Did the Indians Gatecrash Thanksgiving?

It's every host's nightmare — you're throwing a party, and 90 unexpected guests show up. So you set some extra places at the table — and you've got what would later become known as the first Thanksgiving.

Contrary to what generations of grade-school students around America have been taught, it's really not clear that the Pilgrims actually invited the local Indians to share in their big harvest feast in the fall of 1621.

"We're not sure why or how the native people ended up at that celebration," said Linda Coombs, the associate director of the Wampanoag Indian program at Plimoth Plantation, a living-history museum in Plymouth, Mass.

"People subsequently have made certain assumptions, but we don't know."

Correcting the Mythology

The little we do know is thanks to Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower and managed to survive the first winter in New England. In 1621, he wrote in a letter that after the harvest, the colonists decided to have a big celebration.

At some point, Massasoit, the sachem or chief of a Wampanoag tribe, showed up "with about ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted."

"This led us to ask a number of questions about what's not written," said Liz Lodge, director of museum programs at Plimoth Plantation. "How did the Wampanoag learn about was happening? Why did Massasoit come?" There is, after all, no mention of an invitation.

Those questions led the museum to open an exhibit, Thanksgiving: Memory, Myth & Meaning, tracing the history of Thanksgiving in both myth and fact.

"What we're trying to do is correct the mythology," said Coombs, a Wampanoag from Aquinnah on Martha's Vineyard.

One of those big myths, she says, is that the indigenous Americans were bowled over by the newcomers.

"They think we were waiting for the English to come and help us ... that the technology of Europe was superior to ours," said Coombs. "I don't think that's the case at all."

Devastated by Disease

It's impossible to understand the mindset of the 17th-century Indians of southeastern New England without knowing what happened to them just a few years before the Pilgrims arrived, says Joseph Conforti, author of Imagining New England: Explorations of Regional Identity from the Pilgrims to the Mid-Twentieth Century.

From 1616-1618, an epidemic swept through the native population in New England. Southern New England was particularly hard-hit by the illness, which Indians in the Maine area had caught through contact with European fishermen and explorers. The Indians had no immunity to this strange plague, which rapidly marched down the coast.

"They were incredibly devastated by disease," said Conforti, professor of American and New England studies at the University of Southern Maine. "The result was that by the time the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, the population in native tribes had declined in some places by up to 90 percent."

The Wampanoag had lost many people, as had their traditional allies, the Massachuset. Massasoit had no backup against the Wampanoag's longtime rivals, the Narragansett.

Enter the Pilgrims. They weren't very numerous — 102 people set sail on the Mayflower, and nearly half of them died during the first winter at Plymouth. But they had guns and cannons, so Massasoit decided they might be useful.

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