Thanksgiving: The True Story

Madeleine Levesque and Maeve Lawler

Thanksgiving is known as a holiday for the celebration of thanks. But more often than not, many are unaware of what actually occurred when the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts.

When children are young, they are often told the “fairy tale” version of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims arrived in New England, befriended the Native Americans, and they all lived happily ever after. In reality, it’s not that simple. 

It is true that in 1621 the Pilgrims had an autumn feast of their harvest. However, there is no written evidence that proves the Wampanoag natives were invited to this dinner. It is also important to recognize that a large number of the Pilgrims’ successful harvest is largely due to the fact that the Wampanoag leader, Squanto, taught the Pilgrims effective planting methods. 

Despite Squanto’s help, the English captured him in 1614, selling him into slavery in Spain. When he later returned home, he found that his whole tribe had died from smallpox…not such a fairy tale after all. 

It was not until 1863 that Thanksgiving developed into the holiday it is today. President Abraham Lincoln declared the dinner of 1621 a national holiday in an attempt to unify the North and South during the Civil War. But the dinner the Pilgrims shared was not the “first Thanksgiving” ever to exist, as people had been celebrating their harvests all over the world for many years. 

SHS history teacher Richard Kermond explained his point of view on the holiday. Kermond believes that in the past, Thanksgiving was taught as a fairy tale but currently it is being taught as the real story–depending on the grade level. He stated, “In elementary schools, we probably teach the fairy tale story.” Kermond explained the most important part about teaching Thanksgiving to students is to teach the truth. 

Kermond believes many teachers fail in differentiating the Native American tribes. He said, “There’s a bunch of different tribes and different relationships between them… I think it’s worth exploring.” According to Kermond, early American history can be complicated: British colonists arrived in Massachusetts and different Pilgrims and Puritans were in the mix as well. 

“It’s all about thankfulness and community,” believes Kermond. He states that Thanksgiving is a time to gather with a variety of people and make a day of it. 

Whether you’re sitting at the dinner table with family, dining out with friends, or enjoying whatever your family’s traditional Thanksgiving Day, when giving thanks, it is important to remember the turmoil and distress that the Native Americans experienced–as well as what actually occurred at the dinner at 1621.