Thanksgiving--Folktale or History?

Updated: Feb 5

Thanksgiving--We imagine a large table set with a wild turkey and surrounding the table men, women, and children with tall, black buckle hats, white bonnets, and feather headdresses coming together in peace and friendship. We see this image repeated in picture books, Thanksgiving cards, and ads--but is that what really happened?

Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the United States in 1863, campaigned by Sarah Hale to President Lincoln as a way to unite a country at war. (Thanksgiving had been observed in some part since the American Revolution, though with no continuity in celebration from state to state.) The inclusion of the Pilgrims and Wampanoags was not widely seen until after the turn of the century in 1900. Thanksgiving became a tool to teach children and immigrants about American freedom and good citizenship.

The Players

Who were the Pilgrims?

The Pilgrims didn’t call themselves pilgrims, but Separatists because they separated themselves from the Church of England over theological differences and practices. Separatists often lost their livelihood, had their homes taken away, jailed, or fined for not attending the Church of England and subscribing to its theology and practices. They wanted to practice their faith without repercussion. This led them to move to Holland in 1607.

As wars brewed on the continent, the Separatists feared losing their religious freedom again and sought King James’ permission to make a deal with the Merchant Adventurers to set up a colony in the New World. Who we have come to know as the Pilgrims that reached Plymouth Rock were actually the Separatists and a group of skilled tradesmen they called the Strangers.

In 1620, one hundred and two passengers and thirty crew members sailed on the Mayflower reaching Cape Cod in November. They lived on the ship that first winter and with little food and a harsh climate less than half the people survived that first winter. In the spring of 1621, the Mayflower sailed back to England and the Separatists had their first encounters with the Native people.

Who are the Wampanoag?

The Wampanoag (wam-puh-NO-og) are the “People of the First Light,” referring to their eastern position on the Massachusetts coastline. The Separatists were not the first Europeans they had encountered. Other Europeans had explored the area, some respectful, others not. They brought diseases that killed many natives. The cleared land the Separatists built their colony was the former Wampanoag village, Patuxet, that had been decimated by smallpox. Some explorers captured native men as slaves to bring to Europe. Tisquantum (anglicized to Squanto) was one of these men.

In March of 1621, Samoset, a sagamore (a lower chief), was visiting Massasoit, the Wampanoag sachem (SAY-chem), and went to the English village, surprising them by speaking English he had learned from fishermen in Maine. Later, Tisquantum was sent by Massasoit to see if these new people would be people of peace or war. Hobbamock, a Wampanoag pniese (an elite warrior), was sent with his family to live near the Separatists settlement to observe and help. He was a highly trusted guide and interpreter to both Massasoit and the Separatists. Tisquantum along with Samoset taught the Separatists how to grow corn and other crops. Knowing the language and customs of the Separatists these three men were able to be a fragile bridge between the people.

Lay the Table--Let’s Talk about that Feast

Was there an actual Thanksgiving feast in 1621? There was, but it didn’t happen as we so often see in books and popular culture. Feast days of thanks were already a part of the culture practices of both people groups, so a feast of thanksgiving at the end of the harvest season was not a new or foreign concept.

The Separatists decided to have a feast of Thanksgiving at the end of harvest. A few men were sent out to hunt while others stayed behind practicing military drills. Hearing more gun shots than usual, Massasoit came with 90 Wampanoag men to investigate fearing an impending attack. They realized the Separatists were practicing shooting for sport as celebration. Massosit sent a few of his men to bring back five deer for the feast and the Natives stayed and celebrated three days with the Separatists.

Day of Mourning

Today many Native Americans call Thanksgiving The National Day of Mourning, organized by the United American Indians of New England in the 1970s. Why? The day so many Americans celebrate with gratitude is seen as the beginning of the genocide of Native American peoples. In the years following the famed first Thanksgiving, relations between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag became more fractured as the Pilgrims wanted more land and forcibly began pushing back the Wampanoag and other tribes, resulting in germ warfare, the burning of many Native villages and farmland, and ranger forces (a militia like group) sent to squash Native resistance and displace tribes often targeting nonfighters (women, children, and elders) through beheadings, scalpings, and enslavement. When you gain a bigger picture of the events before and after the first Thanksgiving, as well as the racist treatment of Native Americans through American history, it becomes easier to see why many native peoples see Thanksgiving less as a day of gratitude and remembrance, but of mourning.

Every Thanksgiving, Native Americans gather at Cole Hill in Plymouth, MA overlooking Plymouth Rock to honor the ancestors who died, the loss of culture, the death of whole tribes and their way of life, as well as recognizing the current struggle of many Native peoples today.

Giving Thanks with Awareness

It is good to gather with family and friends over good food and traditions, remembering our many blessings and joys we have received throughout the year, we should consider how holding a false narrative of the Thanksgiving feast as a sign of peace and friendship silences the voices of Native Americans calling for justice and fuels stereotypes.

It’s unfortunate that Native American Heritage Month was set in the same month as Thanksgiving, centering the learning and appreciation of Native American history and culture through the lens of colonizers. When you gather this Thanksgiving, take a moment to acknowledge the First People of this land, learn whose land you feast on, how and why that tribe was displaced so you could be there, and where they are now. Don’t let your education of Native Americans be only through the folklore of Thanksgiving. We want you to know, we’re still here.

Recommended Resources

Plimoth Plantation

This is the website for the historical site of Plimoth Plantation. It is full of information and virtual field trips and interactive games of the settlement, Mayflower, Wampanoag homesites, and daily life of pilgrims and Wampanoag. All Wampanoag reenactors are Indigenous peoples with a few being from the Wampanoag tribe.

“Recognizing Native American Perspectives: Thanksgiving & the National Day of Mourning,”

A lesson plan for middle and high school students to analyze a primary source to learn about a Native American’s perspective on the arrival of the Pilgrims and discuss differing viewpoints about the significance of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Books on Thanksgiving:

  • Giving Thanks: The 1621 Feast, Kate Waters

  • Tapenum’s Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times, Kate Waters

  • Sarah Morton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl, Kate Waters

  • 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving, Catherine O’Neil Grace & Margaret M. Bruchac

  • Mayflower 1620: A New Look at the Pilgrim Voyage, Plimoth Plantation with Peter Arenstam, et. al

  • What You Didn’t Know About History: The First Thanksgiving, Kathleen Connors

  • The Wampanoag, Kevin Cunningham

  • The Children of the Morning Light, Manitonquat

  • People of the Breaking Day, Marcia Sewall

  • Susan Whitehurst’s series--The Pilgrims Before the Mayflower, The Mayflower, Plymouth: Surviving the First Winter, Plymouth Partnership: Pilgrims & Native Americans

Books on Native American History:

  • An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

  • Native American History: A Chronology of a Culture's Vast Achievements and Their Links to World Events, Judith Nies

  • Timelines of Native American History, Carl Waldman

  • Turtle Island: The Story of North America’s First People, Eldon Yellowhorn & Kathy Lowinger

  • What the Eagle Sees: Indigenous Stories of Rebellion and Renewal, Eldon Yellowhorn & Kathy Lowinger

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We look forward to staying connected.

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