There is an enormous amount of misinformation about the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday as we celebrate it today — including when, how and why it became a tradition in the United States. Here’s the real story, which I originally published last year.
What Americans think they know about the history of Thanksgiving doesn’t always square with the truth.
For example, it is generally believed that in 1621, the Pilgrims invited Wampanoag Indians to a feast in Plymouth Colony to celebrate their first harvest, and a good time, with turkey and pumpkin pie, was had by all. Well, maybe, and maybe not.
The pilgrims are glorified and mythologized because the circumstances of the first English-speaking colony in Jamestown were frankly too ugly (for example, they turned to cannibalism to survive) to hold up as an effective national myth. The pilgrims did not find an empty land any more than Columbus “discovered” anything. Every inch of this land is Indian land. The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod — before they even made it to Plymouth — was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians’ winter provisions of corn and beans as they were able to carry. They were no better than any other group of Europeans when it came to their treatment of the Indigenous peoples here.
In 1614, a band of English explorers landed in the vicinity of Massachusetts Bay. When they returned home to England, they took with them Native slaves they had captured, and left smallpox behind. By the time the Puritan pilgrims sailed the Mayflower into southern Massachusetts Bay, entire nations of New England Natives were already extinct or greatly disseminated due to disease.
Today, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Native Americans will gather to mark a “National Day of Mourning,” as they have for more than 40 years. The protests began in 1970 by Wamsutta Frank James and are carried on by his son, Moonaum James.