I remember the pilgrim hats, the buckles on the shoes, the feather headdresses and beads, the fun, cutesy crafts we did in school. The smell of construction paper and tempera paint as we stamped out handprint turkeys, glued on brightly colored feathers. You dress like a pilgrim. You be an Indian. We’ll all sit down and have a feast together. I remember learning about the first Thanksgiving in school. I remember teachers talking about a day of peace. A day that colonists and natives came together to give thanks, to share a meal. A day they put aside their differences and got along, loved one another. How inspiring. But what they failed to tell us in school is that that peace didn’t last. Within a generation, indigenous populations, already decimated by more than 90% thanks to disease, were subjected to oppression, conquest, and all out extermination by European invaders. What they don’t tell you in school is that, soon after that fateful feast, descendants of those present at the first Thanksgiving went to war - a war that, in terms of population, became the bloodiest conflict in American history. They don’t tell you that in school. Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to start by saying how very thankful I am for each and every one of you listening right now. I would not be able to justify continuing with History Fix if I didn’t have such amazing, faithful listeners who tune in each week, connect with me on Instagram, and just offer so much support for the show in so many ways. You guys are incredible. I really feel like this special little community has come together over History Fix and it just makes this passion project of mine all the more worth it.
For my international listeners, this Thursday, November 23rd is Thanksgiving in the United States. I know other countries have their own versions of Thanksgiving too so I’m sure most are familiar with the concept. Basically everyone gets together with family or friends to share a meal - a feast - and to recognize all they have to be thankful for. Typical Thanksgiving meals in the US include turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, lots of casseroles if you’re in the south. We turn everything into a casserole - green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, anything really. That and salads that aren’t actually salads, just random stuff mixed with mayonnaise - potato salad, pasta salad, coleslaw which is basically cabbage salad, jello salad (yeah that’s a thing), one of my family’s favorites is my grandmother’s recipe for 5 cup salad… which has marshmallows in it… and sour cream. I know that sounds horrible but it’s so weirdly good. And it’s not a dessert either by the way, it’s like a side dish. My husband’s family is from New Jersey so their Thanksgiving is quite different. No casseroles or marshmallow salads. They’ve got like steamed carrots and peas. It’s, I don’t know, it’s not as good. A lot healthier, but not as good.
So anyway, this meal, this Thanksgiving feast has always been linked back to the quote “first Thanksgiving” that was enjoyed by the pilgrims - English settlers - who established the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts back in 1620. So we’re talking about 13 years after Jamestown which was England’s first successful permanent colony in the Americas and 33 years after the Roanoke colony which was the first unsuccessful permanent colony. I have episodes for both of those by the way. Go give them a listen for sure if you haven’t, they’re some of my favorites.
This fateful feast was shared between the colonists and a group of indigenous Americans called the Wampanoag who were already living in this area when the English arrived. What we learn about this event as children is that the colonists invited their native neighbors to a feast to celebrate a bountiful harvest. The two groups join together and enjoy this meal, all the while giving thanks for all the wonderful things God has blessed them with - peace, and harmony, and good fortune - all that. It’s portrayed in a very positive light. This smashing victory for international relations and a solid start for English settlers arriving in America who were welcomed by the indigenous people and returned the favor by extending an olive branch. But that’s where the story always ends which is, at best misleading and at worst insensitive and blatantly offensive.
So let’s get to the bottom of the real story here. First thing to get out of the way, the meal shared at Plymouth in October of 1621 was not even the first Thanksgiving. I’m not really sure why it was chosen and given this title because several actually occurred before this. In 1565 Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Avile invited members of the indigenous Timucua tribe to share a meal at St. Augustine in Florida in order to give thanks for his crew’s safe arrival. In 1619, a handful of English settlers reached a site called Berkley Hundred near Virginia’s James River where they read a proclamation designating the day as quote “a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” But honestly, I don’t know that I would call either of those the first thanksgiving either. Thanksgiving was not a concept invented by Europeans. So I’m not sure why America’s “first Thanksgiving '' is limited to those events initiated, orchestrated by European settlers.
Thanksgiving - a special day of giving thanks - is a fairly ancient concept. According to History.com, quote “as an annual celebration of the harvest and its bounty… Thanksgiving falls under a category of festivals that spans cultures, continents, and millenia.” end quote. This harvest feast has been celebrated by many different groups throughout time - ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, it’s very similar to the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, and yes also similar to harvest festivals celebrated by indigenous Americans, whose whole culture was typically very agriculture based. So, harvest time was a big deal. I feel like Europeans arrived and were like “hey guys, we’re gonna try something new called a harvest feast. It’s where we have a big meal and give thanks for the harvest. You guys should join us.” And the natives are like “yeah, we know. We already do that like every single fall.” and the colonists are like “no, no, no we just made this up. It’s a new thing. We’re gonna call it Thanksgiving and this is the first one ever. Ready? Let’s do it.” Just, the eurocentrism of calling that the first Thanksgiving or even debating - was it St. Augustine in 1585, Berkeley Hundred in 1619, or Plymouth in 1621? Just none. None of those were the first Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was already a thing way before that.
