The Honest History of Thanksgiving

Most children in America were taught an incomplete account of the history of the Thanksgiving tradition. They were told the story of the “first” Thanksgiving, which consisted of happy pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together enjoying a large feast. The truth is, this story is missing a large amount of important information. Today, many people continue to believe this false tale, ignoring the dark reality of early American history. 

   Celebrating a successful harvest was not a new tradition in America. Native people have been having ceremonies for this reason for many years before the first Thanksgiving from the story. 

   According to Plimoth.org, “From ancient times, Native People of North America have held ceremonies to give thanks for successful harvests, for the hope of a good growing season in the early spring, and for other good fortune such as the birth of a child.” Similar celebrations were also common long ago throughout Europe for many of the same reasons.       

   In a way, it is true that the Pilgrims and a group of Native Americans, the Wampanoags, shared a large feast together. But, there is much more to the story. The reasoning behind the feast was to honor the peace treaty between the English and the Wampanoag people in 1614. This treaty was negotiated by the Pilgrims and a Native American named Squanto. After returning to Massachusetts Bay from being enslaved in England, Squanto discovered that he was the only Patuxet Native American left in the area after the rest died from diseases such as smallpox. 

   A while after this event occurred, Puritans began to arrive in North America, claiming land that Native Americans had inhabited for far longer. There was also violence toward them. 

   On Manataka.org, Susan Bates talks about Puritans arriving in America, “Finding no fences around the land, they considered it to be in the public domain. Joined by other British settlers, they seized land, capturing strong young Natives for slaves and killing the rest.” 

   Angered, the Pequot Native Americans, who were not involved in the peace treaty, fought back. During the Pequot War in 1637, over 700 people belonging to the Pequot Tribe were killed during their celebration, the Green Corn Festival. 

   The event is described by Susan Bates on Manataka.com, “In the predawn hours, the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them to come outside. Those who came out were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouse were burned alive.” 

   After much more violence, the Pequot War became the bloodiest war that Native Americans were involved in. The people in New England frequently celebrated their massacre victories. This proved that a peace treaty was not possible and was the beginning of the long, violent conflict between English settlers and Native Americans. 

   Thanksgiving did not begin to be celebrated annually by the country as a whole until many years after. 

   Mayflowerhistory.com explains, “In 1827, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale began lobbying several Presidents for the creation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, but her lobbying was unsuccessful until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln finally made it a national holiday.” 

   Sarah Josepha Hale worked as an editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a magazine. She wanted Thanksgiving to be nationally celebrated because she thought that it could help reunite the people of the United States during the Civil War. A little while after the holiday was made national, interpretations of the story began to change more positively toward Pilgrims. 

   Plimoth.org claims that, “By the beginning of the 20th century, the Pilgrims and the Thanksgiving holiday were used to teach children about American freedom and how to be good citizens.” Though it may have been shifted with good intentions for school children, it demonstrates taught ignorance of the true history.

   Now, people living in American celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday by having a large meal full of foods like turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie with their friends and families, watching parades, and maybe even engaging in football related activities. Modern Thanksgivings have been far separated from those held much earlier, but this does not mean that the origins should be forgotten in any way. Today, some Native Americans choose not to observe the Thanksgiving holiday because they do not want to celebrate the oppression of their ancestors. 

   Nativecircle.com says, “Many American Indian people these days do not observe this holiday, for obvious reasons, and instead see it as a ‘day of mourning’, and we share that sentiment.  Having said that, we see nothing wrong with gathering with loved ones to give thanks…” 

   Though it is not a positive part of American history, the real story of Thanksgiving is extremely important to be aware of. Knowing the truth about the past is crucial to understanding the events of the present. Learning from the past mistakes of others is what studying history is all about.