The story of the first Thanksgiving is as much a part of the American mythos as that of George Washington and the cherry tree. These two stories are examples of America’s own creation mythology–embellishments of historical events meant to tell a tidy moral. However, while much of the story of the first Thanksgiving is an exaggeration, there is more than a grain of truth to it. In order to fully understand the evolution of the holiday it is helpful to know both the fact and the fiction.
According to legend, the settlers of Plymouth Colony were cold and hungry as winter approached in the year 1621. Unable to farm, they began to fear that their new frontier would soon become their grave–a silent monument to their bold pilgrimage into the unknown wilds of North America. It was at this dark hour, amid the depths of despair, that peaceful Wampanoag Indians arrived and brought the starved and frost bitten settlers an elaborate meal consisting of wild turkey, yams, and a strange vegetable called maize. The colony was saved and the grateful settlers immediately welcomed the Wampanoag into their community. This is, of coarse, the cut and paste version of the story. The real history of this day is far more interesting.
In September of 1620, eighty-seven members of the English Separatist Church (rebellious Puritans who formed their own church) left Plymouth, England aboard the Mayflower and set sail for North America. Arriving in late December, they established a small colony on the southeastern coast of present day Massachusetts–in a stroke of originality, they decided to name their new home the Plymouth Colony. After constructing suitable dwellings and enduring their first winter, the forty-four surviving settlers considered themselves to be a self-governing community. However, the inhabitants of this new settlement still faced an uncertain future, compounded with a staggering inability to cultivate enough crops to sustain themselves. Enter Squanto and the Wampanoag.
Squanto (whose real name was Tisquantum) was of the Pawtuxet band of the Wampanoag Indians and had once been enslaved by an English captain named Thomas Hunt. Hunt took his captive to London, where he learned English. Returning to North American in 1619, Squanto served as interpreter for the various Wampanoag communities in their dealings with the settlers of Plymouth Colony. He was the sole interpreter for the Wampanoag chief Massasoit, who signed a treaty of peace and friendship with the colony in 1621. It was with Massasoit’s permission, that Squanto was able to assist the colony in its drive to produce viable crops. Members of the Wampanoag community demonstrated farming techniques and taught the settlers how to produce corn and how to fish in the waters along the coast of Massachusetts. After their first successful harvest in the autumn of 1621, the settlers were so grateful that Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of prayer and thanks.
Squanto continued as interpreter for the settlers until his death from smallpox in 1622. Massasoit maintained the peace between the Wampanoag and Plymouth Colony despite the often provocative actions of the colonial administration until his death in 1660. Peace with the colony eventually collapsed as Massasoit’s son, Metacom (whom the colonists called King Phillip, after the Macedonian ruler) began to resent colonial encroachment on the land occupied by his people. In what became known as King Phillip’s War, the Wampanoag were almost destroyed. To this day, there are only five bands of the Wampanoag nation remaining–only one of which is recognized by the government of the United States. Although a day prayer and thanks has been proclaimed numerous times throughout American history, it was not until 1863 that such a day was made an annual event. It was not until 1941, that U.S. Congress officially declared Thanksgiving Day to be the forth Thursday in November.
Mark C Carnes, U.S. History. (New York: MacMillan Library Reference, 1996).
Peter Nabokov, Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations From Prophecy to Present. (New York: Penguin Book, 1978).
Carl Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2000).
Carl Waldman, Encyclopedia of Native Tribes. (New York: Checkmark Books).