An imperfect history of the “First Thanksgiving”

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Thanksgiving is an American holiday and tradition that has been deeply ingrained in our culture. Though it may seem like Thanksgiving is becoming more and more obsolete as of late, as though the Christmas season is arriving earlier and earlier, it is still undeniable the impact that the holiday has had on American society. Thanksgiving is seen as a holiday about, unsurprisingly enough, giving thanks to all the things you have, especially food. But as many of us now know, that story fed to us as children is not 100% true. Many of us are now coming to realize how poorly European settlers treated the Native Americans that lived there.

Much like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving has been whitewashed and covered up neatly so that it can fit into the ideal version of American history- one where the Pilgrims and Puritans didn’t go to war with the natives and take over their land. So, how did the image of the civilized, friendly sharing of a feast between people from different sides of the ocean come into our cultural conscience?

For one, the supposed “First Thanksgiving,” which occurred in roughly 1621, was not the first actual Thanksgiving. A teacher’s guide released by the Library of Congress states, “Native communities had regularly given thanks for nature’s gifts for centuries before the arrival of Europeans on the continent. In May 1541, Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led 1,500 men in a thanksgiving celebration in what is today the Texas Panhandle.” Thanksgiving was a tradition that was practiced before the date of the “First Thanksgiving” and was more of a day of religious observation. Only in recent times did Thanksgiving come to be associated with the Natives and have a more secular tone.

How accurate, then, was this account of the celebratory feast that occurred in 1621? Surprisingly so. Though there were only 2 sources (both of them being European settlers), the narrative that exists within the public consciousness is fairly faithful to the original story. One of the pilgrims there (Edward Winslow) wrote the entire account down. He recorded how there were 90 Native Americans and 50 Englishmen in attendance. For three days, they feasted on such foods as turkey and deer in celebration of the recent successful harvest. However, they didn’t call the celebration Thanksgiving themselves. In addition, the alleged peace that was present at the time of the feast was real, though this version does not tell the whole story.

While at the time there were fairly peaceful relations between the Indigenous people and the settlers, that proved to only be the calm before the storm. For one, diseases brought to the New World by the settlers ravaged the native population. Richard Pickering, Plimoth Plantation’s Deputy Executive Director, stated in “What We Really Know About the First Thanksgiving by Time that “a plague drastically cut the native population by what’s believed to be more than half.” In addition, the relationship between the Natives and Pilgrims grew much worse. According to “Historic Contact: Indian People and Colonists in Today’s Northeastern United States,” the leadership in the Plymouth colonies attempted to control “most aspects of Wampanoag life,” as they began to overtake their land. Finally, an all out war was provoked when Wampanoag killed Punkapoag interpreter and Christian convert John Sassamon. The Plymouth colony soon began to join forces with the Wampanoags enemy tribes such as the Mohawks, in order to defeat them. The Wampanoags eventually lost the war and those not killed were sold into slavery. Finally, the leader of the Wampanoags was killed and beheaded, and his head was allegedly impaled on a spike in Plymouth.


Though many celebrate Thanksgiving as an example of the peaceful relations between the Natives and Americans, it is clear that that account does not tell the whole story. It is important to remember the tragedies that occurred in this nation’s past, and acknowledge that not everything you learn is picture perfect.