But, for whatever reason, they decided on the meal shared at Plymouth in 1621. So let’s take a look at what happened there. In 1620, 102 colonists left England on a ship called the Mayflower and headed for North America. Around 40 of them were puritans in search of religious freedom. This group of Puritans would later be called pilgrims cause they went on this religious journey - this pilgrimage. The journey took 66 days. They were trying to settle near the Hudson River but rough seas prevented them from reaching it and after just being stuck trying to get there basically, they decided to come ashore and settle near what is today Cape Cod, Massachusetts instead. There are a lot of alternate theories about why they ended up somewhere other than their intended destination but I’m not going to get into those right now. But even when they arrived, they stayed on the ship while small groups went ashore to establish a settlement. Most of the colonists lived on the Mayflower during that first winter where they suffered from exposure, scurvy, and disease. Which like, y’all get off the dang boat. It has to be better than that on land. I live near the ocean, way farther south than Cape Cod even and it is brutal in the winter. The wind coming off the ocean is brutal. This is why I live on the back side of the island. The oceanfront is not where you want to be in the winter… on a ship in the water… definitely not. It’s estimated that only around half of the Mayflower’s passengers survived that winter. By March, whoever was left officially moved to shore where they were super shocked to be greeted in English by the leader of the local Abenaki tribe.
Can you imagine? They were not expecting that. That guy came back the next day with another indigenous man named Squanto who also spoke English. Squanto was part of the Pawtuxet tribe which lived in the area. He had been abducted, kidnapped by an English sea captain named Thomas Hunt in 1614 and sold into slavery. His real name was actually Tisquantum, Squanto was just a nickname. Anyway, he’s sold into slavery and then either escaped or possibly won his freedom in Spain and traveled to England where he learned to speak English. While in England he worked as a shipbuilder. This guy is crazy impressive. Like, dude. Eventually, he returned to North America as an interpreter on a trade mission and made his way back home near Cape Cod where he found that his tribe had been wiped out by diseases brought by European traders. He was the only survivor. He literally returned to piles of bones because the illness had spread so quickly, the living didn’t have time to bury the dead before they died too. Just piles of bones.
Because, y’all, what they don’t tell you is that the native populations had already been completely decimated before the English arrived to set up their little colonies. American sociologist and historian James W. Loewen wrote in his book “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” quote “Within three years the plague wiped out between 90 to 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England. Native societies were devastated. Only ‘the twentieth person is scarce left alive,’ wrote Robert Cushman, an English eyewitness, recording a death rate unknown in all previous human experience.” end quote. But of course even this horribly tragic consequence of exploration was twisted by the English into a sign from God that it was their destiny to take over the land. God had cleared it for them, made it available. According to an article called “The True, Dark History of Thanksgiving” on the official website of the Potawatomi Nation, quote “Throughout history, religion has served as a means of justification, and for the English Separatists, it was no different. They believed the wide-spread death and devastation of Native Americans due to disease was divine provenience and that God willed them to take over the land.” end quote.
So here we are. When they arrived, the colonists established the Plymouth colony on top of the ruins of Squanto’s village. Another group in the area, the Wampanoag, had lost up to 75% of its people to disease. But their enemies, the Narragansett had not, for whatever reason. The Wampanoag were in a bad position, weakened and now outnumbered by their enemies. The Wampanoag leader Massasoit began to see the English as possible allies against the Narragansett. So, same thing with Wingina and the Roanoke colonists. It wasn’t just naive, blind trust. They were strategically befriending the English because they saw their guns and cannons and other manufactured goods as something that would be useful against their own enemies. Squanto served as an interpreter for Massasoit so that the Wampanoag could communicate with the English and he helped the two groups forge a peace treaty. But Massasoit didn’t fully trust Squanto. They weren’t from the same tribe or anything so he sort of kept Squanto as basically a prisoner.
