The real history of Thanksgiving

When I was asked to write an article about Thanksgiving, I wasn’t sure how I would go about it. Should I write about how the Pilgrims fled Europe for the New World to seek religious freedom and economic prosperity? Should I mention that no less than two-thirds of the Native American population lost their lives as a result of deadly diseases, such as smallpox, which early European slave traders brought with them? I couldn’t settle on either one of those emphases, so I decided to share some lesser-known information about Thanksgiving.

For instance, Native Americans were not invited to the Pilgrim’s first harvest festival (what some hail as the precursor to today’s Thanksgiving, but most likely is not). The Wampanoag Tribe heard celebratory gunfire and thought the Pilgrim village was being attacked. Chief Massasoit and 90 of his warriors arrived, ready to fight alongside the pilgrims. Upon their arrival, they were then invited to join in the festivities.

Native Americans had their own harvest festival called the Green Corn Dance Ceremony. It was meant to celebrate a successful harvest and a renewal of life. Depending on the tribe, the ceremony lasted four to eight days.

Everyone knows the story of Squanto, the “Indian” who showed the pilgrims how to fish and grow food in order to survive. He was present with Chief Massasoit at that first festival with the Pilgrims. But what you might not know is that he was kidnapped multiple times. The first was by an English explorer named Captain Weymouth, who taught Squanto and the other entrapped Native Americans the English language in hopes of helping explorers. Explorer Thomas Hunt also kidnapped Squanto and sold him as a slave, but he was rescued by Spanish Friars.

The most-likely history behind Thanksgiving, rather than the harvest festival, was that the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a day of Thanksgiving for the slaughter of 700 Pequot men, women, and children, stating that the day would be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots. After every successful massacre they would celebrate for three days to thank God for their victory.

Abraham Lincoln had nothing to do with Thanksgiving, right? Wrong. Sara Josepha Hale, the author of Mary Had a Little Lamb, set out on an aggressive campaign to make Thanksgiving a holiday. Her efforts led Abraham Lincoln to declare it a national holiday in 1863. He set the date to correspond with the anchoring of the Mayflower.

Believe it or not, Thanksgiving dinner would become the first TV dinner. The Swanson Foods Company had 260 tons of turkey left over from the Thanksgiving season one year. It was stored in refrigerated train cars when, in 1953, Gerry Thomas, a salesman for Swanson, came up with the idea to package and sell the meals. He was inspired to do so from neatly-packed airplane meals.

In more recent times, during Thanksgiving, groups of Native Americans and their supporters gather at Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts for a National Day of Mourning. Also, there is an Un-Thanksgiving Day held on the Island of Alcatraz to commemorate the survival of Native Americans following the settlement of Europeans in the New World.

I personally love the Thanksgiving holiday. It is by far my favorite holiday because of all the food, family, and friends. The quantities of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie I consume is unnatural, but now that I know we are pretty much celebrating the genocide of Native Americans, it will never be quite the same for me.


  • Paul Matala
  • Paul is both a student of constitutional philosophy and lover of sports.

1 comment

  1. I take exception to the last statement in the article: “now that I know we are pretty much celebrating the genocide of Native Americans, it will never be quite the same for me.” No, we are not. No one that I know has ever celebrated it in that spirit, and I doubt that there is a single soul who does so in this day and age; so let us dispense with this effort to encumber us with a guilt-trip from the past, and continue to celebrate the day for what it IS in the present, not what it may have been in a long distant era. Halloween, Christmas, and others holidays have histories that, at one time, included wretched behavior as well, but it is absurd to suggest that their current form of celebration is a continuance of what it was in the past. Humanity at large has evolved away from the barbarism of its past, and we should not be made to feel guilt for what are essentially celebrations of joy in the present.

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