Common story of Thanksgiving has darker history than some may believe

Written by: 
Esther Insigne
A woman performs a traditional Native American dance during the North American Indian Days celebration on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Mont.


Turkeys, cranberry sauce, casseroles, pecans, and a lot of pies – that’s a few of the things that come into mind when Thanksgiving is brought up. Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday of November of every year, according to During this time, families and friends unite to spend time with each other and indulge in the feast they have prepared. Together, they give thanks for the blessings they have received throughout the year.

Thanksgiving: the half-truth

According to Time and Business Insider, the “first Thanksgiving” happened in 1621. The Wampanoag tribe helped the Pilgrims survive by teaching them how to farm and grow their crops, after the Pilgrims failed to do so during the previous year, which led to half of the Pilgrims’ deaths.

To celebrate the success of the Pilgrims’ harvest after being helped by the Native Americans, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag tribe to a feast that lasted for three days. They wanted to give thanks for the help they received from the tribe, and so the feast was their way of sharing the blessings from the harvest.

This was the story that people commonly referred to when talking about the history of Thanksgiving. However, the story didn’t end there.

The dark history

According to, before the Pilgrims came, the Native Americans met Europeans who wanted to look for land in the New World. This introduced smallpox, measles and other diseases that the Europeans brought over due to their expeditions. Soon, Native Americans were captured, enslaved and sold to people in Spain. The tribes who remained in their villages were wiped out because they were more vulnerable to European diseases as it was new to them. 

According to National Geographic, when the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod, they robbed corn from Wampanoag graves because it was a few weeks before winter and they did not have the food or provisions to help them survive.

The Pilgrims came to the New World on a ship called the Mayflower in 1620. During their first winter, many of the Pilgrims did not survive while aboard the ship. After some time, the survivors went ashore, hungry, and sought help.

There, they met Tisquantum, also known as “Squanto,” of the Pokanoket tribe of the Wampanoag nation, and Samoset of the Wabanake tribe, who both spoke English. Squanto was captured in 1605 and sold as a slave in England, and then later sold to the Spaniards in 1614. He escaped, jumped ship and made his way back to his homeland, America, in 1619, only to discover that his entire tribe died from a disease the English slavers left behind, according to and

According to, Samoset and Squanto stayed near the village of the Wampanoag tribe and were hunting when they discovered the Pilgrims near Patuxet. Seeing their condition, Squanto decided to stay with the Pilgrims and teach them how to survive. He taught them how to farm and plant vegetables and skills necessary to survive.

When fall came, the captain of the Pilgrims at the time, Miles Standish, invited Squanto, Samoset, and their leader, Massasoit, to join them in a celebratory feast with their families that lasted for three days.

However, the peace did not last long. More Pilgrims came to America, and they were not like the earlier Pilgrims who needed help. They looked down upon the natives for their religious beliefs. The newly arrived Pilgrims perceived themselves to be the “Chosen Elect” and anyone who did not believe their teachings were the enemy, says information. They tortured, deceived, incited wars and caused genocide to achieve their goals, it says. Killings happened more often as settlers tried to take over villages. Generations of tribes were wiped out in the process.

Explaining further

James Tueller, a history professor at BYU–Hawaii, explained, “When people ask me about the real history, I usually talk about many different perspectives about it. George Washington, the first president of the United States, actually celebrated a Thanksgiving that wasn’t in November, but most societies have some sort of holiday to express gratitude, to give thanks.”

He said President Abraham Lincoln was the one who declared Thanksgiving to be an official holiday that was to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. Tueller also shared, “The foods we eat have a history that is very much a part of Thanksgiving.

“Many of the foods are actually, in origin, American foods. Europeans, Africans, Asians would never have eaten corn. Corn was an American product before the Columbus exchange, potatoes as well.

“So, most Americans on Thanksgiving will eat turkey. Turkey’s definitely a bird that came from the Americas. Although, in English, we gave it a strange name turkey because we thought it was from the country Turkey, but it wasn’t, so it’s a historical mistake. So, all those foods, and the way we celebrate is often tied to a history of food, which is always interesting.”

What thanksgiving means to students

Families and individuals around the globe have their own ways of celebrating Thanksgiving, and others have different reasons why they celebrate the holiday. Students shared their traditions and experiences as they prepare for Thanksgiving this year.

Mark Valdez, a senior from Ohio studying psychology, shared he celebrates the holiday with his family. “It’s a big deal in my house. All our extended families get together, all my cousins, aunts and uncles. When you come into our house, we have a huge table, and we just eat, watch sports and really enjoy family time.”

Haydn Klein, a freshman from Nevada studying biomedical science, said, “We make lots of food and eat it. We have a lot of pie. Turkey would always be the main thing we eat. Before the meal, we’d meet with family and friends and play football and some other games.”

He explained, “It has significance because it symbolizes a gathering with family – being thankful for what you have. It just means you’re acknowledging what you have from Heavenly Father.”

Tueller also shared how he and his family want to make sure they’re giving thanks during the holiday. “Before we eat, of course, we say a prayer. We also go around the room, and we have to say one thing that we’re thankful for, to remember that there are a lot of blessings we have.”

Sam Capitan, a sophomore from Utah studying marketing said, “Personally, it’s a day to just be grateful for those who are in your lives, especially family. For me personally, I don’t really take it as [the] only day to be thankful for your family. That should be on a daily basis thing. But overall, it’s just a time of the year to just take a break and remember your family.”

Valdez shared, “I feel like Thanksgiving is a really good time to step back and appreciate life. You think about what you’re grateful for.”

When asked if it’s important to know about the history of Thanksgiving, Capitan shared, “I think so; they should know where all the roots began because it gives them the chance to just explore the true meaning behind it…

“We have family, and they were those who were here before us. We got to be grateful for them because without them, we wouldn’t be here ourselves.”


Date Published: 
Thursday, November 15, 2018
Last Edited: 
Tuesday, November 13, 2018