sThanksgiving, a holiday many Americans overlook in favor of Hanukkah and Christmas, is a day where family members and friends gather around the dinner table to feast on delectable dishes, from stuffed turkeys and cornbread to cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. While many of us drool at the thought of this feast later in the day, we often don’t think about the unique history behind the American holiday. The image of Thanksgiving that many of us had in our heads as children – the pilgrims’ feast with neighboring Indian tribes – is only a piece of this holiday’s history. While it is true that the pilgrims did eat with an Indian tribe, what many do not know is how that feast came to be and the following events that truly solidified Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
As many of us know, the Pilgrims were originally a group of 35 members from the Radical English Separatist Church, along with an assortment of other Englanders, who left England in search of religious freedom. In 1620, the Pilgrims found themselves on the shores of Cape Cod and then further traveled across Massachusetts Bay to an area more commonly known as Plymouth.
Throughout the first harsh winter, they mainly stayed on the Mayflower, with many falling ill from scurvy, exposure, and contagious diseases. Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers lived to see the spring. The survivors moved ashore where they were visited by an English-speaking Abenaki Indian. Days later, he eventually returned with Squanto, an Indian man from the nearby Pawtuxet tribe. He taught the pilgrims how to fish in the rivers, grow corn, extract maple sap, and avoid poisonous plants. This allowed the Pilgrims to secure enough resources to survive the harsh winters of Plymouth.
Furthermore, Squanto helped to negotiate a peace treaty between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag Nation – a confederacy of several Indian tribes, including the Patutext. In appreciation for Squanto’s help and the agreement of peace with the Wampanoag Nation, the pilgrims threw an autumn harvest celebration with the Wampanoag Indians.
This is the part where many kid-friendly retellings – the ones we learned in elementary school – come to a close. In reality, the 1621 feast is not the celebration that Thanksgiving is based on: there is a far darker and bloodier piece of the holiday’s history that many people are not aware of.
Even though Squanto helped negotiate a peace treaty between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag Nation, not all of the Indian tribes agreed with the peace treaty. One of these Nations was the Pequot who had a negative relationship with the Puritans – the very group of people that the Pilgrims left to come to Plymouth. The Puritans had previously seized their land and enslaved or killed young Indians. This underlying tension grew to a head and eventually manifested the Pequot War between the Pequot tribe and the Pilgrims – one of the bloodiest wars in Indian history.
The colonists raided village after village, massacring and enslaving many of the natives. After each successful raid, the colonists celebrated a day of “Thanksgiving” for a victory over the “heathen” Indians. There were so many massacres that George Washington eventually declared that there be only one Thanksgiving per year. Later, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it an official holiday in 1863.
Whether or not it is right to observe a holiday with so much bloodshed behind its history, Thanksgiving is still celebrated nationwide. Now, the fourth Thursday in November symbolizes an idea different from its original purpose. Thanksgiving continues to serve as a reminder to appreciate what one has and as a way to reunite family and friends.