Give Thanks — unturkey truths

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

"The Europeans were able to conquer America not because of their
military genius, or their religious motivation, or their ambition, or
their greed. They conquered it by waging unpremeditated biological
-- Howard Simpson

"Considering that virtually none of the standard fare surrounding
Thanksgiving contains an ounce of authenticity, historical accuracy, or
cross-cultural perception, why is it so apparently ingrained? Is it
necessary to the American psyche to perpetually exploit and debase its
victims in order to justify its history?"
-- Michael Dorris

"European explorers and invaders discovered an inhabited land. Had it
been pristine wilderness then, it would possibly be so still, for
neither the technology nor the social organization of Europe in the 16th
and 17th centuries had the capacity to maintain, of its own resources,
outpost colonies thousands of miles from home."
-- Francis Jennings

What Thanksgiving story are you telling your children or talking about
with your guests during this holiday? Most Americans speak of
remembering the Pilgrims who, in 1620, chose the land around Plymouth
Harbor, Massachusetts for their settlement. You might remember from your
elementary school days that since they arrived in the winter, they were
unprepared for the harsh climate.

Fortunately, they were aided by some friendly Indians who gave them food
and showed them how to grow corn. When the warm weather came, the
colonists planted crops, fished, hunted and became much better prepared
for next winter. And when they harvested their first crop, they invited
their Indian friends to celebrate with them what was to become the first

This story is taught today in thousands of classrooms across the nation,
and around the world, and is ingrained in most people’s consciousness.
Just yesterday, I heard some elementary school teachers telling the
story on National Pubic Radio. Unfortunately, the entire story, from
start to finish, is a complete lie.

You are going to have to push aside your turkey (or tofu) leftovers if
you are going to learn what really happened at the time of the first
Thanksgiving in America. In fact, you may not be able to stomach any
food for a while after you learn the truth.

The story actually begins after 1492 as Europeans came in significant
numbers to the newly found Americas.

When people began moving, the microbes that they evolved with moved
along with them. Before the arrival of Europeans, the inhabitants of
North and South America were remarkably healthy. But along with the
Europeans came their illnesses and their livestock. The native
inhabitants were then exposed to the many diseases that can be passed
back and forth between those animals and humans - anthrax, tuberculosis,
cholera, streptococcus, ringworm and various poxes.

The British and French had fished in southern New England for some time
before the Pilgrims landed in 1620. It is likely that they came in
contact with the Indians at that time. The native inhabitants had no
resistance to the diseases brought by the Europeans and within three
years, a plague wiped out between 90 and 96 percent of the inhabitants
of coastal New England! This death rate was unknown in all previous
human experience. For comparison, the Black Plague in the 1300s killed
about 30 percent of Europe’s population.

This piece of history is usually omitted from most textbooks, yet these
plagues, which ravaged the Indian population for the next 15 years, set
the tone for the relationship of the European settlers with the
indigenous people of America.

The English settlers inferred from the plague that God was on their side
and sanctioned their takeover of the land. John Winthrop, governor of
the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, wrote that the plague was
"miraculous." He said "God hath thereby cleared out title to this
place..." Is it any wonder that our political leaders of today ask for
God’s blessing and protection as they go to war to kill?

Between 1520 and 1918, there were 93 epidemics among Native Americans.

The effect that these plagues had on the native populations reached into
their psyches as well. They felt that the Supreme Being had abandoned
them. Some survivors of the Cherokee lost all confidence in their gods
and priests and destroyed the sacred objects of the tribe. Indian
healers could do nothing and their religion provided no cause. But the
Whites usually survived and their religion seemed to save them. Many
Indians turned to alcohol, Christianity or simply committed suicide. So
it was a psychologically and physically devastated people that for the
first 50 years of European occupation presented no real opposition to
the invaders.

Prior to the arrival of European invaders, the native population of
North and South American was 100 million in 1492. The entire population
of Europe at the time was 70 million. If colonists had not been able to
take over lands that the Indians had already cleared and cultivated, and
if the Indian population had not been devastated by disease, there might
not have been any colonization at all.

By 1880, the Indian population was 250,000, a drop of 98 percent

It is quite likely that the Pilgrims knew well of these plagues. In
fact, most people knew about them. Ziner, in the book "Squanto," wrote
that before the Mayflower sailed, King James of England gave thanks to
"Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us" for sending
"this wonderful plague among the savages."

Few Americans know that the Pilgrims numbered only about 35 of the 102
settlers aboard the Mayflower, which was headed for the new Virginia
colony. Some historians believe it is possible that the Pilgrims bribed
the Mayflower captain to drop them off in Massachusetts. Some say they
may have even hijacked the ship. In any case, the non-Pilgrim majority,
who had joined the ship because of the economic opportunity afforded by
the Virginia tobacco plantations, were quite upset at being taken
someplace else.