But Squanto was not a fan of being this guy’s prisoner lacky dude. He realized the power he had as the interpreter for the English and according to worldhistory.org quote “he secretly worked to undermine the authority of Massasoit and empower himself. Once discovered, Massasoit demanded he be turned over for execution, but Bradford (who was the governor of the Plymouth colony) refused, a decision which endangered the treaty between the Wampanoag Confederacy and Plymouth Colony if Massasoit had insisted or tried to take Squanto by force.” end quote. So Squanto became an ally of the Plymouth colonists in much the same way Manteo was an ally of the Roanoke colonists. Squanto taught them how to plant corn, get sap from maple trees, catch fish, and avoid poisonous plants. He also attempted to teach them how to bathe. Because, the English weren’t very good at that. They thought bathing was unhealthy and that removing all of your clothing was immodest. So they just didn’t bathe really ever and they smelled horrible and were covered in contagious diseases. They were nasty y’all. So Squanto was like “yeah we’re gonna have to fix that if I’m gonna keep helping you guys.” So he tried to teach them to bathe. I don’t know if it worked or not. Probably not.
So Squanto helped the colonists forge a shaky alliance with the Wampanoag and also taught them how to grow and harvest food. Which they did, somewhat successfully and so they decided to give thanks for that in October of 1621 - their first successful harvest season. They celebrated the success by firing their guns into the air which is a questionable choice. Massosoit heard this and thought the English were about to attack so he got his Wampanoag warriors together and marched up to the settlement prepared for battle. He got there and the English were like “no, we’re really happy. Those were happy gunshots. Come party with us.” And the two groups prepared a meal and shared it together. Truly a stranger than fiction story. Historians theorize that they most likely ate venison (deer meat), shellfish, corn which was typically ground into cornmeal and then boiled into a corn mush or porridge, plus other fruits and vegetables grown in that region - beans, squash, blueberries, grapes, that sort of thing. Possibly turkey. There were wild turkeys there but probably not. They probably ate foods more commonly eaten by the indigenous people - deer, fish, shellfish, maybe ducks or geese.
So this is good right? This sounds pretty good. We’ve got this alliance. The harvest is working out. Everyone is getting along. And that’s where the Thanksgiving lesson ends in school. It ends happy. It ends, holiday worthy. But, in reality, it all went downhill fast after that.
We know the Wampanoag leader Massosoit had peaceful, though shaky relations with the English. They were allies and together they fought against the French as well as other local tribes. But, as more and more English colonists, thousands more, arrived in Plymouth over the next few decades, they took more and more land from the indigenous people. They also began to exert control over the Wampanoag people, their customs, their religion. The English hijacked their very way of life and forced their own English, Christian lifestyles onto the Wampanoag. And as native populations continued to dwindle from this unknown disease, often referred to as “Indian fever,” the Wampanoag were less and less able to stand up for themselves, defend themselves against this encroaching invader, an invasive species really.
In time, Massosoit died and his son, Metacomet became the new Wampanoag leader. Metacomet did not have as fond of feelings for the English as his father. But, I mean, can you blame him? He’s watched all of this go down, the gradual, systematic destruction of his people - physically as they continue to die from English diseases, but also culturally as the English work to erase all of their customs, traditions, language, religion - their very identity as a civilization. So needless to say, relations are frayed by the time Metacomet inherits his father’s position. From what I’ve read, Metacomet willingly adopted the name King Philip and even began dressing in English clothing as a way of honoring his father’s alliance with the English. So he is trying to maintain that peace but at a certain point it just becomes unsustainable. The injustices shown to his people, the taking of their land, is just too great to bear.
It all came to a head when some of Metacomet’s men were killed by the English for the murder of a Punkapoag interpreter and converted Christian named John Sassamon. Metacomet AKA King Philip gathered his warriors in retaliation and began raiding English settlements. The English declared war in 1675, which would come to be called King Philip’s war. This war was beyond brutal. According to historian Robert E. Cray Jr. in an article for the Historical Journal of Massachusetts, quote “In terms of population, King Philip's War was the bloodiest conflict in American history.” And I always thought the Civil War was the bloodiest conflict but I guess that depends on what your basing it on. Numbers alone, number of casualties - Civil War - percentage of the population - King Philip’s war.
According to Kathy Weiser-Alexander in a Legends of America article quote “more than half of the 90 [English] settlements in the region had been attacked and a dozen destroyed. Whole Indian villages were massacred, and tribes decimated. When it was over, members of the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Narragansett tribes were gathered and sold into slavery. Those who escaped fled from tribe to tribe as each, in turn, was destroyed.”
The war ended with the death of King Philip who was shot and killed in 1676. He was then beheaded and his head was displayed on a pole at fort Plymouth for 25 years. His body was cut into quarters and hung in trees. And that mental image is just horrifying. What is wrong with people? The man who shot him was allowed to keep his right hand as a reward? A trophy, I guess. And his wife and nine-year-old son were captured and sold into slavery in Bermuda.
