The Origins of Thanksgiving

Every year, 46 million turkeys end up on dinner tables across the United States in observance of Thanksgiving. Turkey is one of the staples of Thanksgiving feasts and has been since 1863. The holiday itself, however, has been around much longer. The initial Thanksgiving day feast was in 1621, years before the United States established itself as an independent nation.

Originally, Thanksgiving was a Puritan tradition. It was brought to the New World by the Pilgrims, British colonists who lived in New England. These colonists had many religious days of observance called “Thanksgivings.” During these Thanksgivings, they would pray and give thanks for blessings such as military successes, safe journeys, and bountiful harvests. The Thanksgiving feast that the modern holiday is based on is the feast that was held after the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest in the New World.

The original feast is surrounded by legend. The version commonly taught in American schools is that the colonists and the Wampanoag Native Americans shared a warm, peaceable dinner, but in reality, it is far from an elementary school-friendly story. The original Thanksgiving meal was not entirely from a place of goodwill. The relationship between the colonists and Native Americans was not as amiable as retellings would have one believe, and the first Thanksgiving was more of a diplomatic demonstration than a festive celebration.

At the time of the feast, the Wampanoag people were struggling immensely. The Wampanoag tribe was one of many Native American tribes that had been harmed by diseases brought to the New World by the Pilgrims. Their numbers had been reduced significantly, and their leader, Ousamequin, feared that they were susceptible to attacks by rival tribes. The best course of action, he decided, would be to ally themselves with the colonists.

Contrary to popular belief, the Wampanoag were not formally invited to the feast. The feast itself was not even meant to be an especially memorable affair. The colonists had been preparing for a standard Thanksgiving celebration when approximately 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe appeared at their settlement’s gates. Although the colonists were unnerved at the Wampanoag’s appearance, the two groups had no issues while working together to prepare for the feast. The Wampanoag contributed a substantial amount of food to the feast and the celebration was considered a success by both groups.

The real problem with the modern retelling of the original Thanksgiving is not the day itself but what came after. Although the feast did serve as an effective peace treaty for several years, it did not last long. Eventually, a war broke out as a result of the tensions between the Wampanoag and the colonists. It was extremely bloody and caused many deaths. Popularly referred to as the French and Indian War, it is considered the worst battle between Native Americans and colonists in history.

Abraham Lincoln was the first to popularize the version of the feast that most Americans know. He declared Thanksgiving a national holiday during the Civil War to create feelings of unity between the Union and the Confederacy. The sugar-coated version of the story was much more likely to accomplish this than a historically accurate description of the wars fought between the Wampanoag and the colonist.

Although the country is no longer in need of a unifying holiday, the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of the founders of the United States remains ignored. The remaining members of the Wampanoag tribe have said that the holiday of Thanksgiving feels burdensome and is disrespectful both to them and to their ancestors. The most obvious solution to this problem would be to get rid of the holiday altogether, but the chances of this are next to none. Despite its ethically dubious origins, the holiday has become a central part of American culture. Any attempts to remove it would undoubtedly be met with strong resistance. 

Unfortunately for the turkey population, it seems as though November will continue to be a period of peril. Unless the majority of the nation’s opinions on Thanksgiving suddenly change, the holiday will continue to exist as a fundamental part of the culture of the United States.