Friday, November 26, 2021

The 1st Thanksgiving & The Long Term Treatment of Native Americans

1628 Matthäus Merian’s (1593-1650) Jamestown massacre of 1622, woodcut 

"The first Thanksgiving is a key chapter in America’s origin story – but what happened in Virginia 4 months later mattered much more.

"The Thanksgiving  events in Plymouth in 1621 that came to be enshrined in the national narrative were not typical. A more revealing incident took place in Virginia in 1622.

"Despite a death rate that reached 50% in some years, the English decided to stay. Their investment paid off in the mid-1610s when an enterprising colonist named John Rolfe planted West Indian tobacco seeds in the region’s fertile soil. The industry soon boomed.

"But economic success did not mean the colony would thrive. Initial English survival in Virginia depended on the good graces of the local Indigenous population. By 1607, Wahunsonacock, the leader of an alliance of Natives called Tsenacomoco, had spent a generation forming a confederation of roughly 30 distinct communities along tributaries of Chesapeake Bay. The English called him Powhatan & labeled his followers the Powhatans.

"Wahunsonacock could have likely prevented the English from establishing their community at Jamestown; after all, the Powhatans controlled most of the resources in the region. In 1608, when the newcomers were near starvation, the Powhatans provided them with food. Wahunsonacock also spared Captain John Smith’s life after his people captured the Englishman.

"Wahunsonacock’s actions revealed his strategic thinking. Rather than see the newcomers as all-powerful, he likely believed the English would become a subordinate community under his control. After a war from 1609 to 1614 between English & Powhatans, Wahunsonacock & his allies agreed to peace & coexistence.

"Wahunsonacock died in 1618. Soon after his passing, Opechancanough, likely one of Wahunsonacock’s brothers, emerged as a leader of the Powhatans. Unlike his predecessor, Opechancanough viewed the English with suspicion, especially when they pushed on to Powhatan lands to expand their tobacco fields.

"By spring 1622, Opechancanough had had enough. On March 22, he & his allies launched a surprise attack. By day’s end, they had killed 347 of the English. They might have killed more except that one Powhatan who had converted to Christianity had warned some of the English, which gave them the time to escape.

"Within months, news of the violence spread in England. Edward Waterhouse, the colony’s secretary, detailed the “barbarous Massacre” in a short pamphlet. A few years later, an engraver in Frankfurt captured Europeans’ fears of Native Americans in a haunting illustration for a translation of Waterhouse’s book.

"Waterhouse wrote of those who died “under the bloudy & barbarous hands of that perfidious & inhumane people.” He reported that the victors had desecrated English corpses. He called them “savages” & resorted to common European descriptions of “wyld Naked Natives.” He vowed revenge.

"Over the next decade, English soldiers launched a brutal war against the Powhatans, repeatedly burning the Powhatans’ fields at harvest time in an effort to starve them & drive them away.

"The Powhatans’ orchestrated attack anticipated other Indigenous rebellions against aggressive European colonizers in 17th-century North America.

"The English response, too, fit a pattern: Any sign of resistance by “pagans,” as Waterhouse labeled the Powhatans, needed to be suppressed to advance Europeans’ desire to convert Native Americans to Christianity, claim Indigenous lands, & satisfy European customers clamoring for goods produced in America.

"It was this dynamic – not the one of fellowship found in Plymouth in 1621 – that would go on to define the relationship between Native Americans & European settlers for over two centuries.

"Before the end of the century, violence erupted in New England too, erasing the positive legacy of the feast of 1621. By 1675, simmering tensions exploded in a war that stretched across the region. On a per capita basis, it was among the deadliest conflicts in American history."