In 2010, I ate Thanksgiving dinner at Plymouth, the place where the original “Thanksgiving” took place in 1621. A living history museum at this site features costumed Pilgrims explaining to tourists how they ate, slept, and farmed. Recently, the museum renamed itself “Plimoth Patuxet” to recognize both the colonial settlement the English Pilgrims founded in 1820 and the name given to this place by the Wampanoag nation, the “People of the First Light” who have lived there for 12,000 years.
Our dinner had little in common with the original Thanksgiving meal. We ate turkey, bread, stuffing, and pie. In 1621, the attendees likely ate wild turkey, eels, and shellfish, as well as a Wampanoag dish called nasaump (boiled cornmeal with meat and vegetables). The pilgrims of the first Thanksgiving, so the story goes, gathered to express gratitude for the fact that they had made it through their first year in Massachusetts. Local Native Americans (members of the Wampanoag tribe) were invited to the feast because they had helped the colonists through that first winter. Our group, American history and culture scholars working in New England had been invited to experience this bit of history ourselves.
The story of Thanksgiving is the most widely taught story of Native America in schools. That story has remained roughly the same for over a century, though, in recent years, the practice of dressing as “Pilgrims” and “Indians” has thankfully diminished. The message we receive is one of multicultural friendship. Two cultures, two peoples, sitting down together in peace. A new nation is imagined as a bountiful meal, the reward of hard work, faith, perseverance, and cooperation.
What actually happened in Plimoth/Patuxet 400 years ago is less inspiring and more complicated. After a hard year in which half of the Pilgrim settlers died, the Plymouth colonists held a “Rejoicing,” a holiday of eating, drinking, gun shooting, races, and strength contests. (A Thanksgiving for the Pilgrims was a period of prayer and fasting.) The Wampanoags came, but they were not invited. The Wampanoag leader Ousamequin brought about 90 men with him to the colonists’ settlement when they heard gunfire. The Wampanoags had signed a mutual defense pact with the Pilgrims; members of the tribe showed up to defend the Pilgrims, who they assumed were under attack. As the groups came together, a series of misunderstandings ensued, but the groups eventually settled into an uneasy peace. The Wampanoag visitors, close in number to the entire Pilgrim settlement, stayed until the party was over.
Why has a particular version of this story endured? The short answer is the U.S. Civil War. In the 1860s the famous magazine editor and cultural influencer Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for the adoption of Thanksgiving as a holiday. Autumn harvest festivals could be combined with a mythic story of Wampanoag and Pilgrim harmony. In this story, there were no Northerners, no Southerners. No slavery is visible in this early history of America. It was a convenient fiction at a moment when a distracting alternative image was needed. President Abraham Lincoln made the holiday official in 1863.
To honor Native American Heritage Month, we might do well to locate Thanksgiving within Wampanoag history, rather than continue to tell a story in which the Wampanoag surface only briefly and usually unnamed. For the Wampanoag, the first Thanksgiving followed an epidemic that had killed between 75 and 90 percent of the Wampanoag people. It was this devastation that led the Wampanoag to build an alliance with the Pilgrims, the one that brought them to that Rejoicing in 1621.
After that Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag experienced decades in which English colonists acquired land through any means possible and subjected Wampanoag tribal members to colonial laws and judiciary structures. In 1675, Ousamequin’s son Pumetacom organized a resistance, though the English settlers, now more than 60,000, largely outnumbered the Wampanoag. The Wampanoags attacked and destroyed English villages. The English colonists burned Indian villages to the ground. Eventually, Pumetacom was surrounded and defeated. His head was stuck on a pike for generations of English colonists to see. Wampanoags were taken prisoner and sold into slavery in the Caribbean.
The story we know about Thanksgiving is wrong. However, if we cherish the idea of that mythic story—the image of a festive gathering of unexpected friends crossing cultural boundaries—we should feel the call to action to live up to the ideals we think we’ve been celebrating.
The story of the Wampanoags continues. In 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior refused to affirm its own authority to confirm the status of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s reservation. This is the first step in opening the door to rescinding reservation status for the Wampanoag land. You can learn more by visiting the Wampanoag tribal website. If we truly value cooperation and friendship, this is a good place to start.