The story of Thanksgiving isn’t as happy as you think

Thanksgiving
Image:Wikimedia Commons

Thanksgiving…it’s that day of the year when we get together with family to give thanks for our blessings and eat all the foods we love (but never eat during the rest of the year for some reason). And if you celebrate Thanksgiving, you have no doubt heard the famous story that started it all: The tale of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans.

You see as the story of Thanksgiving goes, the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and sailed to the New World in search of religious freedom. One day, short on supplies and increasingly desperate, they finally sighted a place to establish a colony, landing near a large boulder they called Plymouth Rock.

But the Pilgrims had a problem. They didn’t know how to survive in this new environment. Luckily for them, a Native American named Squanto happened by one day and taking pity on these stiff collared Europeans, scratching away in the frozen dirt trying to plant the wrong crops and dropping dead of Tuberculosis, he decided to show them the necessary skills to survive.

Thanks to Squanto’s help, the Pilgrims survived until the first harvest. To celebrate, they invited Squanto and his tribe over to share a meal where they gave thanks for their good fortune and promised peace with the Native Americans forever.

Of course, as so often happens in history, the story of Thanksgiving we’ve all heard isn’t quite correct. For starters, the Pilgrims weren’t exactly the persecuted minority yearning for freedom of religion the story portrays them as. See, another name for the Pilgrims you might have heard is “the Puritans.” And they were called the Puritans because they wanted to “purify” the Church of England of elements they considered too Catholic. So far from being champions of free thought, they were basically a fringe group who were trying to push their beliefs on everyone else and when most people in England didn’t go for it, they decided to leave for a place they could start their own church.

Also, that rock they landed on may not have actually existed. Turns out big rocks aren’t great places to land ships.

As for Squanto, well he did help the early settlers survive. But if you’re wondering how he was able to speak English, it’s because he had just managed to escape from a life of slavery in Europe after some English explorers kidnapped him because they thought their corporate investors might like to see some real-life Indians.

By the time Squanto got back home, he found that his entire tribe, the Patuxet, had been wiped out by smallpox and other diseases introduced by Europeans. So presumably, they would not have been available for the Pilgrim’s impromptu feast.

As for Squanto himself, he died two years later from a fever.

Though whether or not Squanto and the other Patuxet were at the first Thanksgiving is sort of irrelevant, since there’s some dispute about whether it ever happened. The first official day of Thanksgiving declared in America was actually in 1637, when the governor of Massachusetts called for a day to celebrate the safe return of a party of colonists who had just gotten back from massacring a Native American village during the Seven Years War.

Doesn’t really sound like the sort of thing we would celebrate today, does it? So how then did the story of Thanksgiving become about Turkey and family instead of genocide?

Well, that also comes from a period of war. See, during the Civil War, a woman named Sarah Hale wrote to President Lincoln to suggest that an official day of thanksgiving might help heal the divisions among the American people. So Lincoln officially declared a national day of Thanksgiving to remind everyone how much they still had to be thankful for. And so the holiday was celebrated every fourth Tuesday in November until President Roosevelt thought it might help the economy to move it to the third Thursday of every month so that businesses would have more time between Thanksgiving and Christmas to see to their affairs. And so, that’s where the holiday has stayed ever since.

So as you gather with your friends and family this Thanksgiving, enjoy the spirit of the holiday because the idea of gratitude and friendship is great. But remember that there are a lot of people who see the day very differently. And maybe don’t dress up as Pilgrims and Indians. It’s a little culturally insensitive, not to mention historically inaccurate.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

This article originally appeared on our sister site, OutwardOn.com, as “The story of Thanksgiving isn’t what you think.” 

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