Factual history behind Thanksgiving

The events surrounding the first Thanksgiving are the subject of much debate

AP Image
AP Image

SAN ANTONIO – We’re taught the story of the Plymouth Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians celebrating Thanksgiving together in the 1600s from a young age. It’s a story of thanks and love and togetherness, but it turns out, the story you might be familiar with is mired in myth more than truth.

So what really happened?

Sometime in the fall of 1621, the Plymouth Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians were said to have celebrated a successful harvest over a three-day period and this is considered the first Thanksgiving, according to Plimoth.org.

However, the version of events as to how this secular harvest festival took place is up for debate.

Edward Winslow, author of “Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims in Plymouth,” wrote that the Wampanoags allowed the Pilgrims to live on their land, aided them and taught them to grow crops but that the Wampanoags were not invited to the harvest celebration, USA Today reported.

Winslow states that the Wampanoags only showed up because they thought they were under attack after the Pilgrims fired guns into the air in celebration. “Massasoit, showed up at the settlement with about 90 warriors expecting war. Instead, they found a celebration and they decided to stay, with their hunters bringing in five deer as a contribution,” according to USA Today.

This version of the story assumes the first Thanksgiving was fraught with tension rather than celebration.

History.com reports that Squanto, a Patuxet Indian believed to be at the first Thanksgiving, acted as a translator for the pilgrims and negotiated a peace treaty between Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians that lasted 50 years. Squanto, also known as Tisquantum, had survived slavery in England and was able to understand and speak the English language.

Smithsonian Magazine seems to back this up, stating that the alliance “was tested by colonial land expansion, the spread of disease, and the exploitation of resources on Wampanoag land” which eventually led to increased tension and, ultimately, war. “Wampanoags today remember the Pilgrims’ entry to their homeland as a day of deep mourning, rather than a moment of giving thanks.”

For years, there were many “Thanksgiving” festivals until 1789 when then-President George Washington called for one official celebratory “day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” according to History.com.

Fast forward to 1827 and Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the popular nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” started campaigning for a national Thanksgiving holiday after reading a Pilgrim diary. She was said to be inspired by the Pilgrims’ harvest and celebration with the Native Americans.

Photo below: The Plimoth Plantation is a recreation of the original Plymouth Colony as it would have appeared in 1627, six years after the puritan colonists and their Indian neighbors observed the first Thanksgiving. (Photo by Michael Springer/Getty Images).

Eventually in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving Day would be a national holiday on the last Thursday in November.

Over the years, Thanksgiving began to evolve into a day of thanks and celebration and the start of the Christmas/holiday shopping season. Sales during this time of year boosted the American economy so much that in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday in November to extend the shopping season.

In 1941, Congress officially declared that the national holiday of Thanksgiving would be the fourth Thursday in the month of November.

Related: Why is Thanksgiving on a Thursday?


About the Author:

Mary Claire Patton has been a journalist with KSAT 12 since 2015. She has reported on several high-profile stories during her career at KSAT and specializes in trending news and things to do around Texas and San Antonio.