A lot has been written in the last 30 years in an effort to demonize the settlers, pioneers and pilgrims who came to America, to make a new life for themselves, people who were escaping horrible conditions and religious persecution. This is a look at the “Thanksgiving genocide” narrative and the absurdity around how White Europeans are portrayed as blood lusting devils, who apparently had all the time in the world hunting and killing Indians for pleasure, as opposed to the struggle to survive in a new land. Remember, during their first winter, 50% of them died from disease, starvation and cold.
The exaggerations and caricatures have become more and more extreme over the years. It’s clear that the material presented in the following articles is used to impose guilt on Americans, White Americans. This article also takes a look at the claims for the alleged planned genocide using smallpox infested blankets. Please read and reevaluate your position if you’ve fallen for this “alternative” narrative, as it’s one that is rapidly nestling itself into academia, education and regurgitated by media and official channels, but is it true? Here is a flavor of what is to come:
“The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. They introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores.”
Who knew there were politically correct Indians? We didn’t realize they were indoctrinated with Cultural Marxism in the 1620s.
Oh, the HORROR!
The first story is from: sail1620.org:
Thanksgiving on the Net: Roast Bull (shit) with Cranberry Sauce
Setting people straight about Thanksgiving myths has become as much a part of the annual holiday as turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. But should historians bother? Jane Kamensky, a professor of history at Brandeis, thinks not. She asks on the website “Common-Place” (in 2001) whether it’s worth while
“to plumb the bottom of it all – to determine, for example, […] whether Plymouth’s ’Pilgrims’ were indeed the grave-robbing hypocrites that UAINE describes [i.e. United American Indians of New England]. […] Was the ’first Thanksgiving’ merely a pretext for bloodshed, enslavement, and displacement that would follow in later decades? Combing period documents and archaeological evidence, we might peel away some of the myths […]But to do so would be to miss a fundamental point of these holidays. […] in this new millenium, these sacred secular rites are once again pressed into service – this time by new nations, with new visions of the present, to be reached through new versions of the past. In place of one origins myth, the inventors of Indigenous Peoples’ Day [intended to replace Columbus Day] and the National Day of Mourning [intended to replace Thanksgiving Day] invoke another. One in which all Europeans were villains and all Natives, victims. One in which indigenous peoples knew neither strife nor war until the treachery of Columbus and his cultural heirs taught them to hate and fear. To ask whether this is true is to ask the wrong question. It’s true to its purposes. Every bit as true, that is, as the stories some Americans in 1792 and 1863 told about the events of 1492 and 1621. And that’s all it needs to be. For these holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now.”
“And that’s all it needs to be”?
I disagree. I think that anyone who wants to approach the question of Thanksgiving Day as a historian in the “ever changing Now” will need to ask “the wrong question” – what of all this is true?
Surveying more than two hundred websites that “correct” our assumptions about Thanksgiving, it’s possible to sort them into groups and themes, especially since internet sites often parrot each other. Very few present anything like the myths that most claim to combat. Almost all of the corrections are themselves incorrect or banal, and otherwise not germane to the topic of what happened in 1621. With heavy self-importance they demonstrate quite unsurprisingly that what was once commonly taught in grade school lacked scope, subtlety, and minority insight. The political posturing is pathetic.
Commonly the first point scored is that lots of people gave thanks before the Pilgrims did it in 1621. Local boosters in Virginia, Florida, and Texas promote their own colonists, who (like many people getting off a boat) gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Several sites claim that Indians had six thanksgivings every year; at least one says that every day, every act, every thought was carried out with thanksgiving by pre-contact Indians. (My thanksgiving is bigger than your thanksgiving?)
[…] snip […]
A Cornucopia of Grievances
“The first day of thanksgiving took place in 1637 amidst the war against the Pequots. 700 men, women, and children of the Pequot tribe were gathered for their annual green corn dance on what is now Groton, Connecticut. Dutch and English mercenaries surrounded the camp and proceeded to shoot, stab, butcher and burn alive all 700 people. The next day the Massachusetts Bay Colony held a feast in celebration and the governor declared ’a day of thanksgiving.’ In the ensuing madness of the Indian extermination, natives were scalped, burned, mutilated and sold into slavery, and a feast was held in celebration every time a successful massacre took place. The killing frenzy got so bad that even the Churches of Manhattan announced a day of ’thanksgiving’ to celebrate victory over the ’heathen savages,’ and many celebrated by kicking the severed heads of Pequot people through the streets like soccer balls.” So says Tristan Ahtone, at cowboykiller.com.
There were preliminary events before this celebration of atrocity, according to Ahtone. Although the 1621 harvest festival in Plymouth was not in his opinion a thanksgiving, he informs us that
“Two years later the English invited a number of tribes to a feast ’symbolizing eternal friendship.’ The English offered food and drink, and two hundred Indians dropped dead from unknown poison.”
This echoes the words of James Loewen (quoted by Jackie Alan Giuliano in “Give Thanks – Un-Turkey Truths“):
“The British offered a toast ’symbolizing eternal friendship,’ whereupon the chief, his family, advisors, and two hundred followers dropped dead of poison.”
Loewen places this event in Virginia.
Ahtone’s remarks connecting the “First Thanksgiving” with the Pequot War are frequently copied or excerpted, with slight variations. Sometimes it’s not Massachusetts Bay responsible, but the Pilgrims.
