Debunking Thanksgiving: Myths and Misgivings

Sara Paredes, Copy Editor

On every fourth Thursday of November, Americans across the country come together to tell themselves a myth-ridden version of the story of the first Thanksgiving. In doing so, this severely misrepresents early American colonization as amicable and bloodless. 

The true story of Thanksgiving goes as follows: In 1620, the English Pilgrims — seeking religious freedom in the Americas — arrived at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts aboard the Mayflower. 

The Pilgrims, extremely unprepared for the harsh winters ahead of them, saw their population halved within their first year in the Americas due to starvation and disease. They desperately sought out trade with the nearby Indians of the land, who kept a cautious distance from the foreigners.

However, in a miraculous turn of fate, the Wampanoag tribe agreed to trade with the Pilgrims. The Indian sachem, (or intertribal chief) Ousamequin, went as far as to sign a treaty of alliance with the Plymouth colony with his colleague, Squanto, as an English translator. 

Throughout the summer and spring, the Indians showed the colonizers how to cultivate corn, catch fish, extract sap from maple trees and avoid poisonous plants. As a result, the colony begins to thrive, and in the fall, the two groups sealed their alliance with the celebration of the first Thanksgiving. 

The myth tells that the unidentified Indians welcomed the colonists, taught them how to survive, came together for a feast and then disappeared from history. This falsity surrounding the Thanksgiving tale has always sugarcoated the cruelties of colonization for Native people. 

These colonists did not arrive at land available for taking; the Wampanoag civilizations — having already existed in the Americas for 12,000 years prior to the Mayflower’s arrival — were just as rich and treasured as those in Europe, filled with roads, villages, monuments and skilled craftspeople.

This is to say that the Pilgrims’ arrival did not mark the start of Native history and did not establish the first of European contact with the tribes of that land. 

Since the early 16th century, European fishermen and explorers had embarked on a series of bloody episodes with coastal Wampanoag tribes. Capturing them to be sold for profit into slavery, Europeans also trained many Wampanoag to become translators and interpreters. 

This violent past with the Europeans contributed to the reason that the Wampanoag reached out to the Pilgrims in the first place; not because they were simply ‘friendly Indians.’

From 1616-1609, a period known as the ‘Great Dying’ was a time in which a mysterious disease (that European explorers brought to Wampanoag coasts) raged through Wampanoag lands, wiping out entire villages and leaving only a fraction of the original population behind. This time period contributed to why Ousamequin saw it necessary that the Pilgrims became their allies, both as a military advantage and as a source of modern European weaponry. 

Squanto, the Wampanoag translator himself, stood as a product of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. After English explorers captured him and five other Native Americans in 1605, his time with the Europeans allowed him to learn English. Squanto then used his knowledge to help the rest of his tribe communicate with the Europeans after being sent back to the Americas in 1618.

What happens to the Wampanoags after the first Thanksgiving is not that of your typical elementary school feast. Over time, Wampanoag and English relationships worsened, bringing about more conflict between the two parties.

Following Ousamequin’s death in 1661, the Natives supposed union with the English only deteriorated, resulting in King Philip’s War (also known as the Great Narragansett War) from 1675 to 1676.  The war an attempt made by the Natives at ridding themselves from the English invasion on their lands had only been the start of a long history of wars and violence between the two groups. The English won the war and did so by killing thousands of Native people, enslaving them and celebrating the bloody victory with a day of giving thanks. 

Thanksgiving highlights a so-called alliance that bloomed between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribes of the land. However, reality proves that the holiday aims to legitimize the history behind the brutal, despicable truths of American colonization. If Americans continue to make Thanksgiving history only about the Pilgrims and the Indians, schools and families around the country should at least tell the story correctly.