Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Story of Thanksgiving

Most of us picture the first Thanksgiving with Pilgrims and Indians meeting as friends and sharing a big feast - a happy time with the harvest in and everything positive about this day, and it did happen that way once. The Pilgrims held the feast to honor Squanto and the Wampanoags.

In 1863 during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.  But Thanksgiving is a mixture of truth and myths that developed in the 1890s and early 1900s when our country was desperately trying to pull together its many diverse peoples into a common national unity. In 1898, the federal government declared the last Thursday of November to be the official Thanksgiving, and what started as an inspirational bit of folklore, grew to the Thanksgiving we know now.

It was in 1614 that a band of English explorers sailed home to England with a ship full of Patuxet Indians bound for slavery. They left behind smallpox which killed all those who escaped. By the time the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts Bay, there was only one living Patuxet Indian – Squanto, who we’ve all heard of. He had been a slave in England, who had been given his freedom so he knew their language. Because Squanto had a very real love for the English explorer, John Weymouth, who became a second father to him after he discovered his tribe had all died while he was gone, he considered the Pilgrims who arrived in 1620 to be like Weymouth. So that first year he taught them to grow corn, something they knew nothing about and how to fish, since they didn’t have the proper hooks. He also negotiated a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Nation. The Wampanoag Indians were not the “friendly savages” we learned about in school. Nor were they invited out of the goodness of the Pilgrims’ hearts. They were part of a widespread confederacy of Algonkian-speaking people known as the League of the Delaware. For six hundred years they had been defending themselves from other tribes, and they were suspicious of those early settlers.

As word spread in England about the paradise to be found in the new world many religious zealots called Puritans began arriving, and since there were no fences around the land, they considered it public domain and soon took control instead of the original Pilgrims, who were a mixture of people who weren’t Puritans or a moderate group of the Puritan movement. The Puritans weren’t simple religious conservatives persecuted by the King and the Church of England for their unorthodox beliefs. They were political revolutionaries who not only intended to overthrow England’s government, but radicals who planned to build this new country to their own religious beliefs and no other. They considered themselves the “Chosen Elect” and strove to purify themselves and everyone else, and by any means, including deceptions, treachery, torture, war and genocide to achieve that end. Does that make you think of another religious splinter group today in the Mideast? In 1691 the Puritans got their charter from the Massachusetts Bay Company. As other British settlers came, they seized the land and took strong young Natives for slaves and killing the rest. However, the Pequot Nation had not agreed to the peace treaty Squanto had negotiated and they fought back. The Pequot War was one of the bloodiest Indian wars ever fought.

In 1637 over 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival which is today our Thanksgiving celebration in what is now Groton, Connecticut. In the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries, who ordered them to come outside. Those who did were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouses were burned alive. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A Day of Thanksgiving” because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered.

A Thanksgiving sermon delivered in 1623 by “Mather the Elder” gave special thanks to God for the devastating plague of smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians who had been their benefactors. He praised God for destroying “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, clearing the forests to make way for a better growth”, i.e. the Pilgrims.

From that day on horrible massacres of the Native Americans and capturing all healthy men and women to sell abroad as slaves happened with each event being celebrated as a day of thanksgiving until George Washington finally set aside only one day of Thanksgiving per year instead of celebrating these horrible events.

Even though I grew up with the Thanksgiving story when I became older I found out the horrors the earlier settlers committed against the Native Americans whose land this was, and those injustices continued on with no stopping. What bothers me is the atrocities done in God’s name as is happening now in the Middle-east, and still happens in our country, too, if you stop to think about it. Laws like those that try to remove anything negative about our country instead of telling the truth as it is. Religious fanatics who think only they have God’s blessing and everyone else is a heretic bound for Hell.

In spite of its actual history, I love Thanksgiving.  It’s a time to get together with family over a good meal filled with fun and conversation, and at least with my family, no football game on TV so we fill the time after eating, the table is cleared, and dishes washed we gather together in the living room to talk, laugh and share memories. It’s one of those holidays that haven’t been taken over by big business – or at least until recently. It’s sad with employees required to work in the big box stores so customers who can’t wait one extra day to buy that gizmo or thing-a-ma-bob they just must have leave many people without the pleasure of sitting down with their family for a Thanksgiving dinner.

Although I knew these facts, but rather than go through the multiple histories on my shelf, I Googled Thanksgiving and chose these two articles out of many. I credit the above with “The Real Story of Thanksgiving” by Susan Bates and “Introductions for Teachers” by Chuck Larsen. Both will give you more detailed information than I could fit into one blog.

