It’s Thanksgiving! Yay! To some, it’s their favorite holiday of the year (and why wouldn’t it be given all the delicious food). However, though most of us are fairly familiar with the festivities of Thanksgiving, there are some misconceptions involved in this beloved holiday. Sadly, what we’re taught growing up doesn’t always match the full historical story. Here we explore 25 truths about Thanksgiving which are historically accurate and put more focus on the Native Americans involved in the iconic American tradition. We clear up myths, go more in depth into the Natives participation, and present some new facts you didn’t know before about the first American holiday of the season. Take a look at these 25 historically accurate and modern day Thanksgiving facts.
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Out of the many Native American tribes, only members of the Wampanoag Confederacy (a group of 50+ tribes responsible for the Pilgrims’ survival) were in attendance.
Continuing the Tradition
The new settlers were familiar with thanksgiving feasts before arriving to the Americas; they were commonly celebrated in November as part of a religious-based giving of thanks in England.
The U.S. Mint released a $1 commemorative Native American coin in 2011. The front side features Sacagawea while the back shows the hands of Supreme Sachem Ousamequin, Massasoit (head chief) of the Great Wampanoag Nation outstretching a peace pipe to Governor John Carver of the Pilgrims.
Good Painter, Bad Researcher
The First Thanksgiving 1621 painting (1899) by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris is one of the most common images used in connection to the event. However, the painting is inaccurate: Pilgrims did not wear the outfits depicted and the Native American garb is of Native Americans from the Great Plains.
Traditional Wampanoag Thanksgiving
A traditional Wampanoag Thanksgiving would last 4 days.
Thanksgiving in Canada is celebrated on the second Monday of October. It is traditionally dated to 1578 when explorer Martin Frobisher gave thanks to God for bringing most of his men successfully through their exploration for the Northwest Passage. Thanks for the harvest was not made at that time as they had not planted crops to harvest.
Six Thanksgiving Festivals
Local Native American tribes typically held 6 thanksgiving festivals: Maple Dance (maple tree and when it was warm enough to extract its syrup); Planting Feast (blessing of seeds); Strawberry Festival (for the season’s first fruits); Green Corn Festival (for the ripening corn); Harvest Festival (food they had grown); Mid-Winter Festival.
John Carver’s treaty with Massasoit and the Wampanoags was one of the most successful American treaties with Native Americans, lasting over fifty years.
The focus on food in many festivals at the time was due to the difficulty of foraging and scavenging for food. As many societies have begun mass producing food, the link to the land has diminished.
The first day of thanksgiving designated by the federal government was by George Washington in 1789. This day was for giving of thanks to a higher power rather than being tied to the Thanksgiving between Native Americans and Pilgrims.
Thanksgiving's National Beginnings
Thanksgiving as the holiday we know today was initiated in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln. The President used the theme of two different sides (Pilgrims and Native Americans) eating together to calm tensions during the Civil War and bring families together. It officially became a holiday by federal law in 1941.
More Company Than Expected
As Native American families were frequently quite large, the original Thanksgiving had 90 Natives and 53 Pilgrims in attendance.
Differences Between Men & Women
Indian men and women sat together on the table to eat. Pilgrim women, per their customs, stood behind the table and waited for the men to finish eating.
Typical Thanksgiving Foods
Many foods typically associated with Thanksgiving, including mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin, were native to the Americas and new to the Pilgrims. Turkey may have been brought to Europe some years earlier by the Spaniards.
The tradition of prayer before the Thanksgiving meal is linked to the Pilgrims’ religious character. The Wampanoags did not have the same custom.
Traditional Wampanoag Offerings
Traditional Mashpee Wampanoags give thanks through offerings of tobacco by passing their thanks into the tobacco silently to allow both mind and spirit to be thankful.
Forced Native Assimilation
There was a time in U.S. history when Native American languages and religions were banned due to the government’s forced assimilation policy which aimed to integrate Natives into American society.
Native American History Month
The first National American Indian Heritage month was approved by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and made every year since 1994.
Native American History Day
Native American History Day, celebrated annually on the day after Thanksgiving, was first celebrated in a state in May 1916 by a decree from the New York governor. Nowadays, the day is largely eclipsed by Black Friday, a day of massive shopping and commercialism.
Day of Mourning
Every Thanksgiving, the United American Indians of New England meet at the feet of a statue of Massasoit for a Day of Mourning. It honours Native ancestors and modern day Natives’ struggles. The spot was first used by Massasoit’s son to speak on the injustices suffered by the Wampanoag from the Pilgrims.
The Real First Thanksgiving
Some historians say the first thanksgiving was held in St. Augustine, Florida, by the Spanish. After landing in 1565, the Spaniards were said to have feasted in thanksgiving with the local Timucua Native Americans on bean soup. Other Europeans landing in Virginia & Texas also had a time of thanksgiving upon their arrival.
Plymouth, the site where the Pilgrims began their colony, was on the exact spot of the old Patuxet settlement.
Most of the Pilgrims on the way to New England lived in Leiden (Netherlands) for a decade before setting off. The Pieterskerk (a Gothic church in Leiden) celebrates a non-denominational service on Thanksgiving Day (U.S.) to celebrate the hospitality the Dutch gave the Pilgrims before their voyage.
Squanto, the Great Teacher
Squanto, a Patuxet (one of the tribes making up Wampanoag Confederacy) and the person largely responsible for the Pilgrims’ survival, was captured in 1614 and taken to Spain with many of his people as a slave. Monks there helped him get to England where he learned English while working for a shipbuilder. Five years later, he returned to New England on an exploration expedition where he found his entire family and tribe had been killed by a plague earlier Europeans had brought.
Modern Day Take
Many modern day Native Americans enjoy the positive sentiments of Thanksgiving but have grievances on the historical inaccuracies. Many regard giving thanks as a state of being in living life by developing their talents and being thankful on a daily basis.