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The History of Thanksgiving

On the fourth Thursday of every November, families gather around the table to celebrate. This national holiday is about more than just being thankful. It is also a time for individuals to honor the settlers that came to live in Plymouth in 1620 and their experience with the Native Americans that many consider the very first Thanksgiving.

Native Americans

Before the Mayflower arrived on the shores of what would eventually become the United States, Native American tribes had settled throughout the land. The Wampanoag tribe was located in what we now consider Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They had a great deal of knowledge of the land, the wildlife and even the waters surrounding their tribe because for generations, over 12,000 years in fact, they had called this area home. The passengers of the Mayflower were not the first visitors from Europe that the Wampanoag had encountered.

The Settlers

English Protestants made up the passengers of a ship headed for America. After being persecuted by the Church of England, they sought refuge in another land. Also known as separatists because of their desire to separate from the church, the people traveled to Holland, an area well known for accepting people of different beliefs. After 12 years, the group decided that it was time to leave and make their way to the New World. They sought funding from English merchants that were looking to establish settlements across the ocean. A total of 101 people, including men, women, and children set sail for over 60 days. Instead of landing where they had originally intended, the group came into contact with land at the area we know as Cape Cod. Weather conditions determined that this would be the place everyone would settle.

Settling and Exploring

As winter approached, the settlers worked hard to prepare. They gathered as much food as they could, sometimes even taking the supplies from the Wampanoag tribe. At this time, Samoset, one of the leaders of the Native Americans in the area, and Squanto (also known as Tisquantum) paid a visit to the new settlers. Squanto spoke English and had experience with some of the other people that had come to the area looking to settle. He helped the newcomers grow things like corn and even taught them how to use fish in order to fertilize the land to help produce crops. Eventually, both groups agreed to stand together and protect each other from other tribes in the area.

The Celebration

The settlers decided that it was time to celebrate the harvest and their survival. They set out to hunt and the Wampanoag heard their gunshots. At first, it seemed like trouble was brewing and Massasoit along with 90 men went out to the settlement to see what was going on. They wanted to see for themselves if the settlers were preparing for war. During their visit, they realized that instead of war, the people were preparing a celebration. The Native Americans participated in the celebration, sending out men to hunt for deer to bring back to the group. Over the course of three days the men, women, and children from both groups enjoyed a feast that consisted of local food. There is much debate as to whether or not turkeys were part of the celebration however we can assume that shellfish, deer, and corn were placed on the Thanksgiving table.

The Myths

We usually picture the English settlers wearing all black with large hats and silver buckles on their shoes. In reality, they didn't dress this way. The Native Americans are also shown wearing all sorts of attire that may not have actually been worn. It's interesting to note that the settlers didn't even call themselves Pilgrims. That name was given to them at a much later date.

Modern Thanksgiving

In 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale helped our modern day holiday begin to take shape. As the editor of the Godley's Lady's Book, she repeatedly asked for a national holiday that would center on the harvest celebration that took place in 1621. She saw this as an opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving as a nation. Years later, President Abraham Lincoln declared two separate national Thanksgivings. The first was held in August as a way to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg. The other was held in November and was established in order to give thanks in general.

Native Americans and Thanksgiving

Eventually, the peace between the settlers and the Native Americans began to diminish. While people in the United States continue to celebrate this national holiday, the descendants of the Wampanoag people do not see Thanksgiving in the same light. Instead of celebrating thankfulness, many Native Americans see this as a day of betrayal by the Europeans. Since the 1970's, many Native Americans have gathered in Plymouth, Massachusetts near the statue of Massasoit to remember their people and the strength of their tribe.

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