The Real Truth behind Thanksgiving

By: Jazlyn Moock

For generations, Thanksgiving has been seen as a peaceful holiday where unity and appreciation are most valued, where people come together to celebrate family, friendship, and love. Though, if any hostility does occur during this widely known amicable time, trivial political arguments around the dinner table are the usual culprit. Most Americans can recall those innocent childhood memories of coloring turkeys, baking pumpkin pie, and making paper pilgrim hats, yet the truth behind thanksgiving is far from innocent, far from peaceful, and far from loving. In fact, this annual festivity has ties to one of the darkest moments in American history, wretched from war, murder, and rampant racism that eco to this very day. 

The story of the heroic, pioneering pilgrims and obedient Natives bonding over a friendly meal of turkey and cranberry sauce might as well exist in a world of fairies and dragons because it could not be more falsified. Reenacted over and over in classrooms, plays, and movies, the tale of the first Thanksgiving cements mass deception, strengthens stereotypes, and reinforces a bright, positive image of colonialism–a known practice of exploitation and abuse of indigenous peoples and their culture. For Plymouth colonists, this mistreatment was no different and not even the centuries of misconceptions of their brave and gracious nature could mask the utter horrors committed against the Wampanoag tribe and the rest of the Native American people. 

Part of the reason the Thanksgiving story is so inaccurate is because it paints this story of the Natives’ agreement with the actions of the colonizers, justifying their later acts of unjust land grabs and conquering of Native territory. In reality, the only reason the Wampanoags agreed to help the pilgrims, as history refers to them, is due to the fact the chief, Ousamequin, believed a temporary alliance would protect them against their tribal rivals, the Narragansetts. However, protection for their Native neighbors proved to be the last priority on the colonists’ minds. 

As the Plymouth colony’s numbers and influence grew, their desire for more land also increased. While the unrelenting hunger for expansion seems contradictory to the pure, asylum seeker narrative the nation has painted, in actuality, the pilgrims strived for much more than “religious freedom.” Before venturing to the Americas, they had found religious freedom in Holland, where they resided–undisturbed–for a decade. However, they decided to leave the Netherlands due to the fact that the society was too religiously and culturally diverse according to their standards; they were afraid their children would stop speaking English and become “tainted” from the Dutch, Protestant atmosphere. In their minds, America could provide them with the “freedom” to build a purely English, purely Seperatist theocracy that had unlimited resources and space to expand their idea of a perfect society. The only problem was, however, that the Wampanoags were not willing to surrender the sacred grounds that they had called home for 12,000 years. The bloodiest war per capita in U.S. history was the result, King Philip’s War. Sparked from land disputes, this devastating conflict led to the death of over 3,000 Native Americans, who were also captured and sold into slavery–a common practice of English colonizers. 

Tisquantum, or Squanto, widely known in the Thanksgiving story for serving as an interpreter between the Plymouth settlers and Natives, also experienced a life more dark and unfortunate than the fantastical, friendly version retold in classrooms. The true reason behind why Tisquantum could communicate with the pilgrims is because he himself was captured by a lieutenant for Captain John Smith and sold into slavery in 1614. He had learned English while enslaved in Europe for several years; though, he escaped and finally returned to New England in 1619. Woefully when doing so, he discovered his entire Patuxet tribe dead from smallpox. 

Although Squanto aided colonists in their autumn feast in 1621, “Thanksgiving Day” was not proclaimed until 1637 when Massachusetts governor John Winthrop declared a day of thanks to celebrate the massacre of 700 Native men, women, and children–during their Pequot tradition of the Green Corn Dance. For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of this “bloody victory.” According to the Penobscot Nation Cultural and Historic Preservation Project, the settlers, after their victory, launched an “all-out genocide” against the remaining Native people, offering 20 shillings for every “redskin”–or Native American scalp–and 40 shillings for every prisoner who could be sold into slavery, including men, women, and children. These cruelties against the Native population repeated over and over, pervading across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of the American indigiounous tribes had been exterminated.    

As time went on the tale of Thanksgiving shifted to have a more heartfelt sentiment, masking the sinister foundations of colonialism and the country as a whole. With every story of happy feasts and unity, the true Native American experience is dismissed; with every teaching of the brave, Mayflower colonists in search of peace, the reality of their destruction is ignored; with every fall season, the culture and identity of the Wampanoag people is reduced to craft-store feather hats.  

The simplified, sensationalized retelling of clear-cut imperialist greed and ethinic cleansing neglects the generations of pain and oppression–additionally neglecting the Native’s immense perseverance. Despite attempts to erase them and dilute their identity to make the history of America more palatable, they have survived, adapted, and still exist to this day. The five million natives currently living in the U.S. are a testament to this insurmountable strength and endurance–a truth that should always be remembered on the day that has tried to eradicate it for centuries. 

So when carving the turkey and making the precious pumpkin pie, never forget their history, marked with genocide–and when giving thanks to family and friends, never forget the family and friends who’s lives were lost, and remain, on “Thanksgiving Day.”     

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