Daniel Gookin and the full story of Thanksgiving

It's dangerous to view the 'other side' in monolithic fashion

THIS WEEK MARKS the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving. That feast, which brought together Pilgrims and Native Americans, is celebrated as a moment of peace and togetherness. But lying just below the surface of this Thanksgiving veneer are troubling aspects of our early history that have not fully been told. Chief among them is the story of one small group of Native Americans in Massachusetts and one white man who devoted his life to protecting them.

Massasoit, the Great Sachem of the Wampanoag Indians, participated at that first Thanksgiving in 1621, along with about 90 members of his tribe. This man of peace would not likely have imagined that 55 years later, the head of his son would hang on a pole near the very same Plymouth site of that first dinner. It would remain there for 20 years, giving passers-by the chance to see the decaying head of the most feared and hated man in all of America. So what happened?

Tensions between the Native Americans and the English settlers increased steadily after that first Thanksgiving and eventually erupted in 1675 into what is known as King Philip’s War. The war was fought between the English and several Native American tribes under the leadership of Massasoit’s son Metacom, or King Phillip, as he was known to the English. He became the sachem of the Wampanoags after the death of his father and brother. The war lasted for 14 months and, by population, it remains the bloodiest and most savage war in American history.

Thousands of lives were lost, houses were burned, and 12 entire towns were completely destroyed. It took the colonies over 50 years to fully recover. But the losses were most severe on the Native American side. More than half of the 20,000 or so in southern New England either perished or were sold into slavery.

Enter Daniel Gookin. He was a so-called assistant in the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, one of 18 magistrates who worked with the governor and deputy governor to run the government. Gookin was perhaps the busiest man in America. He faithfully attended sessions of the General Court, served on numerous committees, performed audits of the Treasury, helped establish rules for the Indian trade, and even audited the records of Harvard College. He also tended to his own farm, was active in his church, and served as a selectman in Cambridge.

But none of that is how he is best remembered. His most meaningful and passionate work came in his role as superintendent of the so-called Praying Indians. These were Native Americans who converted to the English ways of life and practiced Christianity. They created several settlements across Massachusetts, the most famous of which was in Natick.

Gookin worked closely with John Eliot, the apostle to the Indians, and together they supported and fiercely defended these Praying Indians throughout King Philip’s War. The Praying Indians supported the English in the war, often serving as scouts and putting their own lives on the line to help the cause.

Title page of Indian bible.

And for this, they were horribly persecuted by both sides. King Philip’s followers saw them as traitors and the English mistrusted them due to the color of their skin. As a result, the Praying Indians were rounded up during the war and sent to Deer Island in Boston Harbor where hundreds would eventually be left to die of starvation and exposure to the bitter cold.

Throughout it all, Gookin never ceased his unequivocal support and defense of these Native Americans.  He was voted out of office and his life was threatened several times by English mobs believing he was helping the enemy. One famous episode in February of 1676 involved a man who broke into a rage, calling Gookin, “an Irish dog who was never faithful to his country, the son of a whore, a bitch, a rogue … God may rot his soul [and] I wish my knife and scissors were in his heart.” Nice.

The plight of the Praying Indians was a horrible tragedy that would be mostly unknown to history if Gookin had not written it down. He wrote in great detail about all the injustices and abuses carried out, mostly by the English; what he called the Doings and Sufferings of the Christian Indians in New England. He sent his manuscript to his sponsors in England to be published. His sponsors were part of a philanthropic corporation that was set up to propagate the gospel among the Indians in New England. But they refused to publish Gookin’s manuscript. It simply didn’t comport with the English narrative at the time.

It sat in England undiscovered for over 150 years, until it eventually made its way back to Worcester, where it was published in 1836 by the American Antiquarian Society, a learned society and research library established in 1812 by revolutionary patriot and printer Isaiah Thomas.

Winston Churchill would later say that history is written by the victors, and that was especially true in this case. All of the contemporary narratives of King Philip’s War were written by the English and provide a biased and incomplete description of events. Native American culture prizes an oral tradition over a written one, and so their side of the drama was not recorded. Were it not for Gookin, we would never have the full story.

Gookin was not a perfect human being. Like many at the time, he held bigoted religious views and he even owned slaves as house servants in his home (although he did go to court to protect an ailing former slave from being sold out of the country, and he agreed to care for and support him). Although we can’t overlook these flaws, we do owe Gookin a huge debt of gratitude. His courage and persistence in standing up for justice in the face of unwarranted attacks and mob outrage likely saved many more Praying Indians from being killed or sold into slavery. He could not stop all of the injustices of the time, but he could write about them. And in so doing, he gave posterity a fuller and more accurate sense of its own complicated history.

So what are the enduring lessons of Gookin? It is interesting to note that those first Pilgrims and Native Americans were experiencing a time much like our own, trying to manage in the wake of death and disease. The Pilgrims lost half their settlement during the previous winter and the Native Americans had experienced years of loss due to plague. And yet, in spite of it, or perhaps because of it, they came together to break bread and share their common humanity.

Will that be us? Or do we resemble the society 55 years later that sowed fear and hate? Gookin taught us that it is dangerous to view the “other side” in a monolithic fashion. Life is more nuanced and textured and complex. Maybe we need to challenge the mob more often even when, or especially when, it is our mob.

On this Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for justice and freedom and good food, but let us also pause, even for a moment, to consider how we might open our hearts to the possibility that our common humanity is more deserving of our energy than that which continually keeps us in our corners.

Douglas S. Brown is a health care executive at UMass Memorial Health and a collector of rare books, including those on King Philip’s War. Last month, he was elected into the membership of the American Antiquarian Society.