The Other American Experience

Besides turkey and stuffing, Thanksgiving is about the Pilgrims and Native Americans. It’s a story that has always been politically correct: the Indians were the good guys. They taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn and helped them survive the harsh New England winters. Eventually, these indigenous people paid dearly for their openness to the “ungrateful” European invaders by being hoodwinked or massacred across the continent.

As late-comers to these shores, we Italian Americans consider ourselves exempt from complicity in the conquest of Indigenous America. However, the Christopher Columbus controversy has dragged us into the fray. Not only did we participate in the brutal conquest, we initiated it!

At the tip of Manhattan there is a granite marker commemorating the arrival of the first Italian American to New York – actually New Amsterdam – in 1635. His name was Peter Caesar Alberti. He came from Venice, married a Dutch lady in the colony and had seven children. The Albertis moved to the wilds of Brooklyn in 1646 where they had a 100-acre farm granted to them by the Dutch government.  They worked their farm until 1655 when Mr. and Mrs. Alberti were killed by Indians. What caused this double murder? We don’t know, but revisionists would no doubt tell us the Albertis either stole Indian land or cheated the innocent natives. To suggest that any fault lies with the natives is unthinkable.

Another victim of the indigenous people was explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who launched the French empire in North America. On a later voyage to the Caribbean he was murdered… and eaten… by native islanders. There is no record of him mistreating any indigenous people.

One Italian who managed to survive among the indigenous peoples was Enrico Tonti, known as Ironhand for his prosthetic limb. Working for France in the Louisiana Territory, Tonti fought both the English and their Iroquois allies. In 1702, he was appointed ambassador to the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes. Before his death from Yellow Fever in 1704, Tonti was still protecting French colonists from Indian attacks.

We have been led to believe that the indigenous people only had good intentions. But the records reveal a more balanced version of Indian-European relations.  Above all else, the natives were desperate for European goods –iron pots, knives, hatchets, fishhooks, blankets, guns.  Europeans wanted beaver pelts and land.  The more savvy natives conned beaver pelts from more distant tribes exchanging for them their damaged pots, worn blankets, and broken hatchets – the rubes wouldn’t know any better, right?

The Indians also knew how to play Europeans off one another to get those trade goods– Algonquin siding with the French, Iroquois with the English. This relationship included massacring and kidnapping innocent white settlers.  Here is an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence citing the terror of the indigenous allies of the British.

[The King]…has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Back to Thanksgiving, there is a firsthand account by pilgrim Edward Winslow of an event untold in the legendary story. The indigenous people were not as naïve as we are led to believe. While their elderly chief Massasoit was friendly enough – partly due to Winslow having saved his life with Western medicine – the younger chiefs were plotting to annihilate the English. The colonists discovered the plot and launched a preemptive strike led by Miles Standish against the younger chiefs, tricking them into a meeting where they were dispatched,  their heads later displayed as a warning to neighboring tribes.   Winslow lamented such brutality but insisted it was ‘them or us.’

Can we sympathize with the indigenous peoples all the time? Must we be ashamed of our own ancestors without understanding their vulnerabilities at the time?  History is many-sided.      -JLM

2 thoughts on “The Other American Experience”

  1. The English and Spanish, from the beginning of their colonization of the America’s, used essentially the notion of “Manifest Destiny” to justify their subjugation of the indigenous people. Italians, on the other hand, had no territorial ambitions in the New World and were involved mainly in exploration and missionary work. The link gives a fairly good account of their activities. Those early Italians are the true heirs of Columbus, given that they shared very similar ideals.

  2. England and Spain had, from the outset of the colonization of the New World, the notion of “manifest destiny”, which justified their dislocation and subjugation of the indigenous people based on concepts of racial superiority. Italians had no territorial claims in the New World, but were extensively involved in exploration and missionary work. These activities are well documented in the link. Those early Italians were the true heirs of Columbus, who was motivated by very similar ideals.

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