The real Thanksgiving story: The Pequot Massacre

Would you like a little genocide with that turkey and stuffing?

In 1637, the Pequot tribe of Connecticut gathered for the annual Green Corn Dance ceremony. Mercenaries of the English and Dutch attacked and surrounded the village; burning down everything and shooting whomever try to escape.

The next day, Newell notes, 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.” Most Americans believe Thanksgiving was this wonderful dinner and harvest celebration. The truth is the “Thanksgiving dinner” was invented both to instill a false pride in Americans and to cover up the massacre.

Sixteen years before this massacre, there was (supposedly) a three day feast in which Puritans and Wampanoag Native Americans took part. There is virtually no corroborating evidence of this idyllic gathering, but oral history of the tribe seems to support the story. But even if it did happen, it is far more important to remember what happened to the Pequots after coming into contact with these particular illegal immigrants:

The attack began at dawn on May 26th (Old Calendar – June 5 New calendar) when the English surrounded the 2-acre village and fired a volley through the gaps in the palisade. The force of 77 English, 60 Mohegan and 200 Narragansett surrounded the fort and the English fired a volley through the palisade walls. Mason and Underhill, with twenty men each, entered the fort through entrances on the northeast and southwest sides. Their objective was to "destroy them by the Sword and save the Plunder" (Mason). Unknown to the English the fort was reinforced the night before by 100 warriors from other villages, bringing the total number of warriors inside the fort to approximately 175. Within 20 minutes English inside the fort suffered 50% casualties. It was then that Mason said: "We should never kill them after that manner: WE MUST BURN THEM!"

The English retreated outside the fort and surrounded it to prevent anyone escaping from the fort. Their Native allies formed a second line outside the English as depicted in the woodcut. The fire quickly spread from the northeast to the southwest forcing everyone in the fort to cluster in the southwest quadrant of the fort. Pequot warriors continued to battle the English from behind the palisade and the English fired at them through the gaps in the palisade.

"Captaine Mason entring into a Wigwam, brought out a fire-brand, after hee had wounded many in the house, then hee set fire on the West-side where he entred, my selfe set fire on the South end with a traine of Powder, the fires of both meeting in the center of the Fort blazed most terribly, and burnt all in the space of halfe an houre;many couragious fellowes were unwilling to come out, and fought most desperately through the Palisadoes, so as they were scorched and burnt with the very flame, and were deprived of their armes, in regard the fire burnt their very bowstrings, and so perished valiantly : mercy they did deserve for their valour, could we have had opportunitie to have bestowed it; many were burnt in the Fort, both men, women, and children, others forced out, and came in troopes to the Indians, twentie, and thirtie at a time, which our souldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword; downe fell men, women, and children, those that scaped us, fell into the hands of the Indians, that were in the reere of us; it is reported by themselves, that there were about foure hundred soules in this Fort, and not above five of them escaped out of our hands" (Underhill).

Before the arrival of the colonists, the Mashantucket Pequot numbered in excess of 8,000. They were ravaged by Smallpox and other diseases brought by said colonists, reducing their population to only around 1,500 souls. After the Green Corn Massacre, those who sought refuge at the above fortified village were pretty much all that remained of the Pequot. And virtually all of them died before the sun went down.

Historical footnote: Primary source material (like the letter quoted above) is critical in understanding how events transpired, but they are still only a piece of the puzzle. People exaggerate, and it's hard to tell from this officer's accounting what actually (step by step) occurred. Instead of the much smaller English contingent leading the attack and being the first line outside the camp, it is much more likely the Mohegan and Narragansett performed those functions.

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Comments

Avenging a child abductor's murder?

A couple of the sources I used for this diary mentioned this final massacre was organized because the Pequot had killed an English trader suspected of kidnapping the tribe's children. If that is true, the horrific irony of *all* the remaining children being slaughtered or sold into slavery as a result is breathtaking.