Thanksgiving isn’t the holiday you think it is


Photo courtesy of The Foundation of Economic Eduction

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

The smell of turkey and ham fills a room full of family and friends. Everyone sits down for what is supposed to be a day of being thankful and celebrating the “friendship” between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. But behind all of these acts of celebration lingers the unknown truth of how the Native Americans were actually treated by the Pilgrims, along with the violence they faced at the hands of colonizers.

Thanksgiving is typically taught to be a celebration of the Plymouth Pilgrims’ first successful harvest in the New World, which took place in October of 1621. This part of the story is somewhat true as the Pilgrims did hold a three-day gathering with local Wampanoag tribe members present, but it wasn’t technically the first Thanksgiving. Both Natives and Europeans had held harvest festivals centuries before 1621, so it was nothing new to both people. Furthermore, there is no evidence of this event being proclaimed as Thanksgiving at all. It only began to get that label in 1830 from New Englanders. There aren’t even statements backing up the presence of one of Thanksgiving’s most beloved dishes, turkey. Colonizer and Plymouth governor William Bradford documented in his journal that he sent four men to gather “wildfowl”, but turkey was not explicitly mentioned.

Although the 1621 harvest was not given the name of Thanksgiving, the Pequot Massacre of 1637 was. The massacre was the result of a war that was led by colonizer John Underhill, who set the battle off by slaughtering a Pequot village. The end result was 700 murdered Pequot men, women, and children. The day after the Pequot’s were defeated, Governor Bradford stated that it would be a “day of Thanksgiving kept in all churches for our victories against the Pequots,” and described gory details of the murders in his journal. This has now led many people to believe that the massacre was the original Thanksgiving day origin and that the holiday is unknowingly a celebration of genocide. Abraham Lincoln established it as a national holiday in 1863, but with no mention of colonists, Indians, or a harvest.

Another big aspect of the holiday is the role of the pilgrims’ “friend” Squanto, a Native American who was said to have helped the Pilgrims in growing and harvesting useful crops, but this story is also very skewed. Squanto was actually kidnapped in 1614 from his native land, along with many other tribe members, by Englishman Thomas Hunt. He was taken to England and sold into slavery, but later escaped and returned to his tribe in 1619, only to find them all dead of an epidemic disease. He later met the Pilgrims upon their arrival and they used the remains of Squanto’s tribal land to build their own colony, Plymouth. All in all, the Europeans arriving in native land brought the disease and violence that killed Squanto’s own people, which led to the colonizers using the graveyards of the Indians to build their own land.

While some of this information may not be new to some, it is important to remember the discrimination that the Natives faced and even still do face in the present day. Nowadays, Thanksgiving is a time of being with loved ones and celebrating over a big dinner, but the lives of those lost and the ancestors impacted by violent colonizers should forever be honored and in our thoughts.