“The next day, the English governor William Bradford declared ’a day of Thanksgiving’, thanking God that they had eliminated the Indians, opening Pequot land for white settlement. That proclamation was repeated each year for the next century.”
This was posted by “Ecuanduero” on the Discovery Channel.com, in 2003.
William Loren Katz, author of Black Indians, A Hidden Heritage, writes that,
“In 1637 Governor Bradford, who saw his colonists locked in mortal combat with dangerous Native Americans, ordered his militia to conduct a night attack on the sleeping men women and children of a Pequot Indian village. To Bradford, a devout Christian, the massacre was imbued with religious meaning.”
Clearly we should realize that these people were not nice, but just exactly how bad?
“Not even Charles Manson and Jim Jones combined could compare with that murderous Doomsday cult — the Pilgrims,”
says a website article called “The Pilgrims, Children of the Devil: Puritan Doomsday Cult Plunders Paradise.” The site calls itself the Common Sense Almanac, Progressive Pages (and claims to be a project of the Center for Media and Democracy).
Be VERY afraid!
“It is a serious mistake to practice holidays based on a false history,”
one site admonishes us.
“The young people find out on their own that they are involved in a lie, and it makes them rage with fury and contempt. […]It should surprise no one that after raising children honoring the memory of the Pilgrim fathers, that they grow up to hate freedom as much as the Forefathers did. It should surprise no one that a society that worships the Pilgrims — who ruthlessly scalped the Indians (teaching them how to do it), who indiscriminately torched Indian villages, and murdered their women, children and elders in the precursors of total war, and holocaust — should produce children who grow up to join street gangs, and who seek the experience of murdering other human beings for kicks.”
The story told by Ahtone, Katz, and others is derived from a report that surfaced in the 1980’s.
“According to William B. Newell, a Penobscot Indian and former chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, the first official Thanksgiving Day commemorated the massacre of 700 Indian men, women and children during one of their religious ceremonies. […]”
This version in First Nations News is from an article by Karen Gullo that first appeared in Vegetarian Times, 1982. Newell’s material is quoted over and over. Newell, who is described in one site as having degrees from two universities [wow! Fancy that!], was convinced about the solidity of his research:
“My research is authentic because it is documentary,”
“You can’t get anything more accurate than that because it is first hand. It is not hearsay.” s6k.com/real/thankstaking.htm
What’s not authentic is the claim that William Newell was head of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, whose faculty cannot recall him at all. When the department was founded in 1971, Newell was 79 years old. See the letter by department chair Jocelyn Linnekin. And what is completely untrue is the idea that the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony participated in the 1637 Pequot massacre. Although asked to send military assistance, the Plymouth court did not respond until two weeks after the slaughter had been carried out by a mixed force of soldiers from Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, and the Narragansett tribe (no “Dutch and English mercenaries”). As Bradford himself reports, the Pilgrims were told their aid was too little, too late; they could stay home. (See my book, Pilgrim Edward Winslow: New England’s First International Diplomat (Boston: NEHGS, 2004), pp. 164-168.)
Is this important? Or is the lie “true to its purposes”?
The National Day of Mourning
The purposes can best be understood as fitting in with the description of the Pilgrims that animates the so-called National Day of Mourning sponsored by the United American Indians of New England.
“The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims)”[yes, that again] “did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. They introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod — before they even made it to Plymouth — was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians’ winter provisions of corn and beans as they were able to carry. […] The first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who had gone to Mystic Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men.”
This characterization of the Pilgrims was written in 2003 by UAINE leaders Mahtowin Munro and Mooanum James, whose father Frank James (Wamsutta) made the 1970 protest speech that started the Day of Mourning at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Wamsutta spoke out against decades of inequality in words historically vague and not entirely accurate. He clearly announced the continued presence of Wampanoag Indians to a society that he thought had too often treated them as bygone relics. But his measured anger at real injustice bore little of the demonizing divisiveness championed by UAINE in later years.
From the repetition of Mahtowin Munro’s and Mooanum James’ remarks in countless websites associated with Native American interests, it would appear that the Wampanoag tribes consider themselves best represented by the UAINE protests. The words of Russell Peters published by Pilgrim Hall Museum contradict this.
Russell Peters, A Wampanoag leader, died in 2002. Who was he? “Mr. Peters [M.A., Harvard] has been involved in Native American issues at a state, local and national level. He [was] the President of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1976 to 1984, a member of the Harvard Peabody Museum Native American Repatriation Committee, a member of the White House Conference on Federal Recognition in 1995 and 1996, a board member of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, a board member of the Pilgrim Society, and the author of Wampanoags of Mashpee (Nimrod Press), Clambake (Lerner Publications), and Regalia (Sundance Press).” Russell Peters expressed regret at the deterioration of the social potential of the Day of Mourning.
“While the day of mourning has served to focus attention on past injustice to the Native American cause, it has, in recent years, been orchestrated by a group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England. This group has tenuous ties to any of the local tribes, and is composed primarily of non-Indians. To date, they have refused several invitations to meet with the Wampanoag Indian tribal councils in Mashpee or in Gay Head. Once again, we, as Wampanoags, find our voices and concerns cast aside in the activities surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday in Plymouth, this time, ironically, by a group purporting to represent our interests.”