So, that’s the part they don’t tell you. That a few decades after the first Thanksgiving feast, the two groups nearly wiped each other out in the bloodiest conflict in American history and that the English, who were victorious thanks in large part to the diseases they spread, took it upon themselves to completely remove - by killing or selling into slavery - any and all indigenous survivors they managed to capture.
So to casually omit that information, and then lead American school children in cutesy crafts and lighthearted reenactment of that first meal. Can you imagine being an indigenous person in America subjected to that? Sitting in a classroom playing Thanksgiving like it’s some fun game knowing all the while what this interaction meant for your people, your ancestors. And I’m not blaming the teachers. I am a teacher, I get it and they’re working with young children so you can only go so heavy with it before it becomes inappropriate age wise. I’m not blaming them. I guess I’m blaming society in general. I’m blaming a society that allowed a feel-good holiday based on horribly tragic events to ever exist. But it’s not like Thanksgiving started in 1621 right after that first meal. It’s not like they were like “cool, that was fun, let’s do this again next year.” Thanksgiving as a holiday wasn’t a thing, officially, nationwide, until more than 200 years later.
So let’s talk about that, how the actual official holiday came about and how it came to be associated with, make light of a borderline genocidal war that got swept under the rug. The first concept of a national Thanksgiving holiday first came up during the Revolutionary War when the Continental Congress called for several days of thanks to honor military victories in the war for American Independence. But it wasn’t like an official yearly thing. In 1789 the first president of the new nation, George Washington, again called for a national day of thanks to celebrate the end of the war and the ratification of the constitution. The next president, John Adams, did the same - called for a national day of thanks. But his successor, Thomas Jefferson was like “nah.” Jefferson felt like forcing the whole country to give thanks to God was a violation of the separation of church and state that the country was founded on. But then the next president, James Madison, went right back to proclaiming a national day of thanks. But after that, after 1815, nothing. It just kind of fell by the wayside as a national holiday. Never gained traction.
Some states adopted their own official Thanksgiving holiday though. New York did this in 1817. But it was on a different day in each state and never really caught on in the south. More of a New England thing. That began to change in 1827. Enter writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale. Never heard of her? Me neither. Which is weird because she was quite prolific although not surprising, since she was a woman in the 19th century. Even if you haven’t heard of Sarah Josepha Hale, you’re certainly familiar with her work. Girl wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Yeah. She also helped to found the “American Ladies Magazine” and became editor of Godey’s Lady Book, a wildly successful magazine with a circulation of more than 150,000 making it one of the most influential in the country at the time. She used these platforms to promote women’s issues. She was an advocate for women’s education and helped found the Vassar College for Women in New York. She also raised money to build the Bunker Hill monument in Massachusetts and save George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. So get it girl.
Hale grew up in New Hampshire, where they celebrated an annual Thanksgiving holiday so she was familiar with the concept. She actually published a novel in 1827 with a whole chapter dedicated to the holiday. She also wrote articles and editorials about Thanksgiving in the Godey’s Lady Book and started lobbying state and federal officials to pass legislation that would establish a national Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday in November. Hale was a Thanksgiving fan, for sure. But she had a reason for pushing it so hard. She believed that establishing a national holiday for giving thanks would help unify the northern and southern states as tensions grew leading up to the Civil War. Like, let’s all come together as friends and eat a nice meal. That’s what we need right now.
Her efforts paid off some. By 1854 more than 30 states had established a Thanksgiving holiday but it still wasn’t a national, federal thing. Clearly the government wasn’t taking her efforts to try to unite the country and mend the widening rift between the north and the south seriously. She needed something to get their attention, something they could get behind. And she found just the thing. You see, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, had written a manuscript called “Of Plymouth Plantation” about the founding of the colony. But, that manuscript, now an American treasure, was stolen by the British during the Revolutionary War. It didn’t resurface until the 1850s. I guess after 75 years the British were like, “eh, we don’t really need to hold on to this old book anymore, you guys can have it back.” So America had just recovered this national treasure with a first hand account of its birth, essentially. That’s when Hale decided to incorporate the story of the first Thanksgiving into her campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday. She was like, “See, I’m not just making this up. Thanksgiving goes back to the very beginning of America. The very inception of this country happened with a Thanksgiving feast.”
