Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the United States, and Thanksgiving 2021 occurs on Thursday, November 25. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.
Thanksgiving is a time for celebration, good food, and giving thanks. So as we gather with family, crush unworldly amounts of stuffing, and enjoy a football game in the crisp autumn air, let’s also acknowledge the real history of the holiday and practice gratitude by giving back.
Four hundred years later, the so-called first Thanksgiving is undergoing a reassessment. Museums and historic sites in Plymouth and around the country are telling a more nuanced story about the origins of the holiday—one that goes far beyond the lasting legend of smiling Pilgrims and Wampanoag people happily enjoying a big meal together.
“It wasn’t even called Thanksgiving back then,” says Darius Coombs, cultural and outreach coordinator for the Cape Cod–based Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “The Pilgrims had a large harvest that first year. So they have a feast. [Wampanoag leader Massasoit, or Ousamequin] shows up with about 90 of his men, and they bring five deer with them. They never ever mention turkey at that feast.”
In 1620, a small group of English separatists packed up and headed for the New World in search of religious freedom. Calling themselves “Saints” (the term “Pilgrims” wouldn’t be used to describe the settlers for another 200 years), they headed to what is now Delaware but landed in Plymouth in December after being blown off course by storms. The colonists first encountered the peaceful yet cautious Wampanoag the following spring.
At the time, the two disparate groups were attempting to find common ground. In April 1621, both had signed a treaty pledging to come to the aid of the other in case of attack. After losing nearly half of their settlers to sickness during their first winter in America, the English were teetering on extinction. The Wampanoag weren’t far from that reality themselves: Between 1616 and 1619, diseases introduced by European colonizers killed up to 90 percent of New England’s Native population in an epidemic now referred to as the Great Dying. Greatly weakened, the tribe also needed help fending off incursions from the Narragansett, a rival Native group.
There’s no evidence that the Wampanoag people were even invited in the first place. An account from the time said 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe were present and makes no mention of invitations. Some experts believe that these 90 men were an army, sent by Wampanoag leader Ousamequin at the sound of gunshots (which turned out to be a part of the celebration).
In their first encounter with the Wampanoag people, the Pilgrims stole from the tribe’s winter provisions — it wasn’t until later that Ousamequin formed an alliance between the groups. Even then, the alliance really only existed because the Wampanoag people were ravaged by diseases brought by European colonizers in the years prior. It was less about intercultural harmony and more about survival (made necessary by the actions of these settlers).
That first harvest was followed by deadly conflicts between colonizers and Native people, including (but definitely not limited to) the Wampanoags. The Europeans repaid their Native allies by seizing Native land and imprisoning, enslaving, and executing Native people.
Following “Thanksgiving” celebrations by European settlers often marked brutal victories over Native people, like the Pequot Massacre of 1636 or the beheading of Wampanoag leader Metacom in 1676.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine; DoSomething