The 1970 event at which Wamsutta spoke was organized by the American Indian Movement, whose leader Russell Means wrote, in his autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread (with Marvin J. Wolf, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995),
“Americans today believe that Thanksgiving celebrates a bountiful harvest, but that is not so. By 1970, the Wampanoag had turned up a copy of a Thanksgiving proclamation made by the governor to the colony. The text revealed the ugly truth: After a colonial militia had returned from murdering the men, women, and children of an Indian village, the governor proclaimed a holiday and feast to give thanks for the massacre. He also encouraged other colonies to do likewise – in other words, every autumn after the crops are in, go kill Indians and celebrate your murders with a feast. In November 1970, their descendants returned to Plymouth to publicize the true story of Thanksgiving and, along with about two hundred other Indians from around the country, to observe a national day of Indian mourning.”
One of the odder results of the “Day of Mourning” is the appearance in a couple of Thanksgiving Day sermons of the unfounded claim that some Pilgrims considered having a day of mourning to commemorate those who had died the previous winter, but that instead they chose to thank God for their continued preservation. This colonization of the protest rhetoric can be seen at Presbyterian Warren [excerpted at] Trinity Sermons.
That’s a mild contrast to Mitchel Cohen’s “Why I Hate Thanksgiving” (2003), now re-duplicated incessantly.
“First, the genocide. Then the suppression of all discussion about it. What do Indian people find to be Thankful for in this America? What does anyone have to be Thankful for in the genocide of the Indians, that this ’holyday’ commemorates? […] all the things we have to be thankful for have nothing at all to do with the Pilgrims, nothing at all to do with Amerikan history, and everything to do with the alternative, anarcho-communist lives the Indian peoples led, before they were massacred by the colonists, in the name of privatization of property and the lust for gold and labor. Yes, I am an American. But I am an American in revolt. I am revolted by the holiday known as Thanksgiving. […] I want to go back in time to when people lived communally, before the colonists’ Christian god was brought to these shores to sanctify their terrorism, their slavery, their hatred of children, their oppression of women, their holocausts. But that is impossible. So all I look forward to [is] the utter destruction of the apparatus of death known as Amerika not the people, not the beautiful land, but the machinery, the State, the capitalism, the Christianity and all that it stands for. I look forward to a future where I will have children with Amerika, and … they will be the new Indians.”
Mr. Cohen is co-editor of “Green Politix,” the national newspaper of the Greens/Greens Party USA. He’s annoyed. (Who wouldn’t be – loving nature and living in Brooklyn?) He’s also a romantic with an ideal view of Natives living in a pristine environment, rather like the peaceful, ecologically wonderful place imagined by Plimoth Plantation’s Anthony Pollard (known as Nanepashemet).
“The Wampanoag way of life fostered a harmonious relationship between the People and their natural environment, both physical and spiritual. […] fighting was just part of the search for harmony when conditions had become intolerable or justice was denied.”
Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?
From Guenter Lewy’s article “Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?“
The story of the encounter between European settlers and America’s native population does not make for pleasant reading. Among early accounts, perhaps the most famous is Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor (1888), a doleful recitation of forced removals, killings, and callous disregard. Jackson’s book, which clearly captured some essential elements of what happened, also set a pattern of exaggeration and one-sided indictment that has persisted to this day.
Thus, according to Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, the reduction of the North American Indian population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 represents a “vast genocide . . . , the most sustained on record.” By the end of the 19th century, writes David E. Stannard, a historian at the University of Hawaii, native Americans had undergone the “worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed, roaring across two continents non-stop for four centuries and consuming the lives of countless tens of millions of people.” In the judgment of Lenore A. Stiffarm and Phil Lane, Jr.,“there can be no more monumental example of sustained genocide—certainly none involving a ’race’ of people as broad and complex as this—anywhere in the annals of human history.”
The sweeping charge of genocide against the Indians became especially popular during the Vietnam war, when historians opposed to that conflict began drawing parallels between our actions in Southeast Asia and earlier examples of a supposedly ingrained American viciousness toward non-white peoples. The historian Richard Drinnon, referring to the troops under the command of the Indian scout Kit Carson, called them “forerunners of the Burning Fifth Marines” who set fire to Vietnamese villages, while in The American Indian: The First Victim (1972), Jay David urged contemporary readers to recall how America’s civilization had originated in “theft and murder” and”efforts toward . . . genocide.”
Further accusations of genocide marked the run-up to the 1992 quincentenary of the landing of Columbus. The National Council of Churches adopted a resolution branding this event “an invasion” that resulted in the “slavery and genocide of native people.” In a widely read book, The Conquest of Paradise (1990), Kirkpatrick Sale charged the English and their American successors with pursuing a policy of extermination that had continued unabated for four centuries. Later works have followed suit. In the 1999 Encyclopedia of Genocide, edited by the scholar Israel Charny, an article by Ward Churchill argues that extermination was the “express objective” of the U.S. government. To the Cambodia expert Ben Kiernan, similarly, genocide is the “only appropriate way” to describe how white settlers treated the Indians. And so forth.
That American Indians suffered horribly is indisputable. But whether their suffering amounted to a” holocaust,” or to genocide, is another matter.
It is a firmly established fact that a mere 250,000 native Americans were still alive in the territory of the United States at the end of the 19th century. Still in scholarly contention, however, is the number of Indians alive at the time of first contact with Europeans. Some students of the subject speak of an inflated “numbers game”; others charge that the size of the aboriginal population has been deliberately minimized in order to make the decline seem less severe than it was.
