The History of Thanksgiving

The “theory” behind Thanksgiving is based on the story that, on Thursday, November 24, 1621, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag (an Indian tribe) came together to share a harvest feast. We Americans, over the centuries, have relegated the truth of the time before and after that date to the back of our minds, so that we can focus on spending time with family and friends, overeating the delicious fare that is prepared so that the meal qualifies as a ‘feast’ and then an afternoon of football and/or reading the inside of our eyelids. For the primary cook, it’s a chance to dust off culinary skills – the same applies to the turkey carver – and for the women, it’s a chance to gather together after the meal to divide leftovers, clean up and have a chance to catch-up on girl talk without interruption.

But the history of Thanksgiving shouldn’t be focused on that one particular day when the Pilgrims and the Indians seemed able to put aside their differences for a few hours. In fact, one professor at George Washington University has gone on record to say that most of the stories are myths filled with historical inaccuracies.

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe offered an agreement to the arrivals. This agreement would eventually serve as a way to protect the Wampanoag tribe from their rivals, the Narragansetts, and, in exchange, would help to keep the Pilgrims safe from other native tribes. This pact was strained by infectious disease, the expansion of colonial land taken by the Pilgrims and the exploitation of Wampanoag resources. These tensions greatened into what became known as King Philip’s War. The effects of this war, over time, devastated the Wampanoags and shifted the balance of power from being equal into being in the colonists’ favor.

Even today, some of the country’s Indigenous people consider this day set aside to remember a coming together between the colonists and the natives as a day of mourning, rather than a day of thanks. It is a time for them to remember the history of their ancestors and a day to reflect on the racism, inequality and oppression they still experience in the present. In fact, there is a memorial plaque located in Cole’s Hill, a part of the town of Plymouth, that has been erected by the town of Plymouth, on behalf of the United American Indians of New England, announcing that the date congruent of the day we celebrate Thanksgiving shall, for them, be considered A Day of Mourning. This was proclaimed in 1970, and on our Thanksgiving Day, American Indians of New England will gather, not to partake of a feast, but to remember, with great sadness, what happened to the American Indians as a whole upon the Pilgrims alighting at Plymouth Rock in 1621.

For the record, it wasn’t until 1863 that Thanksgiving was given the honor of becoming a national holiday, and it was proclaimed so by Abraham Lincoln as a way to promote unity during the Civil War.

Now, go watch your parades and enjoy your feast and time relaxing. But take a moment to stop and remember what this holiday was meant to be and remember that this feast, in history, created a war.