What does Thanksgiving mean to you?

How do you celebrate it?


  1. First off, my grandfather was minister of the Pilgrim Church in the 1930s, so I know both sides of the story pretty well. Grampy played Elder Brewster in the parade every year in spite of the fact that B. was in his 30s when they landed and G. was in his 70s.
    Many years ago I decided that Thanksgiving was actually a celebration of "women's work" The day was spent cooking and cleaning up after dinner. The men were off doing something unimportant.

  2. You are so right, KB. :-) Even at the first Thanksgiving that lasted for three days, the men were playing games while the women cooked and cleaned up. Yes, of course, the men hunted and brought in game, but for them it was more of a challenge that they enjoyed then work.

    It's interesting that your grandfather was minister of a Pilgrim Church. It must have much to do with your interest and knowledge of history. Thank you for stopping today even though you may be one of those women still working and cooking today. As for me, I lucked out. One of my sister's does Thanksgiving and this year my only contribution is pickles and olives. I've been slaving all morning over opening jars and cans and arranging them nicely in pretty bowls before I leave for her house. :-)

  3. For a few years, I taught middle grade social studies in an urban school district that was very aware of discriminatory practices throughout history, so we did touch on the treatment of the native population by the Europeans,who of course considered themselves superior. As far as they were concerned, some people were not even quite "human" by definition (the Irish were included in that group, although they are European) and therefore did not merit being respected as fellow human beings.

    Thanksgiving and harvest festivals are common in many cultures, and this is our version of a day to count our blessings and appreciate what we have.

  4. It is a good day to count our many blessings. At my house it's about family, friends, food...and football. This year my husband is cooking because I hurt my shoulder and arm. My niece told me to relax and enjoy it.

    I hope you have a wonderful time at your sister's house, Gloria!

  5. Gloria, I'm thankful for all those nightmares, which never happened, that I had as a young mother. Sometimes our blessings are an absence of what might have been, not only in reference to motherhood, but I think of some of the men I might have married and shudder at the thought!

    So, I'll toast to what happened and give thanks for what I received.

  6. Happy thanksgiving all. Today is a day for counting blessings. I'm grateful to be spending the day with my two girls, one who lives in Arizona and one in Colorado, so every chance to be together is precious. I like your real story of Thanksgiving, Gloria, better than the rosy half truths. If we can't honestly face where we've come from, how can we figure out where we are going?

  7. Powerful. Funny how we distort history!

  8. KM, although I was well aware of the way the Indians were treated during those early years, I didn't feel parents would appreciate it if I went into the gory details at Third Grade, but I'm glad that you as well as my sister who taught history in junior high did teach that. Actually, people who study ancient cultures believe harvest celebrations have been going on for thousands of years.

  9. Kara, that's what I love about Thanksgiving - spending time with the family. I'm glad your husband took over the cooking, and yes I had a good time with my siblings and assorted nieces and nephews plus two active toddlers; a great-niece and a non stop great-nephew.

    You are so right, Carla. I think we have a society have become more and more aware of our history, although there are still those who neither want to face our past misdeeds or refuse to believe it.

    E.B. I've had some bad things happen in my lifetime, but like you I'm so thankful for those things I worried about that never happened. I'm also very thankful for the family I was born into - not wealthy but good, honest people with a sense of humor and a love of books.

  10. Shari, I agree. So many people want to live in a fictional world where all is sunny and good, and yes, it would be nice to think that, but if we don't face our faults, and that goes for our country, too, realistically, how can we improve on ourselves or our country.

    Enjoy the time with your daughters. I hope they'll stay more than one or two days.

  11. Thanks for the story all in one place. I knew most of it, but presented like this, it's sobering.

    Since one of my grandfathers told his children we have a bit of Indian blood, I'm very conscious of the atrocities against these people. I love Thanksgiving, but, as my teensy tiny act of acknowledgement, I wear some of my many pieces of jewelry I've bought from the NM tribes on national holidays like this one.

    That said, I'm grateful that we have a holiday devoted to eating--love it! Our granddaughter, who is living in Spain, cooked an entire Thanksgiving feast for her boyfriend's family, and loved every minute of it.

  12. Kaye, I love the way you wear some of your Native American jewelry for Thanksgiving. I too am grateful for a day devoted to eating and being with family and think it's terrible that so many people now are forced to work in stores because so many can't wait for Black Friday. On our outside church bulletin board is this message. 11. Thou shall not shop on Thanksgiving.