Feb 10, 2023 • Annie Cao
Thanksgiving is known as a day for families to gather and share a warm, home-cooked meal. Others might enjoy watching parades or football games. But the true history behind Thanksgiving is much different than how we know it today.
In 1620, a ship called the Mayflower carried a group of English colonists to the “New World” and landed in Plymouth where they settled. Before their arrival, early European settlers brought diseases that wiped out over 90 percent of the New England Indigenous population between 1616 and 1619.
In the spring of 1621, the Pilgrims met Massasoit (Ousamequin), the leader of the Wampanoag, and made a treaty to form an alliance. Massasoit brought Squanto (Tisquantum), a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, to translate.
Squanto had been kidnapped by slave traders in 1614 but escaped to England, where he learned English. After returning to North America in 1619 and finding out he was the only survivor of his village, he helped Massasoit. However, Squanto didn’t want to serve under Massasoit as a prisoner, so he decided to help the Pilgrims and teach them how to farm.
When fall arrived, the two groups gathered for an autumn harvest feast. To this day, it’s still unclear how the gathering came about, but the festivities lasted for three days. Edward Winslow, one of the Plymouth colonists, wrote about the events in a letter that would eventually become the reason why Thanksgiving exists. However, the few lines about the feast never mentioned “thanks” or “Thanksgiving,” and the meal itself didn’t include turkey.
There were also other Thanksgiving-like events prior to 1621. Settlers in Berkeley Hundred (now known as Virginia) marked their arrival with a Thanksgiving in 1619. And even further back, members of the Seloy tribe in Florida and Spanish settlers had a Thanksgiving mass in 1565.
Over time, relations between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag became strained. More English colonists moved to Plymouth and started taking over more of the native land. When they gathered for Thanksgiving in 1637 and 1676, it was to celebrate bloody victories against Native people.
After Massasoit’s son, Metacomet, or King Philip, took over as leader, he tried to put a stop to English authority. John Sassamon, a Punkapoag interpreter and Christian convert, was killed after trying to warn the Plymouth Colony of Metacomet’s plans to attack. After executing three Wampanoag men for the murder, tensions continued to rise, leading to King Philip’s War in 1675.
This was one of the most devastating wars in the North American settlement, killing around 30 percent of the English population and half of the Native American population in New England. The war ended when Metacomet was killed, and his head was impaled on a spike and put on display for 25 years.
Even after the war, thousands of Native Americans were killed, captured, and sold into slavery or indentured servitude. Many tribes were destroyed, making room for more English settlements.
In 1789, George Washington was the first president to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation. By 1817, New York and several other states adopted Thanksgiving as an annual holiday, but it was celebrated on different days.
Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor and writer, spent 36 years campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday and gained the nickname, “Mother of Thanksgiving.” In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. However, this announcement was not for giving thanks — instead, it was used as a political strategy to try to reunite the North and South after the Civil War.
Today, Thanksgiving continues to be celebrated across the country, but its dark past has led people to reconsider the holiday. In 1970, Frank James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag activist, helped establish a National Day of Mourning. On this day, Native Americans gather at Plymouth, Massachusetts to pray and march through the Plymouth Historic District to protest the racism and oppression Native Americans continue to experience.
Native Americans are the original caretakers of Mother Earth and Father Sky — this means that nature and sustainability are at the core of their history and culture. Historians have found that Native Americans already had a rich tradition of commemorating the fall harvest before the settlers arrived. This is because gratitude towards the Earth is a large part of Indigenous culture.
Native Americans recognize that all parts of the ecosystem are connected and how important it is to take care of the land. Sustainable agriculture techniques, such as foraging and not wasting anything, and being thankful for crops are just some of the ways Indigenous people try to preserve the land for future generations.
The historical inaccuracies of Thanksgiving make this holiday a difficult day for Native people to take part in. For them, this day is a reminder of the many lives that were lost in the last 400 years. From a short paragraph in a letter, to the political and cultural tensions between two groups that eventually led to a tragic war, the true story of Thanksgiving reveals a twisted myth that is in need of rewriting and retelling.
cover image and article images sourced from Google Images