The truth behind the tradition is surprising.
Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims seem to go together, but the truth is, the Pilgrims never held an autumnal Thanksgiving feast. However the Pilgrims did have a feast in 1621, after their first harvest, and it is this feast, which people often refer to as The First Thanksgiving. This feast was never repeated, though, so it can’t be called the beginning of a tradition, nor was it termed by the colonists or Pilgrims a Thanksgiving Feast. In fact, a day of thanksgiving was a day of prayer and fasting, and would have been held any time that they felt an extra day of thanks was called for. Nevertheless, the 1621 feast has become a model that we think of for our own Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims were not the first people to have a celebration of this kind.
Many other civilizations held festivals to celebrate the harvest. The ancient Greeks and Romans prayed to the gods and goddesses of the harvest, and also originated the idea of the cornucopia–the horn of plenty. The Jews celebrate the holiday Sukkot, which honors the awards of the harvest, and the Chinese enjoy the celebration of the Harvest Moon. Even native New Yorkers commemorate the harvest long before Thanksgiving arrives. Pumpkins, apples and corn are abundant in the open-air markets of the city beginning in late September. The autumn of 1621 yielded a plentiful harvest and the Pilgrims, gathered together with the Massasoit Indians to reap the awards of hard work.
Celebrating Thanksgiving is like celebrating an even that includes the dead of over 11,000 Wampanoag Indians died due to illnesses that they contracted from white settlers. The truth of the matter is, when the Pilgrims arrived, they found an abandoned Wampanoag village and moved right in. In 1618, a massive epidemic of an unknown disease left by English explorers swept across Wampanoag country and decimated many of the villages. This epidemic caused the death of ten to thirty percent of the total population and all but a few of the 2,000 people of the village of Patuxet.
When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they landed at Patuxet with no idea of what had occurred. At this point, there were only about 2,000 members left in the Wampanoag tribe, down from 12,000 in 1600. Despite the incredible losses to his people, Wampanoag leader Massasoit and 90 of his men sat down for a harvest celebration offered by the white men. For three days the Wampanoag and Pilgrims feasted on deer, wild turkey, fish, beans, squash, corn and other foods native to North America.
Although the celebration was good-natured, this event truly signifies the beginning of a drastic decline of native culture and Thanksgiving would be more fittingly observed as a day of mourning rather than a celebration. In the years that followed, skirmishes occurred and more Native Americans were killed. In 1637, English soldiers massacred 700 Pequot men, women and children as an example of the English way of war, yet we still celebrate Thanksgiving as a joyful event. So, as we sit down for our Thanksgiving dinner, let us consider the words of Frank James in his 1970 speech: Today is a time of celebrating for you. .
. but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my people. When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end.American History