First Thanksgiving…Myth and Reality

In the summer of 1637, an armed force of English Puritans led an attack on the fortified Pequot village of Mystic in Connecticut, resulting in the deaths of around 500 Native American men, women, and children, though some estimate the numbers were higher.1 A pre-dawn attack on Mystic Fort that left 500 adults and children of the Pequot tribe dead, the Pequot Massacre (or the “Mystic Massacre”)2 was the first defeat of the Pequot people by the English in the Pequot War, a three-year war instigated by the Puritans to seize the tribe’s traditional land.3

Captain Masons attack on the Pequots fortified village 1637 (hand-colored-woodcut-MYPJ5H)

The Pequot War is described in the new young reader’s version of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Here is a brief excerpt:

Pequot Massacre 1637 destruction of the Pequots and their Fort

Pequots were living in two forts. In one fort were mainly Pequot men. In the other were primarily women, children, and elders. [Mercenary John] Mason targeted the latter. Slaughter ensued. After killing most of the Pequot defenders, the soldiers set fire to the structures and burned the remaining people there alive.4 Though the Puritan’s slaughter of the Pequots was devastating, they continued to fear retaliation by the surviving Pequots who had sought refuge among neighboring nations. The fear was so great that they destroyed Pequot’s remaining homes and food supplies and forced them to leave their homelands.

Mason encouraged his “Christian men” to rape the women before killing them as their “reward”. Babies, infants, and children were dispatched as having no value. This gruesome defeat marked a turning point in the war, which the Pequots and their allies had been winning for eight months. The war also had the goal of enslavement, as described in “America’s Other Original Sin”: “The village was burned to the ground, and marked the first major defeat of the Pequot people in what was a three year war over their lands.”5

Pequot Massacre, 1637 – the crime of John Mason 1637

The event has been described as a “massacre,” and a “slaughter.”6 John Mason, commander of the Connecticut forces that wiped out the village described setting the fort of the village on fire, “And thus in little more than one Hour’s space was their impregnable Fort with themselves utterly destroyed, to the Number of six or seven Hundred, as some of themselves confessed.”7 John Winthrop, the governor of the state of Massachusetts, said, according to his journal, on June 15, 1637: “There was a day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for the victory obtained against the Pequots, and for other mercies […]”8 Another such day was also declared in October for more victories against the Pequots.

When Tisquantum, Ousamequi and the Wampanoag saved the Pilgrims: the ignored story.

The so-called first Thanksgiving was the fruit of a political decision on Ousamequin’s [the Chief of the Wampanoag] part. Violent power politics played a much more important role in shaping the Wampanoag-English alliance than the famous feast. At least in the short term, Ousamequin’s league with the newcomers was the right gamble, insofar as the English helped to fend off the rival Narragansetts and uphold Ousamequin’s authority. In the long term, however, it was a grave miscalculation. Plymouth and the other New England colonies would soon go on to conquer Ousamequin’s people, just as the Frenchman’s curse had augured and just as the Wampanoags who opposed the Pilgrims feared that they would.9

Thanksgiving used to look a lot more like Halloween. The practice of dressing up in costumes and asking for candy didn’t become common in the U.S. until the 1940s and 1950s;10 before then, people trick-or-treated—or, well, did something that resembled trick-or-treating—on the national day of gratitude.

In 1936, The New York Times‘ only mention of the ragamuffins is to state:11

“Ragamuffins Frowned Upon: Despite the endeavors of social agencies to discourage begging by children, it is likely that the customary Thanksgiving ragamuffins, wearing discarded apparel of their elders, with masks and painted faces, will ask passers-by, ‘anything for Thanksgiving?'”

Manhattan Bleecker Street – Perry Street. Thanksgiving ragamuffins.

The last mention of the Thanksgiving Ragamuffin parades—as one had appeared in the Bronx as well—is in 1956.  At some point the Ragamuffin parade was ceased and it had been overshadowed by the larger, balloon-oriented, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that gained nation-wide popularity after the success of the film Miracle on 34th Street.12

Thanksgiving maskers circa 1910-1915

Ragamuffin traditions were ceded to the rise of Halloween which fostered the “begging” of candy again through trick-or-treating and brought costuming to a whole new level. Cross-dressing (males wearing female clothing and females wearing male clothing)13  was not condemned and widely celebrated as a prelude to Halloween.14

The Free Lance Dec 2 1911


  1. https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/pequot-massacre/. Cf. https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/native-history-its-memorial-dayin-1637-the-pequot-massacre-happened.
  2. Native History: It’s Memorial Day—In 1637, the Pequot Massacre Happened – Indian Country Today.
  3. Mason, John and Royster, Paul, editor, “A Brief History of the Pequot War (1736)”. Electronic Texts in American Studies. 1736. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/42. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.
  4. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People – Zinn Education Project (zinnedproject.org).
  5. Native American slavery: Historians uncover a chilling chapter in U.S. history. (slate.com).
  6. https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/pequot-massacre/.
  7. A Brief History of the Pequot War (1736) (unl.edu).
  8. https://archive.org/details/journalofjohnwin0000wint.
  9. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/11/thanksgiving-belongs-wampanoag-tribe/602422/.
  10. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2010/11/23/thanksgiving-ragamuffin-parade. Cf. https://www.npr.org/sections/theprotojournalist/2014/11/19/365195079/when-thanksgiving-was-weird.
  11. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2010/11/23/thanksgiving-ragamuffin-parade.
  12. https://browse.nypl.org/iii/encore/record/C__Rb18135275?lang=eng&ivts=qyMFVCzy%2FQdugEokyktO0A%3D%3D&casts=q5SnowsFcCBPWXXsnCRDyg%3D%3D.
  13. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1296&dat=19111202&id=PgZFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=i48DAAAAIBAJ&pg=3056,1167795&hl=en.
  14. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/people-used-to-celebrate-thanksgiving-like-we-now-celebrate-halloween/383173/ cf. https://books.google.com/books?id=X6hMAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA349&dq=masking+thanksgiving&hl=en&ei=0hXNTvTbBILz0gGCha0Z&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDsQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=masking%20thanksgiving&f=false. Cp. https://www.boweryboyshistory.com/?br=//theboweryboys.blogspot.com/2011/11/happy-thanksgiving-masking-pleasures-of.html.

2 comments to First Thanksgiving…Myth and Reality

  • Paul R Pearson  says:

    It is interesting to note that the Amarinds (native Americans) did not have forts as part of their societal structure until Europeans arrived.

    Here’s another look at the establishment of Thanksgiving: https://pearsonally.com/blog/diary-entry-2111-28/#thank

    • Arthur Frederick Ide  says:

      …and they did not have guns or a religion that felt it was supreme nor a clergy that demanded 10% tithes but took care of the land. When the christian “settlers” came they raped, killed and enslave many native Indians and then “gave” them christianity in all of its rank and blood-demanding reality as the christian took away Native Americans freedom and land. Christianity has always been a terrorist religion marked with bloodshed, rapes, murders, pillaging from the earliest days (read of the violent outbreak among the christian bishops at the Emperor Constantine’s unholy Council of Nicaea in 330 CE as he and his warriors established his brand of christianity for the empire) through the purging of Jews by Hitler who followed Martin Luther’s playbook On the Jews, to the denigrating bellows of Trump against Black Africans and Muslims calling their nations “shitholes” whereas the only shithole nation was and is Trump’s irreparable Divided States of AmeriKKKa, so similar to Putin’s racism and race to sanctification as his troops bomb hospitals and train stations in worse carnage than MaiLai, Vietnam.

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