Will the Real Thanksgiving Please Stand Up?

Novia Wetzel

Thanksgiving — A cheerful holiday where family members all crowd around the dinner table and try not to kill each other over political drama while stuffing themselves silly with turkey meat. Thanksgiving wasn’t always like this. The holiday has a long history of rather iffy origins. Many historians still contend the details and nobody really knows when the very first Thanksgiving happened, but the Plymouth Thanksgiving is commonly thought to be the first.

The Plymouth celebration occurred in 1621 when the pilgrims had their first corn harvest with much success, thanks to the help of Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe. The governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, invited the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, along with their other allies. The celebration lasted three days and the menu did not include pies or cakes, but it most likely included deer and wild bird meat. However, the alliance between the Plymouth pilgrims and the Wampanoag would become strained overtime, and quickly fall apart once Massasoit’s son had taken over as chief.

Some have claimed that the original thanksgiving celebration predates Plymouth. The National Parks Service (NPS) claims that on September 8, 1565, decades before Plymouth, the 800 settlers of the St. Augustine settlement were the first people to celebrate Thanksgiving in America. The settlers celebrated Thanksgiving with the native Seloy people. According to the NPS, the meal may have consisted of stew, red wine, seafood, squash and turkey.

Another possible beginning of the celebration is the thanksgiving celebration of May 1637. John Winthrop, the Massachusetts colony governor, had declared that the colony celebrate a day of thanksgiving in honor of the colonial soldiers who had slaughtered hundreds of the Pequot people, ending their three year war against the tribe. This day is still remembered, but not as a day of festivities. Now, it is remembered as a Day of Mourning by the United American Indians of New England. The United American Indians mourn at the feet of a statue of Massasoit on Cole’s Hill, Plymouth Rock.

But why do we only know Plymouth as the first Thanksgiving when there are so many other celebrations that occurred earlier or closer to Plymouth? Well, we have President Abraham Lincoln to thank for that. After a famed writer of her time, Sarah Josepha Hale, wrote to several government officials and wrote several articles requesting to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, Lincoln made Thanksgiving the last Thursday of every November.

This Thanksgiving date was used until 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up by one week in an attempt to spur retail sales in the midst of the Great Depression. The change sparked outrage which eventually caused Roosevelt to unwillingly sign a bill in 1941, making Thanksgiving fall on the last Thursday of November once more.
There’s a lot of history behind this beloved holiday, more than kindergarten hand turkeys and pumpkin pies. Underneath the jolly Macy’s parades and the family slogans, you will find conflict, politics, and the exploitation of indigenous people.