The True Origins of Thanksgiving


The sole attribution of Thanksgiving to the 1621 feast between the Wampanoag tribe and the Mayflower pilgrims is not completely accurate. In fact, that historical feast wasn’t even referred to as ‘Thanksgiving’ until the early nineteenth century, and Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln declared so in 1863. So where did Thanksgiving begin? And what was it originally meant to celebrate?

The feast between the Wampanoag tribe and the English settlers in 1621 does play a small role in the history of Thanksgiving. Most Americans learn the story of Native Americans and their leader Squanto celebrating the harvest after a tough year. In reality, by the time that feast came around, the Wampanoag population had reduced from about 8,000 to 1,500 due to European diseases introduced by the settlers. Squanto himself had been captured by Englishmen years before, sold into Spanish slavery, and returned home to see his entire native Patuxet tribe extinct from smallpox. Squanto worked as a translator for the settlers and the Wampanoag tribe, and he helped the tribe teach the settlers how to farm in the New England environment. In 1621 the two groups joined to celebrate the victories of a successful harvest. This harvest would be an ‘eye of the storm’ so to speak, as it was situated between devastating population losses for both parties.

The positive relationship between settlers and Native Americans was short-lived; the second Thanksgiving was actually a celebration of the massacres that followed the original feast in 1621. English citizens quickly got word of the good conditions in New England, and settlers began to outnumber Native Americans in this region. Broken treaties and disputed claims over land exploded during the Pequot War. One specific massacre during the war resulted in another “Day of Thanksgiving” in the Plymouth and Massachusetts colonies.

The holiday as we know it today is not a celebration of the massacre of Native Americans or the brief peace between English settlers and Native Americans. Most Americans don’t sit down on Thanksgiving to remember those two events, so what changed? Well, George Washington issued his Proclamation of General Thanksgiving, which served as a “one size fits all” push for gratefulness. Then, in 1863, to unify celebrations across the country Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as an official holiday. Later, in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November to make the holiday shopping season longer. Now, Thanksgiving is largely celebrated as a day for families to come together and give thanks for one another. Families across the country gather around the table to enjoy a large dinner and each other’s company.

Still, the extreme injustice endured by Native Americans is not forgotten. While some may recollect grade school plays about pilgrims and Native Americans, Thanksgiving is also the National Day of Mourning. Established in 1970 by the United American Indians of New England (UAINE), the National Day of Mourning is set on the same day of Thanksgiving every year. The UAINE and others across the country use the day to remember ancestors, protest the treatment of Native Americans by the US government, and connect with spiritual beliefs. So whether you’re relaxing this weekend after your Thanksgiving festivities or protesting in the streets of New England, be sure to take a moment to recognize Thanksgiving as it was, as it is, and as it becomes.

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