My American Origin Story: Remembering Gov. Bradford on Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, I celebrate on the unceded lands of the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui people. I know little about them as yet, but intend to rectify that over the next 5 years of my doctoral program. Today, my thoughts are on a different Indigenous community.

401 years ago, three people set foot on Turtle Island for the first time, changing the course of history forever (as we all do, every day) — three people, unrelated, whose blood and actions would lead eventually to me.

This does not make me unique. My ancestress Elizabeth Tilley, with the young indentured servant John Howland she would later wed, and their legions of children and grandchildren, produced more progeny in what would become the United States than any other settler-colonizer in our country’s history. While less prolific, my third ancestor — who would become governor-for-life of the colony and author a definitive first-person narrative of the first years of North American settler-colonialism, his journal Of Plimoth Plantation — may well have an even more profound and far-reaching effect on the history of the United States and, more importantly, our ethos and mythologies.

I often reflect, around Thanksgiving time, on my New England roots in settler colonialism and their implications. This November, against the backdrop of the headline trials of Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, the Georgia men who lynched Ahmaud Arbery, and a number of the January 6th insurrectionists, and Republicans’ failure to condemn death threats against their own coworkers of color … and the publication of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ expanded 1619 Project….

I feel compelled to acknowledge some of this country’s dark legacy, of which my ancestor William Bradford helped to plant the seeds.

I’ve found it difficult to ask myself to face this legacy over these recent years, but I am convinced that real progress towards reconciliation, inclusion and a better future can’t happen without white people like me facing our settler fragility and settler privilege.

Gov. William Bradford

Born to a wealthy English family, young William was passed among family members as, one after another, his caretakers died: father, grandfather, mother, uncles.

As a teenager, he found religion in a Separatist branch of Puritan theology. The Rev. Richard Clyfton believed that the Church of England ought to eliminate all vestiges of Roman Catholic practices, and that this would result in a purer Christian church. William’s uncles forbid him from seeing the preacher, but with the hubris of a teenage boy convert, he defied his guardians, eventually becoming part of a secret worship circle that ran afoul of the Church of England….

Long story short, he fled the law, first to the Netherlands, eventually to the so-called New World , where the Pilgrim separatists and other Puritans would establish a theocracy far more oppressive than the Anglican regime they were fleeing.

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William Bradford (portrayed by Vincent Kartheiser)

Now 30, still a follower and not a leader, Bradford stumbled about in the New World, getting caught in an Indian deer trap, nearly drowning, losing his wife, surviving an epidemic that first brutal winter….

400 years ago, in April 1621, William Bradford was chosen to lead his community, which he did for most of the rest of his life, with a team of deputies that often included my ancestor John Howland. Gov. Bradford’s journal would become the seminal American work, Of Plimouth Plantation, that has made the Pilgrims what historian Samuel Eliot Morison called the “spiritual ancestors of all Americans.” One day, I will make myself read it and really confront details of the legacy Bradford and Howland left to this country. But some of the broad strokes I do know.

The Legacy

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.

THE SUPPRESSED SPEECH OF WAMSUTTA (FRANK B.) JAMES, WAMPANOAG

Bradford, like the rest of his Pilgrim companions, was not an insurrectionist, but he was a separatist, and an extremist. He wanted what he wanted, and he was not amenable to compromise. And he was a supremacist. He didn’t respect the sanctity of the the Narragansetts’ and the Massachusetts’ lives, or even really his Wampanoag allies, because he believed his small band of white Christian colonists were a chosen people, establishing a new paradise in a new land devoid of what he considered civilization.

For us, Thanksgiving kicked off colonization. Our lives changed dramatically. It brought disease, servitude and so many things that weren’t good for Wampanoags and other Indigenous cultures.

Darius Coombs, a Mashpee Wampanoag cultural outreach coordinator | This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later.

The colony Bradford helped found, molded, and led for decades was a community that played the local tribes off of each other, capitalizing on old grievances sparked in part by the decimation of North American populations in the century since Columbus first “discovered” his “New World,” proselytizing a supremacist religion that declared all native faith to be dangerously satanic…. Bradford’s colony led eventually to the son of the welcoming Wampanoag leader or sachem, a younger son named Metacom, also known as King Philip, starting a war that raged across New England, attacking native and European people alike, killing and destroying winter stores to devastating effect, leading to mass enslavement, near genocide, and rationalizing the dismantling and denial of tribal sovereignty that persists into our own time.

I realized the holiday was lifted on some imaginary pedestal as a joyous day of peace between two worlds, when historians know the truth to be much more violent.

Corinne Oestreich | As A Native American, Here’s What I Want My Fellow Americans To Know About Thanksgiving

Bradford, Howland and Tilley established their colony under the pretext of seeking freedom from religious persecution, but for the Plymouth Colony, that freedom only applied if you participated in the right sect of the right religion: their sect of fundamentalist Christianity.

We had a pray-or-die policy at one point here among our people. If you didn’t become a Christian, you had to run away or be killed.

Mother Bear, a Mashpee Wampanoag cultural outreach coordinator | This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later.

This continues to be an underlying value of these United States today, especially of the Republican Party. I grew up surrounded by the philosophical descendants of that founding belief. Nearly all my childhood bullies at one time or another justified their cruelty and ostracism because I didn’t have religion, or later, because I had the wrong religion.

Paula Peters said at least two members of her family were sent to Carlisle Indian school in Pennsylvania, which became the first government-run boarding school for Native American children in 1879. Its founder, Civil War veteran and Army Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt, was an advocate of forced assimilation, invoking the motto: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later.

The Carlisle school is a dark legacy of the county where I grew up, on Susquehannock lands. Children in the facility were beaten and starved for speaking their native languages, practicing their ancestral faiths, even for objecting to their captivity.

This Thanksgiving…

I’m not ready to give up Thanksgiving. It’s still my favorite holiday, not for the false glorified mythology of America it presents, but for the food, and the people. As I eat, I’ll be thinking about these words from Sean Sherman, the founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef and the author of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen:

People may not realize it, but what every person in this country shares, and the very history of this nation, has been in front of us the whole time. Most of our Thanksgiving recipes are made with indigenous foods: turkey, corn, beans, pumpkins, maple, wild rice and the like. We should embrace this.

The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday

But I’ll also be thinking about how we are all changing the future with every decision we make and action we take. Bradford and Howland chose to participate in the early years of half a millennium of violence against Indigenous Americans. I can choose a different way for the next half-millennium.

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