The Origins of Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving tomorrow, I await a day of relaxing with my family, eating a wonderful meal, watching football, and pausing for a moment to be thankful for my many blessing. But there’s a number of people who are not so content with their turkey. You see, these people say, the real history of Thanksgiving is a lot darker than what our children learn in Kindergarten. In reality, the origins of Thanksgiving are a sad tale of white supremacy leading to genocide. I find this revisionist history to be another oversimplification.

Obviously, the plight of the Native Americans at the hands of European settlers is the darkest chapter of American history. What happened is inexcusable, and if a Native American wishes not to partake in a celebration remembering Europeans coming to the Americas, I can’t say I blame them. But Thanksgiving is not a celebration of harmony between ALL settlers and ALL natives, it is a remembrance of ONE encounter between one group of settlers, the Pilgrims, and one tribe of Natives, the Wampanoag. Not every white settler was a ruthless conqueror, and not every interaction between the Europeans and the Natives quickly devolved to bloodshed. One of those was Thanksgiving.

There is some debate over when the first “Thanksgiving” was. That might sound silly, as obviously it was the 1621 feast between the Pilgrims led by William Bradford and the Wampanoag led by Massasoit. That’s what A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving taught us. But proclamations of days of Thanksgiving were far older in England, and November 5 was made an annual day for Thanksgiving, a celebration that later evolved into Guy Fawkes Day. In America, the Virginians had a Thanksgiving in 1619, a year before the Pilgrims arrived. Spanish settlers in Florida also had celebration with the local Natives all the way back in 1565. In Massachusetts, the first proclaimed day of Thanksgiving was a fast in 1623. Some, particularly those taking a “nuanced” look at Thanksgiving, point to a day of Thanksgiving proclaimed in 1637 after the massacre of 700 men, women, and children of the Pequot tribe in Connecticut by the Puritans.

At any rate, while it wasn’t necessarily the first or original Thanksgiving, the 1621 meeting between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims still ought to be totem by which we judge Thanksgiving. It is what we remember with our own Thanksgiving meals, and some of our menu is a callback to that first feast. It was what Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Something gaining historical notoriety only some time after the fact is not unique among historical events. So let’s take a new look back on that first Thanksgiving.

In 1620, 102 Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower to sail for the New World. They were a English religious minority similar but slightly distinct from the Puritans, and they had fled to Holland to build a holier community. They found Holland just as immoral, so they sailed for the New World. Their voyage took them 65 days, and they landed in Massachusetts on November 9, 1620. Over the first winter, more than half the colonists died, and at times only a handful were healthy enough to care for the infirmed. Once the snow melted, relations were originally poor with the Natives, who distrusted white settlers after a raiding party several years prior took a number of them as slaves. But luckily the settlers then met Squanto, the last surviving member of his tribe whose time in captivity in Europe had taught him English and converted him to Christianity. The colonists considered him a gift from God, and it’s not hard to see why. He was an embassy of Massasoit, the local chief, and Massasoit himself was in a tricky position. His tribe had been ransacked by disease, his rivals further inland had not. Knowing a relationship with the settlers would give him powerful allies and connections to Europeans trade, he struck a practical deal with the settlers. In March of 1621, the new governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, signed a peace treaty with Massasoit, and without the Wampanoag’s help the 50 remaining Pilgrims would likely have died out within the next year.

The famous feast at the end of 1621 was more of a Harvest Festival than a Thanksgiving. It lasted three days, featuring a delegation of 90 Wampanoag and the 50 remaining colonists. It is unlikely they dined at the same table due to customary differences, and it was more of a diplomatic and a social event. There’s isn’t many primary sources of the event, but we know they ate deer and fowl and we can guess they also ate corn, shellfish, and fruit. (Turkey wasn’t a part of Thanksgiving until the 1840s). It was a diplomatic event based on practical need, but both sides would have interpreted the meeting as friendly.

What is remarkable is that relatively good relations lasted after that first Thanksgiving. Bradford wasn’t sharing a Thanksgiving with Massasoit one day and slitting his throat the next. Massasoit attended Bradford’s wedding in 1623, and in 1624 an Englishman, Edward Winslow, went to live among the Natives and wrote a book about it. The war between the colonists and the Pequot tribe in 1636, which lead to the previously mentioned massacre in 1637, started primarily as a conflict with the Dutch, who by them were active in New York, and was led by the Puritans, not the Pilgrims. It did not involve the Wampanoag, who were actually rivals to the Pequot. Eventually relations did break down, leading to King Philip’s war in 1675, a horribly destructive conflict effectively ending the Native Americans in Southern New England. But by then, Massasoit, Bradford, and Winslow had all been dead for well-more than a decade. For more than 50 years, there was relative harmony between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag with whom they shared that first “Thanksgiving.” In context, that’s almost uniquely remarkable. The Powhatan, the Native confederacy active in Virginia (from whom came Pocahontas), erupted in war with the British settlers in just 15 years, and in less than 30 years the entire confederacy had been largely wiped out. It was not so in Massachusetts, were for more than 50 years the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims lived in relative harmony, bound together by mutual need.

As always, history is much more complicated than what we tell our children. But there is more fact than fiction in our Thanksgiving myth. In 1621 two very different groups of people shared a feast and pledged harmony between them, an agreement the good men of that first Thanksgiving honored until the day they died. You cannot claim the Europeans, or even the Pilgrims, had long lasting friendship with the Native Americans. But those of Thanksgiving did, and in a period of time defined by tragedies, massacres, and betrayal, that is well worth being thankful for.


As always, let me know what you think and please hit that button in the bottom right corner to follow. Have a great Thanksgiving, we all have plenty to be grateful for. I should be back in about a week, and as always, thank you for reading.

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