It’s Thanksgiving! There are so many versions of the truth it seems, so many stories to take in to consideration when we look back at the history of Thanksgiving. This just goes to show why we are all so confused and it will remain that way, depending on which story you want to take on.
Most people residing in the United States have at least a general idea of why we celebrate Thanksgiving. The story of the first Thanksgiving is played out in school auditoriums all over the country every single year. We celebrate Thanksgiving in part to show our thanks for everything that we have, but also as a tribute to the pilgrims who came here from Europe. The history of Thanksgiving in the United States begins with the pilgrims who came over from England and landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1621.
The pilgrims shared a feast in the fall time, probably October, of that year with the Wampanoag Indians. Although this was technically the first Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving would not become an annual event until many years later and would not become a federal holiday until 1941. In addition, many of the traditions like turkey and pie that we associate with Thanksgiving did not occur at the first Thanksgiving, instead evolving over many years.
It took a very long time for Thanksgiving to become an annual event, for it to have a universally accepted date, and for it to be celebrated as a federal holiday. Various Thanksgiving-type celebrations were held irregularly during the fall months for nearly 150 years before it was suggested by the Continental Congress that the country should have a national day of Thanks. Some historians suggest that this was a political move as much as anything. The emerging country was in need of its own traditions and customs to help create a separate non-English, American identity. Thanksgiving was perfect because it was a way to honor the pilgrims, the people who originally left England to be free of persecution.
The First Thanksgiving
The history of first Thanksgiving as a holiday goes back to 1620. Late that year, the Mayflower, a small ship for ocean crossings, left England with over 100 passengers onboard. Some of them sought religious freedom in the new world and others simply were drawn by stories of the prosperity once could achieve in America. The journey to the new world lasted over two months. When they arrived, they found themselves well off course, near the tip of Cape Cod. They had been navigating for the Hudson River. They setup the colony at Plymouth on the other side of the bay over a month later. The settlers were ill prepared for the harsh New England winter and by the time spring came, they were down to about half of their original compliment.
That spring they met a Native American who spoke English. He introduced them to Squanto; the famous English speaking Indian who helped the settlers stay alive. He showed the otherwise hopeless settlers how to fish and hunt as well as how to grow corn and tell edible plants from poisonous ones. Squanto introduced the settlers to a friendly local tribe called the Wampanoag. With the help of the Native Americans the settlers prospered and later that year, in November of 1621 the settlers were ready to celebrate the successful harvest of their first crop of corn. The settlers invited many of their Indian allies to the party. The celebration of that first harvest lasted 3 days and many dishes both from the settlers as well as Native American cuisine.
The celebration, at the time, had a very obvious patriotic and anti-English subtext. People began celebrating Thanksgiving Day more regularly. However, depending on where you were, the day of the celebration might be different. In 1817, New York was the first state to adopt Thanksgiving as an official holiday. By the time the Civil War erupted in the 1860’s, every state had also made Thanksgiving a state holiday. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Since that time, every president has issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation every Thanksgiving, declaring it to be a national day of thanks. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that the Thanksgiving would be on the third Thursday in November. Congress approved that declaration two years later in 1941.
It is no secret that most Thanksgiving Day traditions revolve around food. Indeed, the turkey is the symbol of Thanksgiving. Wild turkeys are still quite common in many parts of the United States, so most historians would concede that turkey was probably on the menu. However, there were probably lots of other types of meat on the menu too, like venison and pork. What is more telling is what was missing from that first Thanksgiving. There were probably very few if any vegetables at the Thanksgiving feast. Today we have mashed potatoes, yams, squashes and other veggies, but neither the pilgrims nor the Indians had any way to keep vegetables fresh that far into fall. Another major difference is the lack of desserts at the first Thanksgiving. Today, dessert is a major part of the Thanksgiving meal. However by autumn of 1621, the pilgrims were running low on sugar and probably didn’t make any pumpkin pie or peach cobbler.
Most of us associate the holiday with happy Pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a big feast. And that did happen – once.
The story began in 1614 when a band of English explorers sailed home to England with a ship full of Patuxet Indians bound for slavery. They left behind smallpox which virtually wiped out those who had escaped. By the time the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts Bay they found only one living Patuxet Indian, a man named Squanto who had survived slavery in England and knew their language. He taught them to grow corn and to fish, and negotiated a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Nation. At the end of their first year, the Pilgrims held a great feast honoring Squanto and the Wampanoags.
But as word spread in England about the paradise to be found in the new world, religious zealots called Puritans began arriving by the boat load. Finding no fences around the land, they considered it to be in the public domain. Joined by other British settlers, they seized land, capturing strong young Natives for slaves and killing the rest. But the Pequot Nation had not agreed to the peace treaty Squanto had negotiated and they fought back. The Pequot War was one of the bloodiest Indian wars ever fought.
In 1637 near present day Groton, Connecticut, over 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival which is our Thanksgiving celebration. In the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them to come outside. Those who came out were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouse were burned alive. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A Day Of Thanksgiving” because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered.