The disparity in estimates is enormous. In 1928, the ethnologist James Mooney proposed a total count of 1,152,950 Indians in all tribal areas north of Mexico at the time of the European arrival. By 1987, in American Indian Holocaust and Survival, Russell Thornton was giving a figure of well over 5 million, nearly five times as high as Mooney’s, while Lenore Stiffarm and Phil Lane, Jr. suggested a total of 12 million. That figure rested in turn on the work of the anthropologist Henry Dobyns, who in 1983 had estimated the aboriginal population of North America as a whole at 18 million and of the present territory of the United States at about 10 million.
From one perspective, these differences, however startling, may seem beside the point: there is ample evidence, after all, that the arrival of the white man triggered a drastic reduction in the number of native Americans. Nevertheless, even if the higher figures are credited, they alone do not prove the occurrence of genocide.
To address this issue properly we must begin with the most important reason for the Indians’ catastrophic decline—namely, the spread of highly contagious diseases to which they had no immunity. This phenomenon is known by scholars as a “virgin-soil epidemic”; in North America, it was the norm.
The most lethal of the pathogens introduced by the Europeans was smallpox, which sometimes incapacitated so many adults at once that deaths from hunger and starvation ran as high as deaths from disease; in several cases, entire tribes were rendered extinct. Other killers included measles, influenza, whooping cough, diphtheria, typhus, bubonic plague, cholera, and scarlet fever. Although syphilis was apparently native to parts of the Western hemisphere, it, too, was probably introduced into North America by Europeans.
About all this there is no essential disagreement. The most hideous enemy of native Americans was not the white man and his weaponry, concludes Alfred Crosby, “but the invisible killers which those men brought in their blood and breath.” It is thought that between 75 to 90 percent of all Indian deaths resulted from these killers.
Additional comment: Remember that the horrific Black Death, which killed up to half of Europe’s population (30 to 60 percent) in the mid-14th century, an estimated 75 million people, was imported into southern Europe from Asia. In other words, this is a similar scenario. Disease traveled with people from Asia to Europe and later, from Europe to America. Put it in perspective: do Europeans blame Asian’s for a decimation of their population? Do we claim that Asian’s committed genocide against the European people? The findings published in the paper Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death, suggest that the plague was imported to Europe on two or more occasions, each following a distinct route.
To some, however, this is enough in itself to warrant the term genocide. David Stannard, for instance, states that just as Jews who died of disease and starvation in the ghettos are counted among the victims of the Holocaust, Indians who died of introduced diseases “were as much the victims of the Euro-American genocidal war as were those burned or stabbed or hacked or shot to death, or devoured by hungry dogs.” As an example of actual genocidal conditions, Stannard points to Franciscan missions in California as “furnaces of death.”
But right away we are in highly debatable territory. It is true that the cramped quarters of the missions, with their poor ventilation and bad sanitation, encouraged the spread of disease. But it is demonstrably untrue that […] the missionaries were unconcerned with the welfare of their native converts. No matter how difficult the conditions under which the Indians labored—obligatory work, often inadequate food and medical care, corporal punishment. The missionaries had a poor understanding of the causes of the diseases that afflicted their charges, and medically there was little they could do for them.
The larger picture also does not conform to Stannard’s idea of disease as an expression of “genocidal war.” True, the forced relocations of Indian tribes were often accompanied by great hardship and harsh treatment; the removal of the Cherokee from their homelands to territories west of the Mississippi in 1838 took the lives of thousands and has entered history as the Trail of Tears. But the largest loss of life occurred well before this time, and sometimes after only minimal contact with European traders. True, too, some colonists later welcomed the high mortality among Indians, seeing it as a sign of divine providence; that, however, does not alter the basic fact that Europeans did not come to the New World in order to infect the natives with deadly diseases.
Or did they? Ward Churchill, taking the argument a step further than Stannard, asserts that there was nothing unwitting or unintentional about the way the great bulk of North America’s native population disappeared: “it was precisely malice, not nature, that did the deed.” In brief, the Europeans were engaged in biological warfare.
Unfortunately for this thesis, we know of but a single instance of such warfare, and the documentary evidence is inconclusive. In 1763, a particularly serious uprising threatened the British garrisons west of the Allegheny mountains. Worried about his limited resources, and disgusted by what he saw as the Indians’ treacherous and savage modes of warfare, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, wrote as follows to Colonel Henry Bouquet at Fort Pitt: “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
Bouquet clearly approved of Amherst’s suggestion, but whether he himself carried it out is uncertain. On or around June 24, two traders at Fort Pitt did give blankets and a handkerchief from the fort’s quarantined hospital to two visiting Delaware Indians, and one of the traders noted in his journal: “I hope it will have the desired effect.” Smallpox was already present among the tribes of Ohio; at some point after this episode, there was another outbreak in which hundreds died.
A second, even less substantiated instance of alleged biological warfare concerns an incident that occurred on June 20, 1837. On that day, Churchill writes, the U.S. Army began to dispense “’trade blankets’ to Mandans and other Indians gathered at Fort Clark on the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota.” He continues: Far from being trade goods, the blankets had been taken from a military infirmary in St. Louis quarantined for smallpox, and brought upriver aboard the steamboat St. Peter’s. When the first Indians showed symptoms of the disease on July 14, the post surgeon advised those camped near the post to scatter and seek “sanctuary” in the villages of healthy relatives.
