A few years ago, I happened to wander through Burr’s Hill Park in Warren, R.I., without quite registering where I was. Evidence of the town’s past seemed to reach back only to the 1750s, when its oldest surviving building was built. But 400 years ago, Warren and its environs were the site of the Wampanoag Indian “sachemship” of Pokanoket, led by Ousamequin (also known as Massasoit).
The Wampanoag territory where the Mayflower landed lay 40 miles east of Pokanoket, but Ousamequin held sway over it, as he did over Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. When the Pilgrims faced starvation in 1621, it was Ousamequin who helped them survive. He also negotiated the two parties’ terms of co-existence over the next half century.
It’s fitting, then, that Ousamequin’s remains and funerary offerings were recently gathered from various museum collections and reinterred in their original burial grounds on a gentle slope overlooking Narragansett Bay. The stone memorial in Burr’s Hill Park credits him with upholding “fifty-four years of peace with early English settlers.” There’s more to his story than that, however, and David J. Silverman delivers it in astonishing detail in “This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving,” recovering the nuances of Wampanoag personalities and power-plays to a greater degree than most lay readers of American history would believe possible.
Weren’t the Wampanoags a non-literate society? Aren’t all the extant historical records strictly from a prejudiced English point of view? Hasn’t a ton of evidence been lost to time?
Silverman acknowledges the historical record has its blank spots, but it’s more extensive than you might expect. The Wampanoags of the 1620s may have had no written language, making them vulnerable to English manipulation and subterfuge when it came to committing treaties to paper. But Christian missionaries taught them to read and write, and the first Wampanoag student graduated from Harvard University in 1665. Dig deep enough, and the archives have plenty to offer.
Silverman eloquently sets the tone of his book in his opening paragraph: “Serious, critical history tends to be hard on the living. … It takes enemies demonized by previous generations and treats them as worthy of understanding in their particular contexts. Ideological absolutes — civility and savagery, liberty and tyranny, and especially us and them — begin to blur.”
Based on population alone, the balance of power favored the Wampanoags for the first decades of the Plymouth colony’s existence. That equation changed as the English population grew and the Wampanoags were repeatedly hit by diseases to which they had no immunity. Following Ousamequin’s death in 1660, Wampanoag-English relations deteriorated, leading to King Philip’s War (1675-1677). Some Christianized Wampanoags allied themselves with the English during these hostilities, while Ousamequin’s son, Pumetacom (whom the English called “King Philip”), tried to forge cross-tribal alliances to kick the English out of the region. After his efforts failed, English oppression of the native population only became more venomous.
In light of these later events, it feels urgent to re-examine the “Thanksgiving myth,” as Silverman dubs it. The story most American youngsters learn, he says, “casts the Wampanoags in 1620 as naïve primitives, awestruck by the appearance of the Mayflower and its strange passengers. They were nothing of the sort. Their every step was informed by the legacy of the many European ships that had visited their shores and left behind a wave of enslavement, murder, theft, and mourning.”
The Wampanoags were eager for trading opportunities, but these earlier visitors had behaved “more like raiders than traders.” The whole region surrounding Wampanoag territory, Silverman informs us, was “commercially interconnected and politically organized,” and Ousamequin’s generous treatment of the Pilgrims wasn’t pure altruism. Decimated by European-introduced diseases in 1616-1619, the Wampanoags sought an ally to fend off their traditional enemies, the Narragansetts, to the west. They also valued the goods and tools the English brought with them.
Still, the first Thanksgiving didn’t register as a momentous event for either party, and their profound cultural differences guaranteed trouble over the next five decades. The Wampanoags’ communal sense of property meant they believed their concessions of land to the English were agreements about shared usage rather than exclusive possession. More perniciously, the colonial legal system subjected the Wampanoags to increasingly absurd fines that they could only pay with more land concessions. In 1673, for instance, Pumetacom was hit with a lawsuit “for failing to come into court and testify to the legitimacy of a land deed.”
The obvious goal of this harassment was to reduce the Wampanoags to “utter landlessness.” After King Philip’s War, executions, imprisonment, and enslavement of Wampanoags ran rampant. “Days after shooting Ousamequin’s son dead and cutting him into pieces,” Silverman notes, “Plymouth and Massachusetts announced that they would observe August 17 as a day of thanksgiving in praise of God for saving them from their enemies.” Their crowning act of terror: Pumetacom’s head was placed on a pike outside Plymouth’s town walls where it was left to rot for 20 years.
“One reason Ousamequin’s alliance with Plymouth gets such outsized attention in patriotic treatments of American history,” Silverman argues, “is that, on the surface, it was the peaceful exception to the violent rule of Indian-colonial relations.” His pointed, lucid prose makes his book as deeply engaging as it is sobering. He also provides helpful maps and an indispensable glossary to help keep track of the many Native American figures in the story, especially those known by multiple names.
“Most of us,” he concludes, “will never fully grasp the raw emotions indigenous people associate with Thanksgiving. Yet the nation can and should move toward such an understanding. … If how we tell history is one of the ways we shape our present and future, we can do no better than to rethink the myth of the First Thanksgiving and its role in the Thanksgiving holiday.”
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.
THIS LAND IS THEIR LAND: THE WAMPANOAG INDIANS, PLYMOUTH COLONY, AND THE TROUBLED HISTORY OF THANKSGIVING
By David J. Silverman
Bloomsbury, 514 pp., $32