The First Thanksgiving: Fact and Fiction

Adrielle McKenzie

As small children, we are told a very sugar-coated version of the English Protestants called Puritans and how they supposedly held the first Thanksgiving. 

In this version, the English settlers are called Pilgrims and wear somber, black clothing and have buckles on their shoes. The Native American’s attire is also way off with woven blankets around their shoulders and large, feathered headdresses. The story we were told as children was that the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth and celebrated their first harvest in 1621. The feast was held by Governor William Bradford who invited the local Wampanoag Indians to join the meal. 


While this story of how Thanksgiving started is very appropriate for kids, it is not historically correct. In this version, kids are put under the false pretense that everything was peaceful and well amongst the Englishmen and the Wampanoag people. While I agree that children shouldn’t know everything about what truly happened, they should know at least the basic facts so that they won’t get slapped in the face by the truth when they get older, like most teenagers and pre-teens.


The truth is that Thanksgiving feasts predate the “first Thanksgiving” in Plymouth. Settlers in Berkeley Hundred in Virginia celebrated their arrival with an annual Thanksgiving in 1619. Spanish settlers and the Seloy tribe feasted together in 1565.. 


Modern-day celebrations of Thanksgiving often revolve around eating turkey and other traditional dishes that have been changed and adapted through many generations, but before that it mainly centered around religions.


While the basis of the story of the feast at Plymouth is true, there are a lot of things that were overlooked like what happened years after. Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, set up an exclusive trade pact with the Puritans and allied with them against the French and other local tribes such as the Narragansett and the Massachusetts. Over time the alliance became strained.


Thousands of English colonists poured into the region in the 17th century and as settlers increasingly ate up more land, Plymouth authorities began to take Wampanoag land and began to try to take over their lives as well. Disease had already ravaged the Wampanoag population and continued to die from what colonists called “Indian fever”. When Massasoit’s son Metacomet took leadership of the Wampanoag people, relations had already been hindered. King Phillip’s War started when several of Metacomet’s men were executed for the murder of a Ponkapoag interpreter and Christian convert John Sassamon. Wampanoag warriors then conducted a series of raids and the New England Confederation of Colonies declared war in 1675. The war was bloody and devastating and many settlers and Indians perished.        


Some argue that the true origin of Thanksgiving took place in 1637 when the Massachusetts colony governor, John Winthrop declared it a day to celebrate colonial soldiers who had just slaughtered hundreds of Pequot men, women, and children. Thanks to Abraham Lincoln, though, the popular telling of the colonists and the Indians being BFF’s lived on as the first Thanksgiving.