The History of Thanksgiving

Every national holiday has history behind it. Nine times out of ten, we grow up learning each holiday’s significance in history class or the media; however, the stories we hear belong to “American” history, or how America has portrayed events to pose the country in a favorable light. There are always several sides to a story, and with the arrival of November, Thanksgiving is a holiday with multiple perspectives and meanings according to different cultures.


Thanksgiving is widely known as a peace holiday between the English pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans, enjoyed by a feast of food offered by both cultures. The peace between the colonists and the Wampanoags would not last long however, as less than a generation after the first Thanksgiving in 1621, the tranquility between the two sides would be destroyed in several fights for territorial control.


In 1620, the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts; they were English religious dissenters hoping to start a new life in the New World where they could freely practice their religion. Little did they know, their religious freedom would come at the cost of aboriginal liberty for centuries to come. The Native Americans who inhabited the area known as Plymouth Colony, were also unaware of the amount of change that the European colonists would cause to their beloved Turtle Island (what the European colonists called America). In fact, the Wampanoags opened their arms to the Europeans and taught the struggling colonists how to survive during the harsh winters and dry summers. The Indigenous taught the Colonizers how to grow crops, build shelters, and hunt for food. A strong relationship was built between the two groups, and Thanksgiving was celebrated the next year, a way of establishing harmony between the two groups for the years to come.


Another version of the American Thanksgiving is owed, “to the fact Massachusetts colony governor John Winthrop declared a day of thanksgiving to celebrate colonial soldiers who had just slaughtered 700 Pequot men, women, and children in what is now Mystic, Connecticut.” (Business Insider). Alternate interpretations of holidays like these are what fueled the internalized racism that destroyed empathy in the face of an increasingly popularized America.

However, the recount of the Pilgrim and Wampanoag Thanksgiving has also instilled White prejudice for the Native Americans and a disregard for natural human rights in the event’s following years. Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, was an ally to the colonists in negotiating a trade deal with them and supporting them against enemies like the French and other local tribes. While the harmony between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims at the time was welcome, it soon faded as more European settlers arrived in the colonies. Soon, the Native Americans realized that they were rapidly being pushed westwards, and even more so, over 90% of Native Americans died because of what the colonists called the “Indian fever,” when in reality it was the Europeans who brought disease into the colonies.


When Massasoit’s son, Metacomet (also known as King Philip by the English), inherited Wampanoag leadership, the once strong rapport between the Natives and colonists was slowly breaking. King Philip’s War proceeded to take place as numerous of Metacomet’s men were executed for the murder of interpreter, John Sassamon. A series of raids followed these executions, and the New England colonies declared war in 1675 against the Wampanoags. Many Native tribes were turned against the Wampanoags by the colonists in fear of getting murdered like the Wampanoag men, and subsequently, Metacomet was shot and killed in the final battle of the bloody war. Those who supported him were either executed or enslaved. And to show dominance, the colonists impaled Metacomet’s head on a pole and displayed it in Plymouth for 25 years, the son of the very man that had welcomed them into the New World with open arms.

Several other battles and wars would be fought in consequence to the Native population rapidly depleting, including an increase in Indigenous territorial struggles. In less than a few centuries, the Native American population of around 60 million reduced to 6 million, and little to no reparations have been made by the American government to attempt to fix the vast damage that has been done to the Aboriginal community.


Furthermore, there is a great amount of hypocrisy that exists in the current American system, where many are against immigration policies. The reality is that in America, -excluding Native Americans- every single person in the United States is either an immigrant or the relative of an immigrant.


Immigration built the country to what it is today, and the fact that the majority of Americans are living on stolen land should not be overshadowed by people who feel entitled to ownership of the US territory, when in truth, they were the ones who colonized it. This Thanksgiving, when you sit down for a meal with the people you love and say grace, pray for the safety of all people. It is of great importance to learn from the wrongdoings of the European colonists and cherish every culture, and to prioritize empathy in every situation.


- Prerna Kulkarni


Cover Photo Source: Yahoo News