Cheered by their “victory”, the brave colonists and their Indian allies attacked village after village. Women and children over 14 were sold into slavery while the rest were murdered. Boats loaded with a many as 500 slaves regularly left the ports of New England. Bounties were paid for Indian scalps to encourage as many deaths as possible.
Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches announced a second day of “thanksgiving” to celebrate victory over the heathen savages. During the feasting, the hacked off heads of Natives were kicked through the streets like soccer balls. Even the friendly Wampanoag did not escape the madness. Their chief was beheaded, and his head impaled on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts — where it remained on display for 24 years.
The killings became more and more frenzied, with days of thanksgiving feasts being held after each successful massacre. George Washington finally suggested that only one day of Thanksgiving per year be set aside instead of celebrating each and every massacre. Later Abraham Lincoln decreed Thanksgiving Day to be a legal national holiday during the Civil War — on the same day he ordered troops to march against the starving Sioux in Minnesota.
This story doesn’t have quite the same fuzzy feelings associated with it as the one where the Indians and Pilgrims are all sitting down together at the big feast. But we need to learn our true history so it won’t ever be repeated. Next Thanksgiving, when you gather with your loved ones to Thank God for all your blessings, think about those people who only wanted to live their lives and raise their families. They, also took time out to say “thank you” to Creator for all their blessings.
You can read more views here. (Warning: depressing.)
I’m sure there are way more versions out there. All I know from reading in to all of this is that…well, you only need to look around to see that the pilgrims who came to this country, indeed came to stay, and they completely rid the land of it’s rightful owners. Which story do we tell? Which story can we share with our children? I don’t know about you, but I am sharing this clip, from this historic movie that I grew up with and loved:
Thank you Wednesday Addams for refusing to lie about history, and tell REAL history! For telling the ugly truth, and not a pretty lie!
Lately all I’m seeing are posts like:
- Why are we celebrating the massacre of all the native Americans (since by now , we all know the real story, and it ain’t all rainbows and ..”Colors of the Wind”) ?
- People are just gonna go out shopping the next day right after praying for what they were thankful for
- It’s not a real holiday, celebrating it is stupid
The myth that is Thanksgiving has been busted for many years now. It is just up to us to remember why and to correct for the future. We must correct the teachings of “Thanksgiving” for our children if we have any hope of change. We cannot teach future generations that it is okay to engage in genocide. There will never be a good enough reason to treat fellow humans as the Native Americans were treated. It’s not acceptable to think that your beliefs supercede everyone elses, and it’s certainly deplorable to believe that someone else should not exist unless they believe what you believe…that isn’t a religion any more. That is a CULT, that’s insanity. That KKK-like thinking should be removed completely from this once-great nation.
If you’re like me and you want to be able to celebrate without GUILT, here are some things to note:
- You know that you are not celebrating it condoning the acts of the pilgrims.
- You know you’re not celebrating the fact that the real Natives lost their land.
- You know you are not celebrating Christopher Columbus “discovering” a land that was already inhabited.
- You know you aren’t celebrating a genocide.
To all those negatives who think this way, let me enlighten you. People who “celebrate” Thanksgiving, are not sitting around their dining tables with family talking about Pilgrims and Indians. We aren’t praising Columbus. They are enjoying time with family, happy to have a day off work (or long weekend) and feasting away. It’s now more of a national break than anything else. Seriously, who really sits with their families and talks about this maddening history? Well, maybe today for any of you who just read through all that.. but don’t let that conversation last all day! Seriously, brush it off a little, and go back to your regularly scheduled programs- which, if you’re like us, includes the BEST Thanksgiving movie ever: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
We need breaks. Especially in this country. It’s a work force where the majority hardly get any time off, the max you can get per year is two weeks – so for many to be able to have a 4-5 day weekend is huge, and it’s welcomed easily. We need more time with family, we need more time to relax, and we need more time to celebrate the things we are thankful for in this life. To those wondering why it’s still celebrated, well, the story isn’t celebrated, but the time with family is, and the time to reflect and be thankful is as well. If you know in your heart that you are just celebrating BEING with family and not working and having some much-needed r&r and being able to play and laugh with your kids for an extended period of time and being able to visit with family that you haven’t seen in forever then dammit! CELEBRATE AWAY!
The first step to having a guilt-free Thanksgiving might be to stop caring about what other people think, especially people online, ESPECIALLY people who don’t really matter to you and your family. People who are offended by things they read online are morons, I’m sorry. But stop with that.
Let’s not feel guilty about taking the time to celebrate just being with family, just gathering together and sharing good food, good laughs, and being able to sleep in, should we choose to. Don’t let others take that away from you. If we can all just collectively agree that yes, it was a dark time in history because man is greedy, and yes, it is certainly a time to learn from, and not repeat. You get to start your own traditions now. You get to choose. We can also collectively agree that there are still so many things to be thankful for in this life, in this country. Being thankful and sharing that with others is good for the soul, and it’s harmful to no one. So from my family to yours, have a VERY HAPPY THANKSGIVING! <3
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