The Real Story of Thanksgiving

When I was a schoolkid, we were taught all about Thanksgiving. Pretty much everything was wrong.

We were told the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Nope. They first landed at Cape Cod. They came to Plymouth about a month later, but they didn’t land on the Rock.

Then our teachers said the Pilgrims nearly starved that first winter. They didn’t. They weren’t exactly healthy, but they weren’t starving to death. They had plenty of seafood, and they also had all the food they stole from Native American winter stores.

Our teachers said the Indians (my school hadn’t caught up to terms like Native American or indigenous people yet) saved the Pilgrims that winter by feeding them. Well, if you consider theft to be a form of giving, then yes, I suppose the Wampanoag indirectly fed the Pilgrims. Truth is, they were hanging back through the winter, watching the white folks who’d moved into one of their abandoned villages. They’d already been hard hit by Europeans, who just a few years before had been busily enslaving them and giving them diseases that wiped out alarming numbers of them. They knew that white folks could be dangerous. But this batch had women and children with them, which made the Wampanoag think they were peaceful.

One thing is true: the Wampanoag did teach the Pilgrims how to plant and raise native crops, what berries and wild plants were worth gathering, and things like that.

We were told that the Pilgrims were soooo grateful to the Indians that they invited them to a big harvest feast that fall, and everybody sat down and enjoyed the bounty in peace and harmony together. Truth is, the Pilgrims didn’t even think to invite their Wampanoag neighbors, despite all the help they’d gotten from them. The Wampanoag showed up because the Pilgrims were shooting a lot, and they were worried their friends were under attack. Chief Massasoit showed up with 90 warriors, only to discover all the commotion was a group of men hunting grouse. The Pilgrims finally, belatedly, invited the Wampanoag to join them, but there wasn’t enough food, so they had to bring their own deer.

Image is a colorful painting showing Pilgrims and Wampanoag eating together. The Wampanaog are sitting on the ground, wearing feathered headdresses. One is being offered a plate of bread by a Pilgrim woman while a dog and child look on. The sea is visible in the background.
The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

We were left with the impression that all was wonderful between them, but it wasn’t. More and more Pilgrims kept coming, and encroaching on Native American lands. The diseases they brought wiped out major portions of the Native population. Puritans sought to convert the native peoples they encountered, and, when conversion failed, killed them as witches. They were happy to use Native skills, but kept them in servile positions. And the Europeans kept taking and taking, until they had taken nearly everything.

That’s why this isn’t a day of thanksgiving for many Native American people. Instead, it’s a day of mourning.

I was never taught history from the point of view of the people who first occupied this land. The genocides were lightly glossed. Manifest Destiny was emphasized. The history I learned was whitewashed and glorified, filled with feel-good myths to salve our consciences. Even sitting in a classroom beside Navajo and Hopi kids, we were given to understand that Indians were pretty much a thing of the past. Squanto’s people were a footnote. We weren’t told what happened to them after that initial year of peace. We weren’t told that descendants are still alive, and still remember, and have a very different perspective than our warm and fuzzy recollection.

So, while you feast today, spare some time to read about the Wampanoag side of the Thanksgiving story. Read the speech of Wamsutta James, which was too real for the delicate sensibilities of the colonizers celebrating the 350th anniversary of the great myth. We have a lot to be thankful for. Don’t forget to thank the people whose land this was, who so generously showed our Pilgrims how to make a living from it, and were robbed and murdered for their troubles.

This great land that has given us so much wealth and beauty belonged to others first. It’s time we stopped ignoring that.

Image shows a bronze statue of a man with two long braids and a single feather inhis hair. He's holding a peace pipe.
Statue of Massasoit, Sachem of the Wampanoag by Cyrus E. Dallin.
The Real Story of Thanksgiving

2 thoughts on “The Real Story of Thanksgiving

  1. 1

    Of course, Australians -e.g. me* – can’t talk either given what happened to our Indigenous Peoples too. We had our too often “forgotten”” -or willfully ignored – Frontier wars ( too.

    We cannot change our history -but we shouldn’t ignore its realities and what really happened and pretend it wasn’t that way either. Nor should we forget what we did to the First Peoples here in Australia or in the Americas and so many other places too. And, yes, we should try to do what we can to remedy these not-so-ancient ills and their on-going consequences and live uptotreaty obligations and respect Native Title and culture and learnt to look after Country more.

    * I live on what was once Kaurna and Peramangk land. Near Colebrook house where they housed many victims of our Stolen Generations** of Indigenous Australians incl. Ithink Lowitja O’Donohue***

    ** Hear Archie Roach’es song ‘Took the children away’ moving song here :

    Which sums this issue up powerfully.

    *** See :

    There’s a wonderful “fountain of tears” sculpture & mural marking the site today.

    Read more:

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