Historians, in their search for a story that told the mythical
beginnings of American culture, probably chose to omit facts about the
Pilgrims story rather than tell the tale of Virginia. In Virginia, the
British took the Native Americans prisoner and forced them to show the
colonists how to farm.

James W. Loewen, in his revealing book "Lies My Teacher Told Me," says,
"in 1623, the British indulged in the first use of chemical warfare in
the colonies when negotiating a treaty with the tribes near the Potomac
River, headed by Chiskiack. The British offered a toast ‘symbolizing
eternal friendship,’ whereupon the chief, his family, advisors, and two
hundred followers dropped dead of poison."

The Pilgrims choose their site at Plymouth because it had beautifully
cleared fields, recently planted corn, and excellent water supplies. The
Pilgrims did not start from scratch in the wildness, but used a common
practice of the European invaders of appropriating Indian cornfields for
their initial settlements. This is why so many of the names of East
Coast towns end in "field."

Many of the Indians who created and lived in this new Plymouth died from
the plagues, and with them died opposition of the new settlers.

The Pilgrims robbed graves, stole what they could find in abandoned
Indian homes, and filled their larders with the harvest of a dying
culture’s labors.

Early Thanksgiving shown as the prevailing myth (Image credit unknown)

The reasons for the lies about the origins of Thanksgiving go deep into
culture, psyche, and religion and are covered in depth in Loewen’s book.
One thing is for sure: the true history of Thanksgiving reveals some
very embarrassing facts.

The most remarkable part of the story may be that the Pilgrims did not
even introduce the tradition of Thanksgiving in America. It wasn't until
1863 that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday.
The fabricated story of the Pilgrims was not even included in the
holiday until the 1890s. The term "Pilgrim" was not even used until the

The environmental and social devastation wrought by the European
invaders of North America continues today. Oil company explorers, miners
and loggers continue to introduce disease to the isolated indigenous
cultures of South American and Southeast Asia.

The myth of Thanksgiving has created a false sense of self in Americans
that has done great damage throughout the world. It has resulted in
seeds of racial hatred and white superiority being planted in the minds
of schoolchildren. It is an insult to us all, especially since most
Americans are ignorant of the truth, even though the facts about the
grave robbing, Indian enslavement and murder, and the plagues, were
common knowledge among the settlers of New England.

Loewen gives us excellent reasons why we should seek out the truth of
American history. If the conflicts of the true story were revealed, he
says, then "students might discover that the knowledge they gain has
implications for their lives today. Correctly taught, the issues of the
era of the first Thanksgiving could help Americans grow more thoughtful
and more tolerant, rather than more ethnocentric."

We can redefine Thanksgiving for ourselves and our family. We can make
it a day when we not only give thanks for the bounty we have received,
but a day when we acknowledge the injustices that have been done and
still are being perpetrated on so many people and animals in the world.

After feasting, we could choose a way for our families to help lessen
the suffering of some creature somewhere in the world, animal or human.

We must remember these tragedies as we shape the new millennium. With
genetically engineered bacteria, crops and animals being created every
day, are we risking a biological devastation like the Indians

We must examine how we are using this stolen gift of a nation. As life
support systems crumble and species become extinct every day, can we
really say we have learned anything in the last 500 years?

Happy Thanksgiving.


1. Read "Lies My Teacher Told Me," by James W. Loewen to learn about
more surprises in American history. Buy a few copies and give them to
elementary school teachers in your community. If you have children, make
sure your child’s teacher has one. Visit a website devoted to this book

2. Learn about ongoing harassment of native and indigenous people around
the world at:

3. Read a powerful international perspective on the terrorism against
the U.S. in Briton's "The Independent" at:

4. Find alternative sources for information to understand the complexity
of world events. Visit:

Peace Brigades International at:
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation at:
The Nonviolence Web at:

5. Many of the world's despots, dictators, and terrorists were trained
by the United States at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security
Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas, in Fort Benning,
Georgia. Follow the protests against this U.S. sanctioned school for
terror at

6. Find out who your elected representatives are and e-mail them. Tell
them you will not tolerate the continued exploitation of indigenous
people throughout the world. You can find them at

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle and the
author of "Healing Our World", A Journey from the Darkness Into the
Light," available at: or
your local bookstore. His new book of photographs and thoughts on
interconnectedness, "Of This Earth, Reflections on Connections," is now
available. Learn about it at: Please send your
thoughts, comments, and visions to him at: and
visit his website at:}