Thanksgiving is a good time to lose our illusions about U.S. historyRoundup
tags: Thanksgiving, US History
Nick Alexandrov studied U.S. foreign policy and Latin America at George Washington University. He teaches humanities at Holland Hall School.
We keep a myth alive when we celebrate Thanksgiving. That’s how Dr. Tryg Jorgensen explained it at the Philbrook on Nov. 16.
He and Apollonia Piña, another indigenous activist, spoke on a panel organized by Tulsa-based Tri-City Collective. (Full disclosure: I’m a Tri-City member.) The topic was “Thanksgiving as Native Genocide Day.” The talk helped puncture the myth.
We misread the past each November, when we consider our country’s earliest phase. We like to think tolerance, a love of liberty and a democratic impulse motivated English colonists. But history tells a different story.
Instead of starting the story in Massachusetts, or Virginia even, look to Ireland first. England’s takeover of that island, in the 1500s, was a dress rehearsal for its North American colonization. English officials thought the Irish “little better than cannibals,” people who “murder and commit all abomination without scruple of conscience.” Their brutal policies reflected this contempt. In 1569, for example, Sir Humphrey Gilbert terrorized Irish rebels in a manner too harsh to describe here. He later took the first major English colony in North America — at Newfoundland — in 1583. He died soon after.
Decades passed. Then the English founded Jamestown in 1607. Over 100 of its backers were East India Company members, men bent on getting rich through Indian Ocean trade. They hoped to make a killing in Virginia as well, naming the “search for all Manner of Mines of Gold, Silver, and Copper” a chief concern in the colony’s charter.
When this mineral quest failed, the colonists shifted to agriculture. They wanted to control the land. And they seized it from the Chickahominies, Paspaheghs and other tribes as they pushed inland. Historian Alfred Cave describes the colonists “slaughtering men, women, and children indiscriminately; burning houses; and looting cornfields” at this time.