Metacom (King Philip), Wampanoag sachem, meeting settlers, illustration c. 1911. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Instead of arguing politics around the table on Thanksgiving, maybe we could talk about the story behind this holiday. Although that topic may be just as controversial.

It was Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader, who in November, 1621 brought 90 of his warriors to celebrate the first Thanksgiving. The meeting was a symbol of the mutual defense pact that had been established between his people and the small Plymouth colony.

However, the second time Thanksgiving was celebrated, according to Dakota historian Philip Deloria, the colonists killed Massasoit’s son Metacom (aka King Philip), cut off his hands and sent them to Boston, and stuck his head on a pike.

Connecticut might be the perfect setting to re-examine how we have dealt with this past. It was here that the Pequot War was fought, a series of battles that ended when white Hartford colonists tried to wipe out those Native people in 1637 and then legally erase the Pequot identity, customs, and religion.

Even Hartford’s secular saint Rev.Thomas Hooker relished the thought of ending the Pequots’ existence. “They should be bread for us,” Hooker assured Captain John Mason as he led his soldiers toward Mystic. Easy to devour, makes us strong, Hooker was saying.

The Hartford colonists were part of a long English tradition of conquest: the Crusades (beginning in 1096), the subjugation of the Irish (from 1169), the colonial domination of India (1612). Their aggression often took place in distant lands, but it was all for the same purpose: glory, material wealth, and power. The belief that we are racially superior to the heathens makes it easier to take their land and their lives.

Why dig up this history? It’s so old! Well yes, the way religion is old, the way the universe is old. Old things can still teach us, help us better understand our world.

History is not a game of “Trivial Pursuit,” where only names and dates matter. We should explore not only what we have done as a country, but why we have done it. The third Thursday in November is as good a place as any to start.

As historian Howard Zinn wrote: “History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history… might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

It might even make those Thanksgiving conversations more enlightening.

Steve Thornton is the author of Good Trouble (hardballpress.com) and Wicked Hartford (The History Press). He also writes for the Shoeleather History Project (shoeleatherhistoryproject.com)

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