The Celebration of Thanksgiving

Looking back on the history of Thanksgiving on its 400th Anniversary and seeing how it has changed over time.

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday to ponder. It represents an ideal of love and gratitude, a time for family and friends to gather around a table to eat and enjoy their time together. It is unique in that only a few countries celebrate this day; but truly it is a day that celebrates family and food- something that makes sense as it is usually celebrated during the time of the harvest(October in Canada and November in the US). That ideal is at the center of the celebrations and we rarely look back on the background or the history of the event itself. Even then, when we do, images of Native Americans and Pilgrims sitting together and eating comes to mind for a brief moment. That’s usually it, aside from personal memories of past Thanksgiving celebrations. Such a strange thing for a holiday that has existed for over 400 years(this year being the 400th anniversary). 

Some, when speaking of the history of Thanksgiving, paint a story of two cultures coming together in peace and unity while others speak of it as a tipping point of sorts that will soon bring the suffering of so many Native Americans with it. It’s a tense topic, to be sure; and may even be a large reason why people don’t often mention the history of the holiday and have made it more about families and ideas like gratitude and love. But, history is not meant to be ignored or brushed aside just because it is difficult to talk about or swallow. We can’t cover it like a bad wound and hope that it will heal or go away on its own- instead we must expose the true reality and examine the wound to find healing. History is there for us to understand and learn from; to learn about the past of humankind no matter how good or bad it may be.

The first celebration of Thanksgiving took place in nowadays Massachusetts, a hotspot of activity in American history. This is where the second permanent English settlement, Plymouth, began in 1620. It’s the Pilgrim story American children are often told- of the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock. But it is also a story of struggle and survival- for just like the Jamestown Colony far to the south, life was hard in the beginning for the newly arrived Pilgrims. They found themselves on a new continent and landscape different from their homeland. What set this settlement apart from the beginnings of Jamestown, though, was the fact that there were women and children included as well. Plymouth was a colony of families, seeking a new life after years of trouble in England; religious, financial, or otherwise. Unfortunately, they arrived in September, not able to plant or grow anything or truly build homes what with autumn already beginning and winter on the horizon. Disease was rampant and by the time spring came around, only half of the pilgrims were still alive(from an already small number of 102 people). Yet, they carried on despite the losses and began to build their homes in Spring of 1621, finally leaving their ships. Yet, in this time, a hand of friendship was extended as the Pawtuxet tribe came to greet the new arrivals, some already able to speak English. From this meeting, an alliance was also created between the Wampanoag tribe nearby that would last in peace for decades to come. 

It was these Native Americans that taught the Pilgrims how to farm and grow food and, six months later in November 1621, they harvested this food. With gratitude in their hearts, the Governor of Plymouth(William Bradford) invited their Native American allies over to celebrate the bounty they had received due to the kindness of the Native Americans, a celebration that lasted for 3 days. It’s a beautiful show of friendship and hospitality, of gratitude and true ‘Thanksgiving’. Of course, back then these Pilgrims and Native Americans did not know that they had started a holiday celebration that would still be enjoyed 400 years later to today, but no doubt the Pilgrims were filled with joy that this fall was so different from the one a year before and were hopeful for what would come this next year. The Native Americans had expanded their political power to include a new group that they could work with and things were going well. It is a bright spot in the tale of Native American and Colonial American history, especially considering what all comes next. But, I do not think that future events disclude the peace of this first Thanksgiving. Rather, such future events bring a glimmer of sadness and melancholy to the first Thanksgiving as this was a show of what history could have been if peace and understanding had continued and tensions and wars had not broken out between the Colonists and the Native Americans.

Of course, there already were tensions between Native Americans and Europeans before this first Thanksgiving, but those were occurring more in Virginia and the Caribbean, far from this first celebration’s borders. For instance, the story of ‘Pocahontas’ takes place during the first Anglo-Powhatan War around Jamestown. Tensions had ebbed and flowed between the Jamestown Colonists and the Powhatan Confederacy natives since Jamestown’s beginning in 1606, oftentimes to near extinction for either side. It was all over the push for land and resources, a political situation turned violent oftentimes. But, in the Plymouth Area where Thanksgiving began, peace would continue between the Native Americans and the Colonists as their alliances held strong. But, happiness and health was not always connected with peace. For, as science has shown, when you have two groups separated from one another for a time, they will in the end be genetically different. The Native Americans had been mostly alone on the continent for centuries upon centuries and had developed different immune systems. So, when new people arrived, they came in contact with something their immune systems were weak to and often could not handle. 

In Modern times with our advanced understanding of disease, we look at this incredible spread of disease and shudder. Oftentimes we may even think it was purposefully done. But, this was 200 years before Louis Pasteur proved the reality of disease and germs. Seriously, every time I look up medical practices of the 1600s I cringe from just how little they understood what was going on and how they could help(oftentimes making it even worse in their treatment). So, due to their lack of understanding of science, diseases were able to spread at a rapid pace to vulnerable individuals(I do not doubt that there were some superstitious Colonists who handed over blankets that had belonged to a sick person in the hopes that some ‘energy’ would wipe off, but I think it was unintentional for the most part). There had been outbreaks before when Europeans had briefly come in contact with Native Americans(such as the epidemics within Maine that brought the Passamaquoddy Native Americans within Maine from 20,000 to 4,000 after much contact with English and French explorers). In Massachusetts in particular, there was the 1616 plague that killed around 90% of the Native Americans within the area, despite the still existing peace and alliances. Outbreaks happened often over time, so Colonists saw this as the hand of God(many even praising it) as, even with their alliance, many Colonists saw the Native Americans as heathens and lesser beings. Others worried over the rampant death of their allies and the terrible scenes they saw occurring.

Peace did not last long and the great turning point in New England was the King Philip’s War(the Great Narragansett War to Native Americans) from 1675 to 1676. In terms of population and death, this was one of the bloodiest wars in American history. It was due to the death of Colonist John Sassamon and three native warriors that peace was effectively ended in New England between the Native Americans and Colonists(though some like the Mohawks were on the English side due to politics and alliances). The Wampanoag tribe in particular was practically wiped out from all the disease outbreaks and the war. The Colonists won this war and, in the process, claimed even more land that was once in the hands of Native Americans. It was the true start and legacy of the decimation of Native Americans throughout New England and the rest of the country as the Colonists expanded their borders and boundaries even more and the United States of America began to form.

With this history in mind, I would say that that first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621 was a bright spot and a hopeful beginning between New England Colonists and Native Americans, but that in the end the peace only lasted for a few decades before war and violence destroyed it. This destruction and the break between Native Americans and Colonists led to this holiday becoming a Colonist centered holiday, no Native Americans in sight. It became the modern day ideal of a celebration of family, food, and gratitude occurring at the end of the harvest season, completely disconnected from the historical story that created it. As for the history of the holiday itself, Thanksgiving was more of a localized holiday to be celebrated, until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln made it an official national holiday, bringing the celebration to the south where it had not existed before. Makes sense considering that the American Civil War was going on and families had been effectively torn apart, so why not emphasize a distinctly American holiday that is centered on family, gratitude, and unity? With the holiday now expanded country-wide, it makes sense that the overarching story was disconnected from its history as no ‘native and pilgrim thanksgiving’ story existed in the South, Midwest, and West of the US. And so, that is the holiday ideal that has been passed down to us, celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November, only a faint echo of the true history remaining.