There is no way to know exactly how many languages were spoken in the Americas when Christopher Columbus first landed in 1492. There are several estimates out there — the Columbia Encyclopedia puts it at around 2,000 languages — but we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is in the ensuing age of colonization, hundreds of languages were lost.
Looking at statistics for language loss, however, doesn’t convey the reality as much as looking at the languages themselves. Learning about a single language can tell you a lot about the history of the indigenous people of the Americas. And while there are hundreds of Native American languages to choose from, there’s one that stands out: the language spoken at the First Thanksgiving.
This is a somewhat arbitrary language to focus on, but it’s the best choice for investigating how Native Americans and colonists interacted before the relationship completely broke down (not that the relationship was ever fantastic). Finding out what language was spoken then, and what has happened to it since, is a case study in how indigenous languages in general have evolved.
When Was The First Thanksgiving?
American Thanksgiving is, at its best, a contentious holiday. Today, most people use it mostly as an excuse to gather with friends and family and eat copious amounts of food. But the day is inextricably attached to the story of Native Americans and British colonists sitting down to celebrate a successful harvest. This is often told as a happy story, yet it overlooks the greater context. While this was going on, the reshaping of the continent in the Europeans’ image was already underway. One estimate says that 95 percent of the indigenous population was wiped out by violence and smallpox after the arrival of colonists.
The events after the First Thanksgiving aren’t the only problem with the Thanksgiving story. The deeper issue is that the First Thanksgiving is kind of a myth. In any case, it couldn’t have led to the immediate creation of a national holiday, because, well, there wasn’t a nation then.
The concept of thanksgiving is one that existed long before Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It was often connected to religion, when people would thank God for the bountiful harvest. During the journey from colonies to states, the British in the United States had plenty of thanksgivings to celebrate successes. The actual First Thanksgiving in the Americas was likely lost to time.
The honor of the First Thanksgiving usually goes to a meal in 1621 held by the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. The Pilgrims, fresh off the Mayflower, had had a turbulent year. After arriving in October 1620, only about half of the colony survived to the following spring. They likely would have died if they hadn’t run into a leader of the Abenaki tribe who introduced them to Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe. This was not Squanto’s first encounter with Europeans. Years before, Squanto had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Spain, but he was later able to escape and make it back to North America. In a generous act, Squanto agreed to help the Pilgrims with their farming and general survival needs. The First Thanksgiving was held in November of 1621 in celebration of the first successful corn harvest.
This First Thanksgiving was not part of the development of Thanksgiving more generally. In fact, it wasn’t an official thanksgiving (though the Pilgrims did celebrate a thanksgiving in 1623 after an even more bountiful harvest).
Centuries later, when the movement to make Thanksgiving a national holiday was in full swing, the story of Native Americans and Pilgrims gained traction across the United States. In the 19th century, a copy of Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford was rediscovered. The book was an account of all that happened in Plymouth during the early years. When it was republished in 1841, it included a footnote saying the 1621 thanksgiving was in fact the First Thanksgiving. This particular story eventually became forever entwined with the holiday, mostly thanks to happenstance.
What Language Was Spoken At The First Thanksgiving?
While Squanto was a member of the Patuxet tribe, he also helped Plymouth Colony build a relationship with the Wampanoag Tribe, who also lived in modern-day Massachusetts. This alliance is in fact one of the more positive examples of a relationship between the colonists and native people, lasting about half a century. This is especially surprising given that two-thirds of the Wampanoag Tribe had been wiped out by 1621 because of disease brought over by Europeans.
As part of the alliance, the Wampanoag were invited to the First Thanksgiving. And so to answer the question at the heart of the article, Wampanoag was the language spoken at the first Thanksgiving (in addition to English). The language, which has also been called Massachusett, Natick and Pokanoket, was a member of the Algonquian language family.
The last native speaker of Wampanoag died over 170 years ago. Despite the alliance between the Pilgrims and indigenous people, the tides eventually turned. The new governments started restricting indigenous land and attempted to eliminate or assimilate Native Americans out of existence. Through it all, the Wampanoag Tribe was able to survive, and there are still roughly a thousand members who live in Massachusetts. But the language itself fell victim to the increasingly oppressive role of English.
What Happened To The Language Spoken At The First Thanksgiving?
The Wampanoag language may have vanished, but it wasn’t completely forgotten. It survived ironically thanks to the work of Christian missionaries. (Strangely enough, missionaries have played an outsized role in preserving languages.) In the 1600s, missionaries attempted to convert native people to Christianity, and in doing so needed to translate the Bible into their language. And because Wampanoag had no writing system at the time, the missionaries developed a way to write the Wampanoag language using the Latin alphabet. The very first Bible completed in North America was the Wampanoag translation of the King James Bible, which was published in 1663.
While the missionaries created the writing system hoping to assimilate the Wampanoag Tribe into Christianity, the gift of a written language ended up giving the people more freedom. Wampanoag became an important means of communication, and literacy rates flourished. Eventually, there was a hearty amount of writing in the language that had nothing to do with religion.
It was in the 19th century that the tides changed for Wampanoag. Laws were put in place to ban the use of the language, and schools forced indigenous people to learn English instead of their mother tongues. Rather quickly, the language disappeared.
Because the Wampanoag language was preserved in writing, it could be revived. The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, established in 1993, has spent the last three decades breathing new life into the dead language. One of its biggest accomplishments was the creation of the Mukayuhsak Weekuw — Wampanoag for “Children’s House” — which since 2015 has been teaching young children to speak and write Wampanoag.
Today, the Wampanoag language is known by only a small number of people. But with a working dictionary of 11,000 words, it’s far from extinct. Bringing a language back from the dead is very hard, yet the efforts remain strong. The language provides a way to connect to their history and culture, and there’s no greater motivation than that.
The story of the First Thanksgiving — an event purportedly about cooperation — loses its strength when you know that the very language the indigenous attendees spoke was nearly forced out of existence. It should come as no surprise that some people see the modern celebration as willful amnesia about a shameful chapter in American history. Still, the act of thankfulness is worth maintaining during the holiday. The revival of the Wampanoag language is one thing worth being thankful for.