November 6, 2023
Tags: History, Perspective,
Alison Whitman Jones, NCCJ’s finance and data management director, shares thoughts and reflections on her personal struggle with the story of “the first Thanksgiving,” and her journey to deconstruct the mythology and reconcile the history she was taught with the full truth of her ancestors’ roles in seizing indigenous land and shaping systems in what would become the United States:
“Growing up, especially in New England like I did, we all learn the story of the Pilgrims. The story of how they traveled far from home to settle in a place where they could practice their religion freely. How they endured constant setbacks and challenges throughout their journey to the “New World”. We learn that they landed far from where they intended and half of their population died during that first winter. But they were brave and they were survivors. Those that survived until spring began building a home and with the help of the native people they began to thrive. They struck up a great friendship with the Wampanoag and celebrated that friendship and their bountiful harvest during the first Thanksgiving.
As children, we are taught that the Plymouth Colony settlers, and later the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers are an inspiration. That they overcame severe hardships through hard work and determination to create what would become the United States of America. That these are people we should celebrate and revere.
This is the history I was taught as a child. And since I can trace my ancestry back to those courageous colonists, back to many of the Mayflower passengers and others who arrived in the decade after Plymouth Colony was established, in a way I considered myself American royalty.
Not only did my ancestors arrive on the Mayflower, but they were leaders and heads of government in the colony. So of course, I should be proud, right? And I was. So proud. When the story was told of Edward Winslow befriending the Wampanoag leader, I would tell people “That’s my ancestor.” When Thanksgiving season rolled around and the story of the First Thanksgiving was shared I would think. “My ancestors were there. They were a part of this wonderful tradition.” When I looked at the list of Plymouth Colony governors, I could point to more than one and say “Look. I come from the people who helped build this country.” Our boat was named after my Winslow ancestors, and my son and cousin carry on that name as their middle names. These ancestors were people to be admired and honored. Being their descendants made me feel proud and important.
It wasn’t until I got older that I began to really think about what my ancestry means and I began to dig deeper into the facts and the truths about where I come from. My ancestors didn’t settle in a new world. They came to a land that was new to them but had been inhabited by native people for over 10,000 years before they arrived. They took the land they wanted and began to build forts, buildings, and fences to keep out those that lived on that land before them. They stole food and supplies. They viewed themselves as superior to their neighbors and acted that way. They made no effort to try to understand the culture of the Wampanoag who already lived where they had settled, but instead forced their own ideas and way of life upon the native people.
Colonial citizens and leaders continued to exploit the Wampanoag robbing them of land and resources. Even when property was purchased legally, it was exploitive. Private property was a non-existent concept to native people who had only communal land within their borders. In addition, they were often given much less than the land would be worth in a fair and mutually understood transaction.
When the Wampanoag, and some of their allies had had enough, they went to war with the colonists. The war had a devastating effect on the population of the native people of the colonies. At the end of the war both captured native people and those that surrendered in response to promises not to be enslaved were sent to the Caribbean as slaves.
I learned this history as I looked deeper into my roots. I realized that while my ancestors’ perseverance and determination may be worthy of admiration, many of their actions were not.
I learned of an ancestor who engaged in seizing of native lands to pay off debts that were impossible to pay. And when it was clear that these transactions were illegal, went about changing the laws to make them legal.
I learned of an ancestor who headed the military council. Who made the decision that all native people not fighting for the colonists during King Philip’s War were by default considered guilty of rebellion, either actively or through complicity. And I learned that he sold these people into slavery as punishment.
I learned of an ancestor who took a captive bride as a prize of war. He forced a person to marry, breed, and assimilate into a culture she did not understand or want to be a part of.
How am I supposed to be proud of these ancestors? Of people who did such horrendous things to other human beings? People who treated anyone that wasn’t like them as if they didn’t matter. My ancestors did what they wanted, took what they wanted, without any regard to anyone but themselves, and destroyed an entire population in the process.
As I look into the deeper history of colonialism in New England, I find myself struggling to come to terms with the reality of my family history. I am struggling to reconcile the history I was taught and the history I have learned, Although I am not responsible for any of the decisions made by my ancestors or any of the actions they took, I struggle to not feel guilt and shame.
Information on my specific ancestors is not hard to find, and thankfully, we are beginning to see more objective and honest histories being told. I will continue to learn all that I can, but knowledge itself is not enough. There are also reparations to be made. There is healing to be done on both sides of this experience.
What I have also realized through this journey is that I am not only struggling to reconcile the acts of individual ancestors, but also my ancestry as a whole. As a vital part of the founding and building of this country my ancestors have directly contributed to building the systems and social structures that exist today. The society that provides me with more access and opportunities than many of my peers. The systems that give me certain privileges and less resistance simply because I look the way that I do. Because my skin is the “right” color and because my culture is accepted as the norm, as the standard. Below you will find a brief list of resources that I have found helpful as I process what all of this means. I encourage you to check them out.
I’m not sure where my journey will take me from here, and I’m not sure how I will navigate the ports along the way. I only hope that as I continue this process I will be able to find a place of understanding and peace that allows me to truly come to terms with my history and what that means for me moving forward.”
This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving This book by David J. Silverman takes a deeper look at the relationship between the colonial settlers and the indigenous people. (Also available as an audiobook available from major retailers)
King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict This book by Eric B. Schultz and Michael J. Tougias examines the deterioration in the relationship and eventual war between the colonists and the indigenous people. (also available as an audiobook available from major retailers)
“The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue” A shorter-read article in Smithsonian Magazine.
White People, My People: Four Mindsets for Resisting Racism An amazing online course by Evangeline Weiss that helps white people develop skills and knowledge to confidently engage in conversations about race.