In this way the disease was spread, the Mandans were “virtually exterminated,” and other tribes suffered similarly devastating losses. Citing a figure of “100,000 or more fatalities” caused by the U.S. Army in the 1836-40 smallpox pandemic (elsewhere he speaks of a toll “several times that number”), Churchill refers the reader to Thornton’s American Indian Holocaust and Survival.
Supporting Churchill here are Stiffarm and Lane, who write that “the distribution of smallpox- infected blankets by the U.S. Army to Mandans at Fort Clark . . . was the causative factor in the pandemic of 1836-40.” In evidence, they cite the journal of a contemporary at Fort Clark, Francis A. Chardon.
But Chardon’s journal manifestly does not suggest that the U.S. Army distributed infected blankets, instead blaming the epidemic on the inadvertent spread of disease by a ship’s passenger. And as for the “100,000 fatalities,” not only does Thornton fail to allege such obviously absurd numbers, but he too points to infected passengers on the steamboat St. Peter’s as the cause. Another scholar, drawing on newly discovered source material, has also refuted the idea of a conspiracy to harm the Indians.
Similarly at odds with any such idea is the effort of the United States government at this time to vaccinate the native population. Smallpox vaccination, a procedure developed by the English country doctor Edward Jenner in 1796, was first ordered in 1801 by President Jefferson; the program continued in force for three decades, though its implementation was slowed both by the resistance of the Indians, who suspected a trick, and by lack of interest on the part of some officials. Still, as Thornton writes: “Vaccination of American Indians did eventually succeed in reducing mortality from smallpox.”
To sum up, European settlers came to the New World for a variety of reasons, but the thought of infecting the Indians with deadly pathogens was not one of them. As for the charge that the U.S. government should itself be held responsible for the demographic disaster that overtook the American-Indian population, it is unsupported by evidence or legitimate argument. The United States did not wage biological warfare against the Indians; neither can the large number of deaths as a result of disease be considered the result of a genocidal design.
Still, even if up to 90 percent of the reduction in Indian population was the result of disease, that leaves a sizable death toll caused by mistreatment and violence. Should some or all of these deaths be considered instances of genocide?
We may examine representative incidents by following the geographic route of European settlement, beginning in the New England colonies. There, at first, the Puritans did not regard the Indians they encountered as natural enemies, but rather as potential friends and converts. But their Christianizing efforts showed little success, and their experience with the natives gradually yielded a more hostile view. The Pequot tribe in particular, with its reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness, was feared not only by the colonists but by most other Indians in New England. In the warfare that eventually ensued, caused in part by intertribal rivalries, the Narragansett Indians became actively engaged on the Puritan side.
Hostilities opened in late 1636 after the murder of several colonists. When the Pequots refused to comply with the demands of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for the surrender of the guilty and other forms of indemnification, a punitive expedition was led against them by John Endecott, the first resident governor of the colony; although it ended inconclusively, the Pequots retaliated by attacking any settler they could find. Fort Saybrook on the Connecticut River was besieged, and members of the garrison who ventured outside were ambushed and killed. One captured trader, tied to a stake in sight of the fort, was tortured for three days, expiring after his captors flayed his skin with the help of hot timbers and cut off his fingers and toes. Another prisoner was roasted alive.
The torture of prisoners was indeed routine practice for most Indian tribes, and was deeply ingrained in Indian culture. Valuing bravery above all things, the Indians had little sympathy for those who surrendered or were captured. Prisoners. unable to withstand the rigor of wilderness travel were usually killed on the spot. Among those—Indian or European—taken back to the village, some would be adopted to replace slain warriors, the rest subjected to a ritual of torture designed to humiliate them and exact atonement for the tribe’s losses. Afterward the Indians often consumed the body or parts of it in a ceremonial meal, and proudly displayed scalps and fingers as trophies of victory.
Despite the colonists’ own resort to torture in order to extract confessions, the cruelty of these practices strengthened the belief that the natives were savages who deserved no quarter. This revulsion accounts at least in part for the ferocity of the battle of Fort Mystic in May 1637, when a force commanded by John Mason and assisted by militiamen from Saybrook surprised about half of the Pequot tribe encamped near the Mystic River.
The intention of the colonists had been to kill the warriors”with their Swords,” as Mason put it, to plunder the village, and to capture the women and children. But the plan did not work out. About 150 Pequot warriors had arrived in the fort the night before, and when the surprise attack began they emerged from their tents to fight. Fearing the Indians’ numerical strength, the English attackers set fire to the fortified village and retreated outside the palisades. There they formed a circle and shot down anyone seeking to escape; a second cordon of Narragansett Indians cut down the few who managed to get through the English line. When the battle was over, the Pequots had suffered several hundred dead, perhaps as many as 300 of these being women and children. Twenty Narragansett warriors also fell.
A number of recent historians have charged the Puritans with genocide: that is, with having carried out a premeditated plan to exterminate the Pequots. The evidence belies this. The use of fire as a weapon of war was not unusual for either Europeans or Indians, and every contemporary account stresses that the burning of the fort was an act of self-protection, not part of a pre-planned massacre. In later stages of the Pequot war, moreover, the colonists spared women, children, and the elderly, further contradicting the idea of genocidal intention.
