What You Might Not Know about Thanksgiving

Photo of pilgrimage family sitting around the table to have a thanksgiving feast while no Native americans are around

A diverse array of people in the United States are preparing for the annual Thanksgiving holiday. Schoolchildren are being fed a sunny portrait of the relations between the Pilgrims and the Indians. Families are shopping for traditional staples such as turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pumpkin. Young and old are struggling to find something to be grateful for in a year full of struggle. Muslims, homegrown and immigrants, are planning to enjoy the day with family and friends. Shoppers are setting their sights on Black Friday sales. What could be wrong with this picture?

The answer is plenty, and it is complicated by hundreds of years of collective misinformation. While the notion of a day to symbolize thanks may sound beneficial, it is important to educate ourselves about the facts relating to the “first Thanksgiving feast”, as well as the folklore that has been added along the way. There is a chilling history that is often overlooked. We must examine the details from an alternative perspective and acknowledge that the making of our country came at great expense to the Native people who lived here. And there are continuing implications of these atrocities to this day.

Some Basic Facts

The Mayflower did bring Pilgrims to North America from Plymouth, England in 1620. They formed a colony in what is known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. And in 1691, they likely did celebrate a three-day harvest feast that was attended by members of the Wampanoag tribe. This is where most of the Thanksgiving “his-story” is derived.

According to James Loewen, a sociologist and author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” this event as the first Thanksgiving celebration is not correct, as both the Native American tribes and European societies had been holding festivals to celebrate successful harvest for centuries.

Loewen devoted an entire chapter of his book to “The Truth about the First Thanksgiving.” Here are some of the facts you might not find in a typical history textbook.

  • The first non-Native settlers in what we know now as the United States were African slaves left in South Carolina in 1526 by Spaniards who abandoned a settlement attempt. 
  • British and French fishermen frequented the Massachusetts coast as early as 1617. In addition to gathering firewood and fresh water, they also captured Natives to sell into slavery. Within three years, disease (likely the bubonic plague, viral hepatitis, or smallpox) wiped out between 90 to 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England. 
  • The “Pilgrims” never called themselves by that name. They were separatists who were interested in establishing a religious theocracy, rather than seeking “religious freedom.” And they were coming to the New World to make money.
  • Plymouth was already a village when these settlers found it. It was uninhabited at that moment, as all of the natives had been wiped out by disease. According to historian Howard Simpson, they likely found the area in ruins, “strewn with the skulls and the bones of thousands of Indians who had died and none was left to bury them.”
  • White settlers experienced many hardships but not to the catastrophic extent of their Native counterparts. They reasoned that God was on their side, and that buoyed their further exploitation and oppression of the Native tribes without remorse. 
  • Natives found little relief in their own medicines and religious beliefs. Many who survived the plagues succumbed to alcohol, converted to Christianity, or committed suicide.
  • The Wampanoag tribe may have been cordial to the settlers in 1620. That was largely because the alliance strengthened their hand (many of the tribe had been lost to disease) in dealing with a neighboring tribe – the Narragansetts – to their west. 
  • Squanto is frequently credited with sharing important information about farming and fishing with the settlers and there is likely some truth to it. He had learned English as a young boy, not from friendly fisherman, but in England, where he had been sold as a slave. Upon making his way back to his village, his tribe had been devastated.
  • It is more likely that the first Thanksgiving celebrated in the New World stemmed from the massacre of Pequot people in 1637, following the Pequot War. 
  • Today, many Native tribes gather on Thanksgiving to commemorate it as a National Day of Mourning.

There are additional details related to the making of Thanksgiving as a national holiday that are noteworthy. New Englanders began referring to a nostalgic story of the harvest celebration between the “Pilgrims and the Indians” as Thanksgiving in the 1830s. The occasion was made a national holiday in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln sought to show appreciation for the Civil War victories in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He thought a national day of thanks might unify the nation. And there are plenty more details to learn.

Why Are the Facts Important?

As a Muslim, it is important to know the facts about everything we support or engage in. When it comes to Western holiday celebrations, we must understand that non-Muslim occasions often have a sordid backstory. In most instances, origins can be based in pagan rituals and real facts are often misconstrued, ignored, and revised over time. This is purposeful and serves to sanitize one particular account of history. These troubling beginnings have led to continued devastation for Native Americans, whose lands were stolen, treaties ignored, whose culture was decimated, whose people were murdered, and whose health and welfare are still in peril.

This is another way that white supremacy creeps into and is perpetuated in our national fabric. We need to keep our eyes and ears open when learning about history and when attempting to digest the news of today. We must insist on hearing many perspectives of the same incidents to ensure a balanced account. This is especially true for parents who are responsible for enjoining good and forbidding evil, for separating truth from falsehood, for teaching their children. That means reading beyond the state-supported textbook accounts of our history, delving into the details, rather than just going along to get along. Looking at that past is a means of working on the present and planning for the future. Let’s be sure that the stories we perpetuate are true, that our actions and reactions are based on knowledge, and that the accounts we perpetuate are inclusive of us all.

Check out more facts about American history

  1. “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” by James Loewen.
  2. “A People's History of the United States” by Howard Zinn (a young readers edition is also available).

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.