When the Civil War - the very thing Hale was trying to prevent - broke out in 1861, she continued her efforts, writing to president Abraham Lincoln and urging him to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday which he did less than a week later with an official proclamation that set the national observance of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Because of this, Sarah Josepha Hale is often referred to as the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”
So, ever since then, 1863, Thanksgiving has been a national holiday in the US based on the Thanksgiving feast shared by the English and the Wampanoag in 1621, which I find interesting. Because that wasn’t really ever part of it until Sarah Josepha Hale decided to throw it into her campaign in hopes of swaying the government in favor of her cause. Her cause was not to honor or remember that event in Plymouth. It was to try to mend relations between the northern and southern states, reunite the country. She just kind of threw the Plymouth thing in last minute like “oh and also this,” and it’s the story that stuck. People latched onto it and the whole holiday, which existed in various forms before the rediscovery of Bradford’s manuscript, suddenly became all about that meal in 1621.
Thanksgiving has remained unchanged for the most part since 1863. In 1939 president Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to shift Thanksgiving up a week from the last Thursday in November to the third Thursday in November. This was to boost sales before Christmas. He figured people don’t start Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving so if we make Thanksgiving earlier, that’s more time before Christmas for people to shop. They’ll buy more stuff and that will help the economy out. Cause it was the great depression. So, anything to help the economy out. But for some reason people were super opposed to this change. They called it “Franksgiving” and 16 states refused to move the date up a week. So for a couple years, there were two different Thanksgiving dates depending on which state you were in. In 1941, FDR admitted defeat and officially moved the holiday back to the fourth Thursday. I really don’t get the opposition to Franksgiving, third Thursday, fourth Thursday, I could care less. People Christmas shop in like August now anyway so it’s whatever.
Other than that little Franksgiving hiccup, we’ve been doing Thanksgiving the same for the last 150ish years, with an emphasis on the 1621 Plymouth colony’s quote “first thanksgiving” as the reason, the origin, of the holiday. It’s only in the last few years really that widespread awareness has grown about the insensitive nature of Thanksgiving when it comes to the blatant disregard of suffering experienced by indigenous Americans in its aftermath. But for those indigenous Americans, that awareness is nothing new. According to an Indian Country Today article by Michelle Tirado called “The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving,” Wampanoag member Wamsutta Frank James was invited by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1970 to give a speech at an event celebrating the 350th anniversary of the colonist’s arrival but was quote “disinvited after the event organizers discovered his speech was one of outrage over the “atrocities” and “broken promises” his people endured.” end quote. In this speech, which he never got to deliver, he had written quote “This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end.” end quote. So, you know, we knew this. We were aware of how indigenous Americans felt about Thanksgiving at least as far back as 1970, probably always aware, honestly, but actively worked to silence their voices on the matter, disinvited them from the celebration to preserve this idealized, white-washed narrative of Thanksgiving.
That action in 1970 - disinviting James from the event because they didn’t like what he had to say - spurred a new tradition in the form of a national day of mourning. Every Thanksgiving at noon hundreds of indigenous Americans gather at Cole’s Hill which overlooks Plymouth Rock to commemorate all of the losses experienced there. A day of thanks for some, a day of mourning for others.
I love Thanksgiving. I always have. I love family gatherings. My husband thinks I’m crazy because that’s like at the bottom of the list of things he loves. He barely tolerates family gatherings. But, whatever, I love them. I love gathering together with grateful hearts, sharing a meal. I have a lot of happy Thanksgiving memories and I think that’s okay. What I don’t like is Thanksgiving’s association with the horrible events that unfolded in Plymouth, Massachusetts and the downright irresponsible way we, as a nation, have disregarded that history since always. I wish we could separate Thanksgiving from that history. I wish Sarah Josepha Hale had never included it in her push for the holiday. Because I think it is a good holiday. A day to give thanks and come together with loved ones. That’s all she wanted - unity, peace, and gratitude in a country on the brink of Civil War and it just all got so twisted.
So, I’m going to continue to celebrate Thanksgiving in honor of unity, peace, and gratitude but I’m choosing to separate it from the tragic history it was unnecessarily linked to. I’m not saying we should forget that history. We should definitely remember that history - all of it. Not just that one time the English and the Wampanoag shared a peaceful meal together. We should also remember the part where that peace broke down. Where the English, greedy for land and believing themselves blessed by God’s providence to take it, took advantage of a weakness they had created and destroyed an entire civilization. That’s not history to be proud of but it needs to be remembered. We can’t exclude it from the narrative just because it makes us feel bad at a time when we want to feel good. So have your Thanksgiving. Be thankful and love one another. Eat a ton of food. But remember the full story, respect it, mourn it, learn from it.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from Indian Country Today, history.com, Legends of America, worldhistory.org, Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Insider Magazine, potawatomi.org, and the Smithsonian Institution. As always, links to these sources can be found in the show notes.