A second famous example from the colonial period is King Philip’s War (1675-76). This conflict, proportionately the costliest of all American wars, took the life of one in every sixteen men of military age in the colonies; large numbers of women and children also perished or were carried into captivity. Fifty-two of New England’s 90 towns were attacked, seventeen were razed to the ground, and 25 were pillaged. Casualties among the Indians were even higher, with many of those captured being executed or sold into slavery abroad.
The war was also merciless, on both sides. At its outset, a colonial council in Boston had declared”that none be Killed or Wounded that are Willing to surrender themselves into Custody.” But these rules were soon abandoned on the grounds that the Indians themselves, failing to adhere either to the laws of war or to the law of nature, would”skulk” behind trees, rocks, and bushes rather than appear openly to do” civilized” battle. Similarly creating a desire for retribution were the cruelties perpetrated by Indians when ambushing English troops or overrunning strongholds housing women and children.
Before long, both colonists and Indians were dismembering corpses and displaying body parts and heads on poles. (Nevertheless, Indians could not be killed with impunity. In the summer of 1676, four men were tried in Boston for the brutal murder of three squaws and three Indian children; all were found guilty and two were executed.)
The hatred kindled by King Philip’s War became even more pronounced in 1689 when strong Indian tribes allied themselves with the French against the British. In 1694, the General Court of Massachusetts ordered all friendly Indians confined to a small area. A bounty was then offered for the killing or capture of hostile Indians, and scalps were accepted as proof of a kill. In 1704, this was amended in the direction of”Christian practice” by means of a scale of rewards graduated by age and sex; bounty was proscribed in the case of children under the age of ten, subsequently raised to twelve (sixteen in Connecticut, fifteen in New Jersey). Here, too, genocidal intent was far from evident; the practices were justified on grounds of self-preservation and revenge, and in reprisal for the extensive scalping carried out by Indians.
We turn now to the American frontier. In Pennsylvania, where the white population had doubled between 1740 and 1760, the pressure on Indian lands increased formidably; in 1754, encouraged by French agents, Indian warriors struck, starting a long and bloody conflict known as the French and Indian War or the Seven Years’ War. By 1763, according to one estimate, about 2,000 whites had been killed or vanished into captivity. Stories of real, exaggerated, and imaginary atrocities spread by word of mouth, in narratives of imprisonment, and by means of provincial newspapers. Some British officers gave orders that captured Indians be given no quarter, and even after the end of formal hostilities, feelings continued to run so high that murderers of Indians, like the infamous Paxton Boys, were applauded rather than arrested.
As the United States expanded westward, such conflicts multiplied. So far had things progressed by 1784 that, according to one British traveler,”white Americans have the most rancorous antipathy to the whole race of Indians; and nothing is more common than to hear them talk of extirpating them totally from the face of the earth, men, women, and children.”
Settlers on the expanding frontier treated the Indians with contempt, often robbing and killing them at will. In 1782, a militia pursuing an Indian war party that had slain a woman and a child massacred more than 90 peaceful Moravian Delawares. Although federal and state officials tried to bring such killers to justice, their efforts, writes the historian Francis Prucha,”were no match for the singular Indian-hating mentality of the frontiersmen, upon whom depended conviction in the local courts.”
But that, too, is only part of the story. The view that the Indian problem could be solved by force alone came under vigorous challenge from a number of federal commissioners who from 1832 on headed the Bureau of Indian Affairs and supervised the network of agents and subagents in the field. Many Americans on the eastern seaboard, too, openly criticized the rough ways of the frontier. Pity for the vanishing Indian, together with a sense of remorse, led to a revival of the 18th-century concept of the noble savage. America’s native inhabitants were romanticized in historiography, art, and literature, notably by James Fenimore Cooper in his Leatherstocking Tales and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his long poem, The Song of Hiawatha.
On the western frontier itself, such views were of course dismissed as rank sentimentality; the perceived nobility of the savages, observed cynics, was directly proportional to one’s geographic distance from them. Instead, settlers vigorously complained that the regular army was failing to meet the Indian threat more aggressively. A large-scale uprising of the Sioux in Minnesota in 1862, in which Indian war parties killed, raped, and pillaged all over the countryside, left in its wake a climate of fear and anger that spread over the entire West.
Colorado was especially tense. Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians, who had legitimate grievances against the encroaching white settlers, also fought for the sheer joy of combat, the desire for booty, and the prestige that accrued from success. The overland route to the East was particularly vulnerable: at one point in 1864, Denver was cut off from all supplies, and there were several butcheries of entire families at outlying ranches. In one gruesome case, all of the victims were scalped, the throats of the two children were cut, and the mother’s body was ripped open and her entrails pulled over her face.
Writing in September 1864, the Reverend William Crawford reported on the attitude of the white population of Colorado: “There is but one sentiment in regard to the final disposition which shall be made of the Indians: ‘Let them be exterminated—men, women, and children together.’” Of course, he added,”I do not myself share in such views.” The Rocky Mountain News, which at first had distinguished between friendly and hostile Indians, likewise began to advocate extermination of this “dissolute, vagabondish, brutal, and ungrateful race.” With the regular army off fighting the Civil War in the South, the western settlers depended for their protection on volunteer regiments, many lamentably deficient in discipline. It was a local force of such volunteers that committed the massacre of Sand Creek, Colorado on November 29, 1864. Formed in August, the regiment was made up of miners down on their luck, cowpokes tired of ranching, and others itching for battle. Its commander, the Reverend John Milton Chivington, a politician and ardent Indian-hater, had urged war without mercy, even against children.”Nits make lice,” he was fond of saying. The ensuing orgy of violence in the course of a surprise attack on a large Indian encampment left between 70 and 250 Indians dead, the majority women and children. The regiment suffered eight killed and 40 wounded.
