Thanksgiving: The Real Story

Last week, chances are, you celebrated Thanksgiving. I bet you ten bucks you don’t know why, though. Forget what you’ve learned in school, there are two important, untold stories about the holiday. The first tells how the story you learned about in elementary school came to be. The second is the origin of the holiday itself.

When colonizers journeyed to the “New World,” they did not find vacant land. Multiple accounts by early sailors and mercenaries report the East Coast was heavily populated by Native peoples. Some settlers had peaceful relations with Native people, whereas others encountered or initiated violence. There were, and still are, hundreds of tribes with complex political, social and economic systems. Many settlers did not understand that these different tribes handed foreign relations differentl, and so took their first encounter with Native people as an indicator of how all would act.

Some settlers exploited Native people, shipping the young and able to Europe as slaves. This was devastating to the tribes not only because of the loss of people and family but because the settlers often brought deadly diseases. One of these slaves was named Tisquantum. He escaped slavery in Spain by fleeing to England where he worked and eventually returned to North America, where he discovered his people had been forced to move or killed by smallpox. In the 1620s Tisquantum found himself a translator for Massasoit, a political leader of the Wamanoag tribe. The Wamanoag’s territory expanded through much of what is today Massachusetts. Hoping to find political allies in the settlers, Massasoit used Tisqantum’s skills to negotiate a peace agreement.

What does this have to do with Thanksgiving, you may be asking? Hopefully it becomes more clear when you realize that Tisquantum is know by a different name in common U.S. history—Squanto. Tisquantem did indeed teach settlers in Plymouth how to cultivate corn (with methods he was thought to have learned in Europe) and a feast was shared, as our history books teach. The reasons for his action were not blind trust, however, but political strategy. He was a well-traveled, political man who was working to come to a peace agreement between the Wamanoag and the settlers. The feast was a result of that agreement. In the years that followed, however, the massacres of the Wamanoag, among other tribes, proved that the peace agreement was not kept.

We do not celebrate Thanksgiving on the day the Wamanoag and the setters sat down to a meal, however. The second story explains Thanksgiving’s date. Another East Coast tribe, the Pequot, were not interested in a peace agreement. Settlers continued to encroach on their land in modern-day Connecticut. The land conflict escalated and, eventually, the Pequot and settlers went to war. The Peqout war was one of the bloodiest fought in colonial history and tensions were high in the area. In 1637, during an unstable peace time, settlers found a dead man in a canoe, presumably killed by Indians. As a result, the settlers massacred 700 Pequot men, women and children during their Green Corn Dance, the tribe’s harvest celebration. The next day the governor of the colony declared, “A day of thanksgiving. Thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children.” This is the origin of the Thanksgiving we celebrated just last week.

Giving thanks is an important part of being human. Today, few of us celebrate Thanksgiving for the reasons the settlers did. Most people are unaware of its origins all together. As long as the majority of the U.S. remains oblivious to the history and laws and current issues concerning Native people, Thanksgiving will be an offensive holiday. We cannot claim to be honoring Native people, even with the best intentions, if we have not first asked how they would like to be honored, and second taken the time to learn our true histories.