We are taught as children that the First Thanksgiving was a friendly gather of “Pilgrims” and “Indians” joining up to celebrate a bountiful harvest. Visions of tall black hats, shiny golden buckles, feathery headdresses, turkey and pumpkin pie are placed politely in our heads from traditional Thanksgiving stories. These are cheerful notions, however, most of what we think we know of the “the first” Thanksgiving is far from reality.
Firstly, the descriptor, ‘Pilgrim’ wasn’t coined until nearly a century after the first colonists appeared at the Massachusetts bay. At the time of the supposed first Thanksgiving, the European settlers referred to themselves as Saints, Puritans or Separatists. As far as an “Indian” sporting his loin cloth at this gathering… well, think about it. This was the New England area in November. Probably not the right dress code. The “Indians” were actually an indigenous race of people from that area, called the Wampanoag.
The date we associate with the first Thanksgiving is 1621 based on a handwritten letter from European colonist Edward Winslow, “Our harvest being gotten in…so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors”. Kathleen Curtin, Plimoth Plantation Historian points out “We have only one documented harvest feast that occurred between the cultures…it’s fascinating that it is just that one source, one sentence in one letter.”
Robyn Gioia and Michael Gannon of the University of Florida attest that the earliest Thanksgiving in this country was celebrated by the Spanish in 1565 in what is now St. Augustine, FL.
Texans claim the first Thanksgiving actually took place in San Elizario, near El Paso, in 1598. According to this account, Spanish explorer Juan de Onate held a Thanksgiving feast after leading hundreds of settlers on a 350 mile trek across the desert to the safety of the Rio Grande.
In 1789 George Washington issued a proclamation of Thanksgiving. In 1798, President John Adams designated “a time for fervent thanksgiving.” James Madison also allowed significant days of Thanksgiving during his presidency. After that, Thanksgiving was not observed again for another 60 years. Then in 1863 Abraham Lincoln named Thanksgiving an annual holiday. Though it wasn’t until 1941 that Franklin D. Roosevelt officially designated the 4th Thursday in November for this observance.
After that brief history lesson, if we’re going to stick to the old America favorite, let’s examine a few more facts.
No pumpkin pies, no cranberry sauce and Europeans still thought potatoes to be poisonous. According to historical accounts of the Wampanoag people, as well as from settler’s journal entries, the local native people provided deer for the settler’s harvest gathering. They also dined on fish, rabbit and corn varieties that the Wampanoag taught the colonists to grow. If there was a turkey on that table, it would’ve been a native wild turkey – much smaller than today’s commercially grown fowl.
Keep in mind that some Europeans had already forced native people into slavery by this time and considered the Wampanoag “soulless heathens”. Also these settlers, on their arrival had written accounts of stealing seed corn and robbing the graves of the Wampanoag people. This “First Thanksgiving” was a cautious gathering at best.
For many descendants of indigenous people in the United States, Thanksgiving is a time of mourning, (referred to as the National Day of Mourning). The day is marked by reflecting on their lost heritage, and remembering how their ancestor’s gift of generosity to the settlers was returned with the theft of their seed corn, desecration of their loved one’s graves and eventually the entire loss of their home land.
Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin, in a co-written article, “Deconstructing the Myths of The First Thanksgiving” ask “Is it because as Americans we have a deep need to believe that the soil we live on and the country on which it is based was founded on integrity and cooperation? As good people, can we be strong enough to learn the truths of our collective past? Can we learn from our mistakes? This would be our hope.”
Most all primitive cultures, including Indigenous Americans, gathered in periodic feasts of thanksgiving to honor the spirits of the Earth for life’s blessings. These were tradition well before recorded history. The truth is that people have been coming together to give thanks for as long as humans have existed.
Thanksgiving, although a noble celebration, is based upon a “tidied-up” history. These myths, however, do provide an important glimpse of our cultural heritage. Learning, and teaching, the true history of this holiday can make the celebration more meaningful as we, as a people, continue to nurture our thankfulness – as well as our tolerance of other cultures.
History and tradition are always interesting, but often facts in both cases are elusive. I suppose it doesn’t matter really where Thanksgiving came from – Plymouth Plantation, St. Augustine, El Paso or ancient pagan rituals. We can certainly all agree on what the term “thanksgiving” means.
So this season, let’s extend this holiday of Thanksgiving beyond one meal, a parade and a football game. Let’s truly give thanks to the Earth from which we all obtain life, to the wild things we share it with and always to all races & cultures of humans who think and live and love all the same.
For more detailed information on the history of Thanksgiving, visit the links below:
The First Thanksgiving
American History Facts & Myths
National Day of Mourning
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