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.

"Massasoit saw an opportunity to form an alliance that would protect his depleted tribe," said Conforti. "This simply wasn't a conquering band of Pilgrims — the Indians had their own agenda."

Why Don’t These Short People Shave?

Other than their potential political use, the Wampanoag probably weren't very impressed by the English settlers. In fact, said Conforti, they appear to have been a bit disgusted.

"Native Americans didn't find the Pilgrims particularly attractive physically," he said. "What the Indians seem to be particularly repulsed by was the body hair, the facial hair, the beards."

The newcomers were hairy, wore funny clothes, and they seemed short. "There is some evidence that Native Americans may have been, on average, taller than Europeans," said Conforti. "Native Americans had a relatively healthy diet."

In fact, one Indian looked down from his lofty height and made fun of the diminutive Capt. Myles Standish, the Pilgrims' military leader.

Standish didn't take kindly to teasing. "That Indian didn't last very long," said Conforti. "He was ultimately killed by Standish."

A Bicultural Society — Briefly

Despite the squabbling, the native people and the English settlers did manage to get along for a little while.

In the early days of Plymouth Colony, Indians rescued a youth named John Billington who had become lost in the woods, said Lodge. And Tisquantum — or Squanto, as he's more commonly known — is credited with preventing the Pilgrims from starving by teaching them to cultivate local crops and introducing them to local seafood.

Squanto was also invaluable to the Pilgrims as an interpreter. He knew English, because he had been kidnapped by some early European merchant-explorers and spent several years as a captive before he was able to return to his homeland.

As the Pilgrims settled in and were joined by other English settlers, they lived in close proximity to the natives and probably dealt with them on a daily basis. In fact, for a while, southern New England seems to have been a "bicultural society," said Conforti.

"Particularly in the coastal areas, there was tremendous interaction between Native Americans and English settlers," he said.

There was no intermarriage between the two groups, but there was extensive trade and some exchange of ideas. The natives taught the English settlers about cultivating local crops; the English brought farm animals to the Indians, who up until that time had only one domesticated animal, the dog.

More Settlers Want More Land

The English also tried to convert the natives, which didn't always go over well.

"In converting people, what you're saying is, 'The way you do it is all wrong,'" said Combs.

Beginning in about the 1650s, English settlers began setting up "praying towns" to try to bring the Indians into the fold. "These were missionary efforts in New England … towns where Indians were relocated, semi-coerced, semi-enticed, to learn English culture and particularly to be converted," said Conforti.

Although Conforti said cultural ties between the settlers and the natives were "mostly a one-way exchange," some English colonists did try to learn more about the first Americans and their way of life. Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island after being kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Puritans, made friends among the Narragansett and wrote a dictionary of their language.

But the friendly relations between the Indians and the settlers were doomed. The handful of Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth were a drop in the bucket compared to the Puritans, who immigrated by the thousands in the 17th century.

"There's much more pressure on the land," said Conforti.

To make matters worse, the Indians didn't have the same concept of private property as the English did.

Among the Native Americans, said Conforti, land belonged to a tribe and would be distributed among families by the sachem. Each family could use that land as long they wanted, but if they moved, it would revert back to the tribe. They applied this same concept to land sold to the settlers.

"The English would get upset when they acquired a piece of land, legally or by deceit, and the Native Americans might come and still hunt on that land," Conforti said.

The Indians were also pressured by a currency crisis. They valued wampum — beads made from quahog shells. But the settlers began to produce their own wampum, and they also brought over more coins from Europe. At the same time, the fur trade was diminishing due to over-hunting.

"Beaver skins are gone, wampum collapses — the only asset they have left is land," said Conforti.

The Indians did not appreciate having English laws imposed upon them. "Indians were brought to court and were fined and punished and sometimes executed," said Conforti.

And the English settlers' overall attitude toward the indigenous Americans didn't help any.

"I think one could say the Pilgrims and Puritans share the same kind of cultural prejudice or racist view of the Native Americans as being uncivilized," said Conforti. "They're un-English, tawny-skinned, nonwhite."

King Philip’s War

The first major war between the New England colonists and the natives came in 1637. After a number of disputes and minor skirmishes, a group of colonists — aided by Indians from some rival tribes — attacked a Pequot village at Mystic in what is now Connecticut. Some 700 Pequots — men, women and children — were massacred.

The Pilgrims' Indian ally, Massasoit, had maintained the Wampanoag pact with the colonists, and his successors at first sought to do the same. Massasoit was succeeded by his son or grandson (scholars differ as to the exact relationship), Wamsutta, also known as Alexander.

In 1662, Wamsutta was summoned to Plymouth. "The English had heard a rumor of war, they wanted to question him," said Coombs. At Plymouth, Wamsutta became ill and quickly died. "The Wampanoag people thought he had been poisoned."

Wamsutta was succeeded as sachem by his younger brother, Metacom — known to the English as King Philip.

It wasn't long between the escalating tensions between the Wampanoag and the English got out of hand. King Philip decided he had had enough. The war that ensued lasted only a year, 1675-76, but it was one of the bloodiest in American history.

Philip "tried to rally all the tribes in New England in a great effort to push the English back across the water," said Coombs, but he didn't succeed. Some tribes did join him; others opted to fight on the English side; and some tried to remain neutral.

The Narragansett had mostly stayed out of the war, but they went over to Philip's side in droves after the Great Swamp Massacre, when between 500 and 1,000 Narragansett — many of them elderly people, women and children — were slaughtered in what is now South Kingstown, R.I.

The war ended with Philip's death in battle; he was shot by an Indian who had been aiding the English. His wife and children, along with many other Indians, were sold into slavery, Conforti said.

The End of an Era

The English settlements suffered a great deal of damage during King Philip's War, but for the Native Americans, King Philip's War was almost a death knell to their culture.

Thousands had perished during the war; others were sold into slavery in the West Indies or forced to be servants to New England colonists. The remaining survivors were driven onto reservations — some on the sites of the old "praying towns." And any hope of a cultural interchange was gone.

"You still have pockets of Native Americans out there [after the war], but you don't have that kind of bicultural trading," said Conforti.

Before the epidemic of 1616-18, said Coombs, there were between 40,000 and 60,000 Wampanoag. Today, about 4,000 Wampanoag remain.

The largest concentration is in the town of Mashpee on Cape Cod. The other major Wampanoag settlement is in Aquinnah (formerly Gay Head) on Martha's Vineyard. Both groups have established a form of tribal government, said Coombs.

Despite the huge losses they suffered, the natives who greeted the Pilgrims and their descendants left an indelible mark on New England.

"Clearly Native Americans were critical to the founding" of the United States, said Conforti. "They'll always have a place in the colonial imagination."