News of the Sand Creek massacre sparked an outcry in the East and led to several congressional inquiries. Although some of the investigators appear to have been biased against Chivington, there was no disputing that he had issued orders not to give quarter, or that his soldiers had engaged in massive scalping and other mutilations.
The sorry tale continues in California. The area that in 1850 became admitted to the Union as the 31st state had once held an Indian population estimated at anywhere between 150,000 and 250,000. By the end of the 19th century, the number had dropped to 15,000. As elsewhere, disease was the single most important factor, although the state also witnessed an unusually large number of deliberate killings.
One of the most violent, between white settlers and Yuki Indians in the Round Valley of Mendocino County, lasted for several years and was waged with great ferocity. Although Governor John B. Weller cautioned against an indiscriminate campaign—”[Y]our operations against the Indians,” he wrote to the commander of a volunteer force in 1859,”must be confined strictly to those who are known to have been engaged in killing the stock and destroying the property of our citizens . . . and the women and children under all circumstances must be spared”—his words had little effect. By 1864 the number of Yukis had declined from about 5,000 to 300.
Lastly we come to the wars on the Great Plains. Following the end of the Civil War, large waves of white migrants, arriving simultaneously from East and West, squeezed the Plains Indians between them. In response, the Indians attacked vulnerable white outposts; their”acts of devilish cruelty,” reported one officer on the scene, had”no parallel in savage warfare.” The trails west were in similar peril: in December 1866, an army detachment of 80 men was lured into an ambush on the Bozeman Trail, and all of the soldiers were killed.
To force the natives into submission, Generals Sherman and Sheridan, who for two decades after the Civil War commanded the Indian-fighting army units on the Plains, applied the same strategy they had used so successfully in their marches across Georgia and in the Shenandoah Valley. Unable to defeat the Indians on the open prairie, they pursued them to their winter camps, where numbing cold and heavy snows limited their mobility. There they destroyed the lodges and stores of food, a tactic that inevitably resulted in the deaths of women and children.
Genocide? These actions were almost certainly in conformity with the laws of war accepted at the time. The principles of limited war and of noncombatant immunity had been codified in Francis Lieber’s General Order No. 100, issued for the Union Army on April 24, 1863. But the villages of warring Indians who refused to surrender were considered legitimate military objectives. In any event, there was never any order to exterminate the Plains Indians, despite heated pronouncements on the subject by the outraged Sherman and despite Sheridan’s famous quip that”the only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” Although Sheridan did not mean that all Indians should be shot on sight, but rather that none of the warring Indians on the Plains could be trusted, his words, as the historian James Axtell rightly suggests, did”more to harm straight thinking about Indian-white relations than any number of Sand Creeks or Wounded Knees.”
As for that last-named encounter, it took place on December 29, 1890 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. By this time, the 7th Regiment of U.S. Cavalry had compiled a reputation for aggressiveness, particularly in the wake of its surprise assault in 1868 on a Cheyenne village on the Washita river in Kansas, where about 100 Indians were killed by General George Custer’s men.
Still, the battle of Washita, although one-sided, had not been a massacre: wounded warriors were given first aid, and 53 women and children who had hidden in their lodges survived the assault and were taken prisoner. Nor were the Cheyennes unarmed innocents; as their chief Black Kettle acknowledged, they had been conducting regular raids into Kansas that he was powerless to stop.
The encounter at Wounded Knee, 22 years later, must be seen in the context of the Ghost Dance religion, a messianic movement that since 1889 had caused great excitement among Indians in the area and that was interpreted by whites as a general call to war. While an encampment of Sioux was being searched for arms, a few young men created an incident; the soldiers, furious at what they considered an act of Indian treachery, fought back furiously as guns surrounding the encampment opened fire with deadly effect. The Army’s casualties were 25 killed and 39 wounded, mostly as a result of friendly fire. More than 300 Indians died.
Wounded Knee has been called “perhaps the best-known genocide of North American Indians.” But, as Robert Utley has concluded in a careful analysis, it is better described as “a regrettable, tragic accident of war,” a bloodbath that neither side intended. In a situation where women and children were mixed with men, it was inevitable that some of the former would be killed. But several groups of women and children were in fact allowed out of the encampment, and wounded Indian warriors, too, were spared and taken to a hospital. There may have been a few deliberate killings of noncombatants, but on the whole, as a court of inquiry ordered by President Harrison established, the officers and soldiers of the unit made supreme efforts to avoid killing women and children.
On January 15, 1891, the last Sioux warriors surrendered. Apart from isolated clashes, America’s Indian wars had ended.
The Genocide Convention was approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1948 and came into force on January 12, 1951; after a long delay, it was ratified by the United States in 1986. Since genocide is now a technical term in international criminal law, the definition established by the convention has assumed prima-facie authority, and it is with this definition that we should begin in assessing the applicability of the concept of genocide to the events we have been considering.
