous American culture. Like the snake that stings its benefactor, the Europeans charged full speed ahead carrying on with their “God-given” mission of Christian terrorism and ethnic cleansing.
Sixteen years later the colonial Governor of Plymouth, John Winthrop, ordered that entire families of Pequot Indians be extinguished in their sleep. Perhaps as many as a thousand were annihilated in one night. In the words of the brute John Winthrop himself:
Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory.
Those who tried to escape the fire
were literally-run to ground…tramped into the mud and buried in the swamp. ‘ The last of them were shipped to the West Indies as slaves…John Winthrop.. .governor once more, …[offered] …forty pounds sterling for the scalp of an Indian man, twenty for the scalps of women and children.
The massacre of so many Pequot people was not even close to being the last of its kind, as the European colonialists would continue trying to eliminate entire nations of people as part of their power-hungry drive westward. The many brave Indian warriors who resisted, and there were many, fought against a truly barbaric enemy. The “civilized” crusaders of Christianity met dissent with ferocity, chopping heads off and burning live bodies at the stake. This time-worn strategy went on for at least another three centuries. The colonialists’ view of the indigenous inhabitants, regardless of the tribe or region, was the same. Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey declared on September 9, 1862 of the Lakota,
“The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”
In laying out this policy, Gov. Ramsey was only continuing the extermination plan, or “Thanksgiving policy”, laid out before him by Gov. Winthrop in 1637. But it was at this later date, 1862, that these mass-scale genocides became an official, annually celebrated holiday to give thanks to God for all the land and resources they’d stolen and looted from Indian populations. As was written in the Minnesota Governor’s official proclamation:
“Therefore I, Alexander Ramsey, Governor of the State of Minnesota, do hereby set apart the twenty-seventh day of the present month of November, as a Day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for his wonderful mercy towards us–for all the good gifts of His providence–for health and restored domestic peace–and the measure of general prosperity which we enjoy.
“Especially let us recognize His mercy in that He has delivered our borders from the savage enemies who rose up against us, and cast them into the pit they had privily dug for us; that our friends have been rescued from the horrors of captivity, and that our homes and household treasures are now safe from the violence of Indian robbers and assassins.”
Not even the crisis of the Civil War saw the United States relent in its campaign of mass extermination, as evidenced by a letter written by Union Major General John Pope dated September 28, 1862:
“There will be no peace in this region by virtue of treaties and Indian faith. It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so and even if it requires a campaign lasting the whole of next year. Destroy everything belonging to them and force them out to the plains, unless, as I suggest, you can capture them. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.”
In war after war from 16th century onward the European colonizers thought they would soon be rid of all the indigenous inhabitants, only to be faced with a formidable anti-colonial resistance, the first of its kind, which would be expanded upon by guerrilla fighters battling against imperialists in Africa and Asia in the 20th century. It was this formidable resistance as well as the knowledge of the immense crimes white colonial settlers were committing that convinced the infamous Lyman Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, to write this cynical letter to a newspaper in the immediate aftermath of the horrific Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890:
“…our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untameable creatures from the face of the earth.”
The terrorism wrought by these original white settlers continues to this very day, and is at the center of the project we call the United States Empire. From CounterPunch:
The original crimes of genocide and slavery are not limited to US early history but have found an extension in the policies of modern-day US. The systematic assault on other nations and cultures still goes on under various pretenses or outright lies. United States wars of empire are going on today more than ever before. These wars have left millions of people dead across the world in the course of American history, and they are still fought for the same reasons behind the Native American genocide and slavery: namely, to expand the wealth of the US elite.
Fortunately, as the imperialist enterprise continues, so too does the resistance.