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The True Story of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in the US is traditionally a time for family and food. Its history, which we typically learn as schoolchildren, dates back to the Pilgrims, who helped establish Plymouth Colony in 1620 in what is now Massachusetts.

As the story goes, friendly Native Americans taught the struggling colonists how to survive in what the English settlers called the New World. Then, everyone got together to celebrate with a feast in 1621.

Thanksgiving 2023 would mark the 402nd anniversary of that "first" American Thanksgiving. But, in reality, Thanksgiving feasts predate Plymouth, and that day's celebration was sober at best.

The true story behind the holiday may have some people rethinking how they celebrate it (or whether they should celebrate it at all.)

The Origin of Thanksgiving

Our modern definition of Thanksgiving revolves around eating turkey and giving thanks, but this was more of an occasion for religious observance in past centuries. The Pilgrims would most likely consider their sober day of prayer in 1623 as the actual "Thanksgiving" according to the History of Massachusetts Blog.

Others may pinpoint 1637 as the true origin of Thanksgiving since the Massachusetts Bay Colony's governor, John Winthrop, declared a day to celebrate the colonial soldiers who had just slaughtered hundreds of Native American men, women, and children in what is now Mystic, Connecticut.

Regardless, the popular telling of the initial harvest festival has lived on, thanks to Abraham Lincoln, who officially made it a national holiday on October 3, 1863.

The First Thanksgiving by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," painted by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe. Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

The “Thanks” Didn't Last

The enduring holiday as we know it has nearly erased from our collective memory what actually happened between the Native Americans and the English at Plymouth.

Massasoit, the local Wampanoag chief, allied with the English settlers after Plymouth was established and fought with the newcomers against the French and other local tribes. But the alliance became strained over time.

As thousands more English colonists moved to Plymouth, taking over more land, authorities asserted control over "most aspects of Wampanoag life," according to the book "Historic Contact: Indian People and Colonists in Today's Northeastern United States."

A study published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews estimated that disease had already reduced the New England Indigenous population by 90% by 1620. The Wampanoag continued to die from what the colonists called "Indian fever," an unknown disease brought by early European settlers.

A drawing of Massasoit meeting with Gov. John Carver with other men nearby.

A drawing by H.L. Stevens of Massasoit meeting with Gov. John Carver in front of other North American men. Drawn by H.L. Stevens/engraved by Augustus Robin/Corbis/Getty Images

By the time Massasoit's son, Metacomet — known to the English as "King Philip" — inherited leadership, relations had frayed. His men were executed for the murder of a native interpreter and Christian convert, sparking King Philip's War.

Wampanoag warriors responded with raids, and the New England Confederation of Colonies declared war in 1675. The war was bloody and devastating.

In an article published in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts, it was said that the death toll could have been up to 30% of the English population and half of the Native Americans in New England.

The colonial assault on the Narragansett fort in the Great Swamp Fight in December 1675. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Metacomet was eventually beheaded and dismembered, according to "It Happened in Rhode Island," and the colonists impaled his head on a spike to display for the next 25 years.

The war was just one of a series of brutal but dimly remembered early conflicts between Native Americans and colonists in New England, New York, and Virginia.

The Holiday's Dark Past Has Some People Rethinking Thanksgiving

The focus on racial justice in the US has some people saying that reevaluating the meaning and celebration of Thanksgiving is long overdue.

Teachers, professors, and Native Americans told The New York Times in 2020 that they were rethinking the holiday that has marginalized the US's violence and cruelty against Native Americans, giving it names like "Takesgiving" and "The Thanksgiving Massacre." 

Reflections on Thanksgiving are not new. According to the New York Post, the United American Indians of New England have been publicly mourning on Thanksgiving for decades.

Frank James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag activist who helped establish a National Day of Mourning in 1970, called the Wampanoag's welcoming of the English settlers "perhaps our biggest mistake," The Washington Post reported.

On the National Day of Mourning, Native Americans gather in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for a day of remembrance for the millions of Indigenous people whom European colonists killed. Prayers and speeches are accompanied by beating drums before participants march through the Plymouth Historic District.

The commemorating plaque at Cole's Hill in Plymouth reads, "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."


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