The Truth Behind Thanksgiving

The Truth Behind Thanksgiving

Patrice Schnierle, Reporter

History has always recognized Thanksgiving as a holiday of celebrating, giving, and sharing with loved ones. Growing up, we all learned that pilgrims and Native Americans shared a meal and rejoiced together as one. It was a story of friendship and kindness. It seemed as if every student in the U.S. was excited for the annual Thanksgiving skit, where students would dress as either a pilgrim or a Native American and act out the encounter, with food of course. However, as we all progressed in school, we began to learn more about history and the more we learned, the more we found out the gruesome history of America’s first feast. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, it begs the question of what really happened on that November day in 1621?

The story of the first feast has been told for hundreds and hundreds of years. It takes place in the now considered Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Wampanoag tribe once resided. This was a time of change and new life; the pilgrims hoped to find a better life and a new place to raise their children and practice their religion. With hope and excitement on the horizon, they set sail on a 66- day voyage to America. Approximately 112 Englanders were on the Mayflower, which slowly dwindled as disease, infection, and unsafe conditions picked at the pilgrims one by one. By the time the ship reached America, the settlers’ quality of life was low. Because of this, the pilgrims were more determined than ever to create a sustainable, fulfilling village. However, their first year was anything but fulfilling. 45 pilgrims were lost to the harsh winter and they had no experience with crops. Their livelihood was at stake if they didn’t act fast.  In 1620, the first attack on the pilgrims was executed by the Wampanoag; just a year before the first Thanksgiving. Contrary to popular belief, the relations between Native Americans and English settlers didn’t start in 1620. The two groups had been trading for hundreds of years with relatively no problems. That was until Europeans kidnapped Native Americans to sell as slaves. After this injustice, trading was at an all-time low. Many ships before the Mayflower and many people before the pilgrims tried to set up camp near Patuxet (now Plymouth), but had no luck due to Natives already inhabiting the land and acting hostile towards them. However, in 1616, tradesmen introduced the Native people to a disease brought from England, killing off an estimated 50 to 90 percent of the Wampanoag Indians. Creating unoccupied land, the Mayflower’s destination was the land of the slowly dying Wampanoag tribe.    

 As the pilgrims began to build their new world, it was radio silence from the Natives. That was until March of 1621, when Samoset, a native who spoke English, alerted the pilgrims of the history behind where they were building their new life. It belonged to the Wampanoag and was a burial ground for those that lost their lives to the disease in 1616. It was made known that the chief, Massasoit, was watching the pilgrims. The pilgrims made an offer to trade and the Natives gladly accepted. The chief of the Indians and the governor of the pilgrims created a peace treaty that agreed-upon cohesion. The Native Americans taught the pilgrims how to grow crops and by 1621, they were plentiful and fruitful. This is where the infamous first Thanksgiving story takes place. The Native Americans arrive at the feast with deer in hand. They feast together for three days, but what the history books don’t tell us is that Squanto, who was abducted by Englanders years before, was planning to overthrow Massasiot. Tensions arose and more and more settlers came to America, leaving the Natives to become the minority. By 1675, a war broke out and the settlers were killing any Natives who refused to convert to Christianity. The land quickly and violently became the New World with an overwhelming population of English settlers. The first Thanksgiving was a brief moment of harmony between the two groups, but harmony never lasts when greed and protection are overpowering.


Now almost 400 years later, we continue the tradition of Thanksgiving. Many Americans use it as a time of reflection and generosity. This holiday season is whatever you make it out to be; whether you spend time with family, give back to the community, or take a much-needed break. It’s important to be mindful of the true story behind Thanksgiving but to also create your own stories and traditions to pass on for years and generations to come.