The First Thanksgiving 1621

Thanksgiving Celebrations: Remembering the Legend

The First Thanksgiving 1621
The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899), a romanticized and greatly distorted rendition. (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)

Gratitude justifies the holiday, but in actuality Thanksgiving devolves too often into narcissism and gluttony. A good number of celebrants are thankful for nothing more than being who they are and enjoying the lives they are blessed to have. That may extend to the people who have made their lives so precious: family, friends, loved ones of all sorts. But still it’s themselves they are grateful for. And then they eat. And eat. And eat some more. And then go for dessert, and maybe a second piece of pie with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. Mmmmm, don’t we have so much to be grateful for?

The Legend of the First Thanksgiving

Does anyone remember the legend of the first Thanksgiving? It has to do with a band of Puritan religious dissenters who we know as “Pilgrims.” This pious company of zealots fled their English homeland to find some reprieve from religious persecution. They had been granted a refuge in the new American colony of Virginia. Unfortunately their little boat lost its way across the sea and ended up far to the north. It was late in the year, and a brutal New England winter was threatening. The desperate Puritans hunkered down in their cramped boat and settled in for the freezing months ahead. By spring half of them had died.

That much seems certain. Here history gets a little fuzzy in recounting the legend. Indians play a big role in the story, but given the racist views of the colonists, and of the nineteenth-century Americans who canonized the legend with a national holiday (and the general dismissal of native peoples even today), it’s hard to imagine Squanto and his compatriots as heroes of the story. It’s doubtful that the Puritans thought of their indigenous rescuers as anything more than the agents of God’s grace offering the means to plant the Christian word in the American wilderness. In their minds, the whole Pilgrim adventure, its tragedies and triumphs, were all the work of a Calvinist god working according to his (their god was unequivocally male) cosmic plan. Indians were merely stock characters in this divine drama.

Getting a Foothold in America

In any case, the legend goes, the little Puritan colony took root in the rocky soil of New England. They sowed crops with the help of friendly Indians, and when the harvest had been brought in and winter stores secured, the pious English interlopers invited their Indian friends to celebrate.

Turkeys were killed, potatoes boiled and mashed to creamy white, cranberries were made into bittersweet sauce (not the canned stuff available at the local grocer, but made with real berries collected in local bogs), pumpkins baked into pies (in the southern version of the legend, the pies are pecan), and a full cornucopia of local delights now long forgotten stacked on tables awaiting the feast.

They gathered, they prayed a long sermon of gratitude to the Christian god who had delivered them to this new land, and they sat in happy celebration, laughing and joking and feeling pretty full of themselves. Unfortunately for them, there was no after-supper football to watch—this was centuries before the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions began their traditional Thanksgiving Day games. Presumably the Indians returned half-naked to their forest homes while the happy Pilgrims hung their funny hats on wooden pegs and changed into bedclothes for a long autumn slumber, happy, safe, comfortable, and ever grateful.

Resisting the Legend

The legend makes a good story. It presents a beneficent, benign colonialism made possible by the hospitality and generosity of Indians not a bit bothered by these zealous sycophants come to claim the native homelands. Of course, the story we tell ourselves, and have schoolchildren across the country solemnly reenact in historically dubious Thanksgiving pageants, does not bother with how this all looked from the perspective of the Wampanoag people.

They have their own legends, though descendants of the Pilgrims have little use to hear the native version. In 1970 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, according to the Wampanoag people, refused to include the Wampanoag leader Wamsutta (Frank) James at an event celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. Organizers of the celebration had heard that Mr. James planned to detail atrocities and broken promises foisted on his people over the intervening centuries. He had written in a speech prepared for the event (but never delivered), “We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end.”  The good people of Massachusetts wanted nothing of it. They preferred their own version of the first Thanksgiving, a big happy meal among friends.

A Day of Mourning

Many native peoples observe Thanksgiving with sorrow. For nearly a half century a crowd has gathered on the fourth Thursday of November each year at Plymouth Rock to celebrate the “National Day of Mourning.” For them, “It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”

National day of mourning rally
National day of mourning rally, Coles Hill Plymouth, Massachusetts (Photo by United American Indians of New England,

For most Americans, though, mourning is not part of the Thanksgiving festivities. Instead, they celebrate with gratitude the privileged lives they lead, with too much food and drink, football, and strategic planning for the Black Friday sales binge. This is, after all, what that Puritan god wanted for America. ♨

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