According to Article II of the convention, the crime of genocide consists of a series of acts” committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such” (emphases added). Practically all legal scholars accept the centrality of this clause. During the deliberations over the convention, some argued for a clear specification of the reasons, or motives, for the destruction of a group. In the end, instead of a list of such motives, the issue was resolved by adding the words”as such”—i.e., the motive or reason for the destruction must be the ending of the group as a national, ethnic, racial, or religious entity. Evidence of such a motive, as one legal scholar put it,”will constitute an integral part of the proof of a genocidal plan, and therefore of genocidal intent.”
The crucial role played by intentionality in the Genocide Convention means that under its terms the huge number of Indian deaths from epidemics cannot be considered genocide. The lethal diseases were introduced inadvertently, and the Europeans cannot be blamed for their ignorance of what medical science would discover only centuries later. Similarly, military engagements that led to the death of noncombatants, like the battle of the Washita, cannot be seen as genocidal acts, for the loss of innocent life was not intended and the soldiers did not aim at the destruction of the Indians as a defined group.
Of course, it is far from easy to apply a legal concept developed in the middle of the 20th century to events taking place many decades if not hundreds of years earlier. Our knowledge of many of these occurrences is incomplete. Moreover, the malefactors, long since dead, cannot be tried in a court of law, where it would be possible to establish crucial factual details and to clarify relevant legal principles.
Applying today’s standards to events of the past raises still other questions, legal and moral alike. While history has no statute of limitations, our legal system rejects the idea of retroactivity (ex post facto laws). Morally, even if we accept the idea of universal principles transcending particular cultures and periods, we must exercise caution in condemning, say, the conduct of war during America’s colonial period, which for the most part conformed to thenprevailing notions of right and wrong. To understand all is hardly to forgive all, but historical judgment, as the scholar Gordon Leff has correctly stressed,”must always be contextual: it is no more reprehensible for an age to have lacked our values than to have lacked forks.”
The real task, then, is to ascertain the context of a specific situation and the options it presented. Given circumstances, and the moral standards of the day, did the people on whose conduct we are sitting in judgment have a choice to act differently? Such an approach would lead us to greater indulgence toward the Puritans of New England, who fought for their survival, […] in addition, [they] battled their Indian adversaries in an age that had little concern for humane standards of warfare.
About that whole “Thanksgiving Genocide” Narrative
There are a huge pile of actions that the government and white citizens took towards Native Americans in the 19th century that are truly awful (and yes, before and after that century as well). But I’m getting tired of the genocide narrative, that paints the natives as innocent victims, on par with genocide victims like the Armenians, the Ukrainians, or the Jews (eh-em).
Because it just isn’t so. There were some pretty solid reasons for the fear, the loathing, the animosity. Just as the hagiography that paints America’s founders as some kind of blessed saints is a false reading of history, so too is the portrayal of the white settlers’ actions towards Native Americans as a genocide, and perpetrated for no reason. Time to go all Howard Zinn on this below the fold.
Start with deaths. Jared Diamond’s excellent “Guns, Germs, and Steel” conclusively establishes that it was the germs that killed off 90% of the natives who died. Really, it was.
Even the settlers from the Mayflower were beneficiaries of disease wiping out the natives, shortly before their arrival. as they encountered a coastal New England that had been fortuitously cleared of inhabitants by the time they landed.
Fast forward from there two generations, and we get the attempted genocide of Metacom’s Rebellion, aka King Philip’s War.
The war was the single greatest calamity to occur in seventeenth-century Puritan New England. In the space of little more than a year, twelve of the region’s towns were destroyed and many more damaged, the colony’s economy was all but ruined, and much of its population was killed, including one-tenth of all men available for military service
Gee, you think that might have left the early settlers feeling a little animosity towards the natives? And before you claim this was just a corner of the early colonies, remember that even today one in seven Americans is descended from of of Puritan New England’s colonists. It was a huge scar on the proto-nation’s psyche.
Roughly three generations later the Native Americans allied with the French in a campaign against the English settlers, the French-Indian War
Ironically, it was in part the British attempts to make the colonists pay off the cost of this war that propelled colonial protests in to what turned in to the American revolution.
To preempt the inevitable straw men and non-sequiters: what would I expect the natives to do if their land was invaded? Tough question. Perhaps the conflict between hunter-gatherers and farmers was inevitable, or maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know, and the answer doesn’t speak to the point of this diary: it wasn’t a one-sided genocide against a group that was falsely portrayed as a threat. The threat was, historically, real.
Do I think this justifies the Trail of Tears, etc? Well, justify is a tricky word, but it might explain it: if the white settlers are absolutely convinced they can’t peacefully co-exist with the natives, because of many experiences in the past of being attacked, then the Indian Removal Acts start to make a certain amount of sense. Move people en masse, with many dying, or leave them in place and have all of them slaughtered.
Again, I’m not claiming Ol’ Hickory was a sweet guy or that he couldn’t have made more humane choices, this is a call for some historical perspective. And moving people from a place where they’re going to get massacred by the locals is, actually, preventing genocide.
But this being Kos, where saying anything outside the accepted wisdom is greeted with about as much enthusiasm as facts on a freeper thread, I expect to see epic levels of poutrage and posterior pain here. So go on, tell me how this is just like what the Soviets did to Russians, what the Jewish Young Turks did to the Armenians, or what Stalin did to the Ukrainians. The false equivalence should be epic.
Let the hating begin.