History, Myth and Mashed Potatoes : Understanding The Truth About Thanksgiving

For many families, Thanksgiving is an important tradition. It's a chance for people to come together and appreciate the blessings of life over a home cooked meal. 

A lot of Thanksgiving iconography is based around colonial history, and kids are taught in school that the first Thanksgiving involved pilgrims and Indigenous peoples came together in celebration of the pilgrim's survival. The pilgrims had struggled after arriving in America and they would have perished if a friendly tribe hadn't taught them to grow their own food. The pilgrims invited their saviors to a big feast in celebration, and it became an annual tradition. 

It's a good story and comforting to children, but it's not an accurate portrayal of what happened. It's important to an informed citizenry to understand the real history behind our traditions, warts and all. We all have a responsibility to face our past honestly so we may learn from it, rather than cling to easy but inaccurate mythology. 

The First Thanksgiving 1621 , oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). The painting shows common misconceptions about the event that persist to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear such outfits, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Native Americans from the Great Plains

The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). The painting shows common misconceptions about the event that persist to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear such outfits, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Native Americans from the Great Plains

So let's begin with some of the basics. 

We owe the modern tradition of Thanksgiving to Abraham Lincoln

The nation was torn asunder by the Civil War. After it was over, instability between the Union and the former Confederate states could have lead to permanent rifts in the nation's psyche. In a way to promote unity and healing, Abraham Lincoln promoted a little-known story of the Plymouth plantation's harvest celebration. On October 3rd, 1863, Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation: 

"I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of <-- Thanksgiving --> and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union." 

   Servicemen eating a Thanksgiving dinner after the end of World War I (1918)


Servicemen eating a Thanksgiving dinner after the end of World War I (1918)

We actually know very little about the first Thanksgiving

The event we most often refer to as the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621. It was recorded by William Bradford, the Plymouth colony governor, who wrote that a group of 90 Indigenous people came in during the celebration (there is actually some question about whether or not they came as a war party, because the pilgrims had been firing guns into the air as a celebration and the Wampanoag might have been coming to investigate), they contributed deer to the meal, the festivities went for three days, and the food was cooked on spits and guests would carve off meat. Cranberries, flour, and sugar were not part of the feast. 

The term "Thanksgiving" wasn't even used until Lincoln, and the settlers didn't call themselves Pilgrims.  

During colonial times, "thanks giving" was a prayer of gratitude for blessing bestowed by God. Giving thanks was seen as an expression of faith and gratitude, and would take on darker meanings as we will get into later. 

Likewise, the idea that the pilgrims were escaping religious persecution is incorrect. At the time there was already religious freedom in Holland, where many pilgrims originated from. The settlers were instead looking to create a theocracy in their new home and they referred to themselves internally as separatists. 

Tisquantum, known as Squanto, had a much more complicated and tragic story. 

According to the history many people are taught, Tisquantum taught struggling pilgrims how to grown the corn they would need to survive and helped as a translator between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag. In truth, Tisquantum learned English by being captured by English settlers and sold into slavery in 1614. He travelled to Spain and then England before returning to the Americas. As he returned, he discovered that the rest of his tribe had been killed either in war or by smallpox. He met the pilgrims in 1621. 

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth , 1914, by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

There are two major events that are described as the first Thanksgiving, and one of them was a massacre. 

Most of the idealized mythology around the first Thanksgiving comes from the harvest feast of 1621, but there is another incident often cited as the "first Thanksgiving." It was the Indigenous massacre of 1622. 

Explorer and Colonial governor John Smith had begun sending raiding parties out into Indigenous lands to steal food and supplies, often going so far as to loot graves. This created understandable tensions between the two communities. Chief Powhatan, realizing that the settlers were attempting to carve out more territory for themselves, said this: 

"Your coming is not for trade, but to invade my people and possess my country…Having seene the death of all my people thrice… I knowe the difference of peace and ware better than any other Countrie. [If he fought the English, Powhatan predicted], he would be so haunted by Smith that he can neither rest eat nor sleepe, but his tired men must watch, and if a twig but breake, everie one crie, there comes Captain John Smith; then he must flie he knowe not whether, and thus with miserable fear end his miserable life" 

Skirmishes were fought at the two communities struggled with one another, but it reached a turning point when trader John Oldham and his crew were killed as part of an attempt to disrupt trade. The settlers led a series of attacks on the Pequot, culminating in the 1637 massacre at the fortified Pequot settlement of Mistick. 500 men, women, and children were butchered in the assault. The Indigenous guides working under the English at the time were horrified by "manner of the Englishmen's fight ... because it is too furious, and slays too many men."

Upon the return of the English soldiers, Massachusetts Colony Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed such a “thanks giving.” It was his wish that the day be celebrated and repeated for years to come. 

The most dangerous part of the Thanksgiving myth is that it whitewashes Colonial history. 

Because of the way we teach our children about Thanksgiving, a lot of people tend to believe in an idyllic image of the relationship between Indigenous people and early settlers, with more tragic events happening much later. In reality, these isolated (and highly suspect) early instances of cooperation are the exception to the rule as far as these relationships have gone, and the cutesy story of Thanksgiving are the narratives that get repeated in settler culture should tell us that the whitewashing of history is an ongoing process, repeated, reinforced, and celebrated yearly. Indigenous American history is a charnel house of oppression and violence, from massacres to broken treaties to the forced removal and reeducation in residential schools to the involuntary sterilization of Indigenous American in the 1970s to the battles over the Dakota Access pipeline going on today. 

History doesn't exist in a vacuum, and the consequences of historical events follow us down through the generations. Colonialism isn't in the past -- it's a structure not an event, it's ongoing, and the Thanksgiving narrative tells us that it is alive and well. The idea of 'mistakes of our predecessors' is one of those persistent colonial myths. Yer all still here, native people are still in a state of removal and containment, settler society continues to feed on Indigenous land, labour, and imagery. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves about our status as colonists on native land, the ways settler society still impinges on native livelihoods, and the ways we all participate in excusing it, every year.  

If you would like to contribute, please volunteer your time or make a donation to any of the following organizations. 



If you want to read an Indigenous view of the Thanksgiving experience, check out this Bustle article below. 


Author: Joe Haribo