Mayflower Myths

Myth No. 1 - The First Thanksgiving

“The First Thanksgiving” (1915), by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

“We Native people have no reason to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims. We want to educate people so that they understand the stories we all learned in school about the first thanksgiving are nothing but lies. Wampanoag and other Indigenous people have certainly not lived happily ever after since the arrival of the Pilgrims.” United American Indians of New England co-leader Moonanum James.

The Mayflower story is almost universally portrayed as a historical point of freedom and discovery, where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from Plymouth, forging friendly relations with the Native peoples once they set foot in the ‘New World’.

In fact, when the Pilgrims first arrived in Cape Cod they robbed Wampanoag graves and plundered their winter corn supplies. 

Whilst the colonists were helped in their first year by the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims saw this help as a gift from God.

In 1621, a year after the Pilgrims (colonists) landed, they held a harvest celebration. The Wampanoag were not invited to this celebration as way of thanking them for their help – a group of Wampanoag warriors came across the celebration whilst investigating the sound of canon fire at the Pilgrim settlement. The warriors were invited to share food, but this did not become an annual celebration of thanks. 

The first official ‘Day of Thanksgiving’ was proclaimed in 1636. A man was found murdered on a boat in Plymouth, and English soldiers, led by Mayor John Mason, massacred 400 indigenous peoples from the Pequot tribe in retaliation. The Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, William Newell, proclaimed “From that day forth, shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots”. 

Thanksgiving Day was celebrated intermittently until Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a federal holiday in 1863, intending to bring people together during the Civil War with a myth of friendship and co-operation. This came a year after Lincoln had overseen the largest mass execution in US history, murdering 38 Dakota warriors after a Dakota uprising in Mankato, Minnesota.

National Day of Mourning 2015

The 350th ‘celebration’ of the landing of the Mayflower in America took place in 1970. Officials from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts invited Wamsutta Frank James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag man, to give a speech at a celebration banquet. Wamsutta gave a copy of his speech to the organisers ahead of the event. He was then told he could not deliver the speech as “…the theme of the anniversary celebration is brotherhood and anything inflammatory would have been out of place.” You can read Wamsutta’s speech at the end of this article. 

As a result of this censorship, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) started the National Day of Mourning, which is held on the last Thursday in November (which is also Thanksgiving Day) each year. It is a day of political action and mourning the genocide of the indigenous peoples of America and the theft of their land. 

Native American participants in the Day of Mourning have buried Plymouth Rock twice, boarded the Mayflower replica, and placed Ku Klux Klan sheets on the statue of William Bradford (one of the original pilgrims and governor of the Plymouth Settlement).

This years National Day of Mourning (2019) is dedicated to Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls & Two Spirits. 

Read more about the National Day of Mourning and UAINE here –  and you can donate to their gofundme page here –

Wamsutta Frank James’s Speech at the first National Day of Mourning in 1970 at Cole Hill, Plymouth, Massachusetts: 

“I speak to you as a man — a Wampanoag Man. I am a proud man, proud of my ancestry, my accomplishments won by a strict parental direction (“You must succeed – your face is a different color in this small Cape Cod community!”). I am a product of poverty and discrimination from these two social and economic diseases. I, and my brothers and sisters, have painfully overcome, and to some extent we have earned the respect of our community. We are Indians first – but we are termed “good citizens.” Sometimes we are arrogant but only because society has pressured us to be so.

It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you – celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt’s Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians’ winter provisions as they were able to carry. Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.”

Read more about Mayflower and Thanksgiving myths here:

– On Thanksgiving: Why Myths Matter

– The Truth About the First Thanksgiving

– Eight Things the History Books Don’t Tell us about Natives

– A Few Things you (probably) don’t know about Thanksgiving

50th National Day of Mourning to be observed in Plymouth, MA

First National Day of Mourning Held in Plymouth