Giving Thanks

Before you grab that turkey leg, learn how the Pilgrims and the Native Americans celebrated the first Thanksgiving together

Well after autumn settles in across the US, Americans of almost all stripes anticipate the Thanksgiving holiday with joy. Families and friends come together, food is prepared in gluttonous amounts, and football – the American version – is watched and played with extra oomph.

It holds a special place in American culture for its history and its role as herald of the holiday season. Thanksgiving is not a unique holiday, however. It’s an incarnation of harvest festivals that are celebrated around the globe. What sets it apart from others, however, is the unique history associated with it. The story most children learn about is the familiar landing at Plymouth Rock by the Pilgrims in 1620 and how they befriended the native Americans and shared the first Thanksgiving in 1621, replete with all manner of foodstuffs indigenous to their new home, including the famous wild turkeys.


However, the true history behind this most beloved holiday diverges from the official story. According to Geoffrey Deetz, whose father, James Deetz, was a Harvard professor and the foremost expert on Thanksgiving, the holiday started out as more of a mercy mission. The pilgrims were not prepared for the harsh winters of what is now New England. They nearly starved because they couldn’t farm in their new environment, were terrible hunters, and the muskets they brought with them were all but useless. “Wild turkeys were very agile and they flew, it would have been impossible to hit them with a musket,” Geoffrey explains.

The pilgrims had to scrape by on small game like squirrels and rabbits, or fish and eels, things simple enough for a child to catch by scooping them up or trapping them. Thanks to nearby tribes, like the Narragansett who brought them corn, grains, meats, and other food, they survived though that first winter.

But adjustment to new neighbors wasn’t always so easy. The pilgrims rarely took baths or washed their clothes. Furthermore, the settlers kept their livestock alongside them in their homes for fear of losing them. The reeking odor that resulted was not only offensive to the natives, but it often drove the game out of the area, which forced the native people to have to move right along with it. Their religious fervor was also an impediment on occasion.


“Being puritans, the pilgrims often saw the devil in things they found strange,” Geoffrey says. “When their new neighbors brought them lobster, they shunned it for the red color, believing it was the work of Satan.” Despite an amicable beginning, the relationship between the colonials and the natives gradually got worse over the next decade as the Europeans expanded farther and farther into native territories until fighting broke out. To this day the Native Americans view Thanksgiving with sadness, mourning the nation they lost.

The story of Thanksgiving lived on, albeit obscurely, through the ensuing centuries in written records. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th that Thanksgiving evolved into what we know today. Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, etc., became the ‘traditional’ feast. Then it was packaged, polished, and sold to the masses as a great American holiday. “Thanksgiving is a great holiday and well worth celebrating,” exclaims Geoffrey. “We just need to remember that most American history was written by the wealthy, privileged European men, and this means we have to alter our perspective.”


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