The Story Behind Thanksgiving

The “First Thanksgiving” in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621.

Yesterday, millions of Americans celebrated a holiday we know as Thanksgiving. While celebrations may look different this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Thanksgiving marks a time for family, parades, delicious food, and feeling thankful. Although Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday, I still appreciate the feeling of being with my loved ones and my stomach stuffed with delicious food. Thanksgiving is a very well-loved holiday in America, and many people cherish it as a very happy time of the year. However, the real history behind Thanksgiving isn’t as happy as people think.

In school, American children are usually taught that Thanksgiving dates back to the Pilgrims, who were English religious dissenters who helped to establish the Plymouth Colony in present-day Massachusetts in 1620. As the story of the “First Thanksgiving” goes, friendly local Native Americans swooped in to teach the struggling colonists how to survive in the New World since many colonists were dying of starvation, cold, and disease. The Pilgrims and Native Americans then got together to celebrate with a feast in 1621, where they celebrated what we now call Thanksgiving.

It is said that attendees included around 90 men from the Wampanoag tribe and the 50 or so surviving Mayflower passengers. The feast lasted three days and featured a menu including deer, fowl, and corn, similar to the traditional Thanksgiving meals that exist today. The truth is, Thanksgiving feasts pre-date the one at Plymouth, and numerous localities have tried to claim the first Thanksgiving for themselves- the first misconception of the original Thanksgiving. Also, the peace brokered at Plymouth didn’t last very long, as demonstrated by later history.

Some pinpoint 1637 as the true origin of Thanksgiving, where the Massachusetts colony governor, John Winthrop, declared a day to celebrate colonial soldiers who had just slaughtered hundreds of Pequot men, women, and children in what is now known as Mystic, Connecticut.

The real story behind Thanksgiving is so dark that some people are rethinking how they celebrate the holiday, or whether they should at all. This beloved holiday has nearly erased what happened between the Wampanoag and the English a few decades after the First Thanksgiving.

Massasoit, the chief, of the Wampanoag tribe, proved to be a crucial ally to the English settlers in the years after the establishment of Plymouth. He set up an exclusive trade pact with the newcomers and allied with them against the French and other local tribes like the Narragansett and Massachusetts. However, the alliance became strained over time as settlers took over more and more of the Wampanoag’s land. Thousands of English colonists poured into the region throughout the 17th century, and authorities in Plymouth began asserting control over “most aspects of Wampanoag life”, making the Wampanoags increasingly unhappy.

By the time Massasoit’s son Metacom — known to the English as “King Philip” — inherited the leadership of the tribe, relations between the two groups had deteriorated. King Phillip’s War was sparked when several of Metacom’s men were executed for the murder of the Christian convert John Sassamon. Wampanoag warriors responded by embarking on a series of raids, and the New England Confederation of Colonies declared war in 1675.

The war was bloody, long, and devastating. It’s considered to be the bloodiest war per capita in U.S. history. Towns were destroyed and burned to the ground and hundreds of people from both sides were brutally murdered. It took decades for the colonists to recover from the loss of life, the property damage, and the huge military expenditures. The war was also devastating for Native Peoples. The Wampanoag tribe was almost entirely wiped out, and entire families were sold into slavery abroad; others were forced to become servants locally. The Wampanoag had to adapt aspects of their culture to survive; their political independence ended.

Metacom, upon his return to his ancestral home at Mount Hope, he was shot and killed in a final battle. The son of the man who had helped and celebrated with the Plymouth Colony at that First Thanksgiving was then beheaded and dismembered. His remaining allies were killed or sold into slavery in the West Indies. The colonists impaled “King Phillip’s” head on a spike and displayed it in Plymouth for 25 years. Now, was this any way to thank the people who had helped our ancestors so selflessly and developed the First Thanksgiving, a holiday we celebrate so differently today?

The war was just one of a series of brutal early wars between Native Americans and colonists in early America; ars that would ultimately wipe out most of the Native American population by the early 1900s. More and more would emerge as settlers continued to take Native American land. Many people largely cling to the innocuous image of a celebratory harvest celebration while ignoring the deadly forces that would ultimately drive apart the descendants of the guests of that very feast forever.

Racial injustice in the U.S. came to the forefront in 2020 with the systemic murder of George Floyd and the BlackLivesMatter movement. With the coronavirus pandemic disproportionally affecting people of color and police brutality drawing attention across the U.S. and the world, some people say it’s time to reevaluate the meaning and celebration of the holiday.

The United American Indians of New England have been mourning on Thanksgiving since 1970. On the National Day of Mourning, Native Americans gather in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for a day of remembrance. Prayers and speeches take place accompanied by beating drums before participants march through the Plymouth Historic District. The day’s plaque says:

NATIONAL DAY OF MOURNING
Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their cultures. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.
Erected by the Town of Plymouth on behalf of the United American Indians of New England

The holiday may be a celebration of people coming together, but that’s not the whole story when it comes to the history of Thanksgiving. Please, the next Thanksgiving, while sitting with your family enjoying a delicious meal, remember the injustice that was dealt the people who helped create the first Thanksgiving.

Injustice from the eyes of a high schooler. Activist. Lover of history. Here to educate and inspire.