On What We Coin “The First Thanksgiving”

By Jordan Gerdes

It’s the fourth week in November. We all know what that means. In a year that has been rocked with a pandemic, a new civil rights movement, and open fascism, it’s important that we continue to dispel the myths that have plagued our history as an inherently exceptional and perfect nation. Let’s talk about the event we call “the first thanksgiving”.

In 1620, a group of separatists left England in search of a new place to live, calling themselves Puritans. They had previously tried to settle in Denmark, but left, fearing loss of their cultural identity. They arrived on the eastern coast of Massachusetts, and not having knowledge of how to fish or the area, resorted to robbing graves and buried food storages of the Wampanoag people.

This was not the first contact episode we like to think it was, as the Wampanoag people had over a century of contact with white colonizers. Slave raiders had been in the region for years.

The Wampanoag people spoke English, some had been sold into slavery in Europe and made it back, and even knew the organizers who set up the Puritan venture. The slavers brought diseases unknown to the indigenous populations, they inadvertently killed off the village the Puritans now sheltered at due to epidemic.

The Puritans pushed on to Plymouth, after being chased off by indigenous tribes incensed at their grave robbing and desecration of the lost village. The Puritans knew nothing about land cultivation, hunting, fishing, etc and began to starve. They lost over 45 of the 102 original colonizers that first winter alone.

A Wampanoag man, Samoset arrived to introduce his sachem (chief), Massasoit. They were extremely wary of the white settlers, as their history of interactions were many and bloody.

After a series of discussions, Massasoit and William Bradford settled on a mutual defense agreement, establishing a peace treaty. They were introduced to Tisquantum, known as Squanto, who helped teach the Puritans how to fish, plant crops, and hunt the area.

As they harvested, Bradford decided to hold a three day celebration for the successful harvest. In his journals, he writes that they ate and practiced military drills.

The gunfire drew the Wampanoag people, who came to investigate. There is no record of them being invited to the festival. In reality, the arrival of a group of warriors who outnumbered the puritans likely led Bradford to ask them to stay and feast. This is the event we coin “the first thanksgiving”, however, they would not have called it thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was a Puritan idea of fasting and self reflection, not feasting and celebration.

In fact, it wasn’t until the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln established the holiday, seeking to effectively bring a fractured nation together under what Plato would refer to as a “noble lie.” The ending of the Indian Wars sought to tie the indigenous to this national myth of Thanksgiving, peace, and partnership.

The realities are that this harvest celebration was a brief peace between two people. It was nothing more and it did not last long.

What followed was a long and bloody history of colonizers effectively decimating the indigenous tribes in the area and the greater north east. Aggressive actions to secure capitalist ventures in the region led to massacres and battles, from King Phillips War to the Pequot Wars.

I shared this with my students last week and one commented that they “didn’t like this version of the thanksgiving story.” It’s incredible important to understand this isn’t a story. This is factual history, this is what happened. Stories are nice, but history is reality.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that is steeped in false histories, myth making and erasure. It’s important that we remember that our survival in this country is due entirely to indigenous efforts, and they were repaid with blood and eradication.

For more references:

Educator. Author.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store