The true story behind Thanksgiving is a bloody one, and some people say it's time to cancel the holiday

Áine Cain and Joey Hadden


Peace between the English and the Wampanoag fell apart within a generation. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

  • Most children in the US do not learn the real history of Thanksgiving in school.

  • The well-known story of Thanksgiving is an account of how the English Pilgrims and local Native Americans came together for a celebratory meal in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

  • In reality, peace didn't last between the English settlers and their one-time Wampanoag allies, and the two became embroiled in a devastating war just a generation after the famous feast.

  • Some people view the holiday as a reminder of the systemic racism and oppression Native Americans continue to experience in the US.

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While celebrations may look different this year in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Thanksgiving is typically a time for family, parades, lots of delicious food, and, oftentimes, intense travel snarls.

American schoolchildren are usually taught that the tradition dates back to the Pilgrims, English religious dissenters who helped to establish the Plymouth Colony in present-day Massachusetts in 1620.

As the story goes, friendly local Native Americans swooped in to teach the struggling colonists how to survive in the New World. Then everyone got together to celebrate with a feast in 1621.

Attendees included at least 90 men from the Wampanoag tribe and the 50 or so surviving Mayflower passengers, according to Time.

The bash lasted three days and featured a menu including deer, fowl, and corn, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

In reality, Thanksgiving feasts predate Plymouth — numerous localities have tried to claim the first Thanksgiving for themselves.

And the peace brokered at Plymouth didn't last long.

The real story behind the holiday is so dark, in fact, that some people are rethinking how they celebrate the holiday, or whether they should at all.


A group of school kids gathered at the statue of Massasoit, "Great Sachem of the Wampanoag's," on the hill overlooking Plymouth Rock and the harbor. Tom Herde/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Plymouth Thanksgiving of 1621 wasn't the first

Settlers in Berkeley Hundred in Virginia decided to celebrate their arrival with an annual Thanksgiving back in 1619, according to National Geographic — though The Washingtonian reported the meal was probably little more than some oysters and ham thrown together.

Decades before that, Spanish settlers and members of the Seloy tribe broke bread with salted pork, garbanzo beans, and a Mass in 1565 Florida, according to the National Parks Service.

Our modern definition of Thanksgiving revolves around eating turkey, but in past centuries it was more of an occasion for religious observance.

The storied 1621 Plymouth festivities live on in popular memory, but the Pilgrims themselves would have most likely considered their sober 1623 day of prayer the first true "Thanksgiving," according to the History of Massachusetts Blog.

Others pinpoint 1637 as the true origin of Thanksgiving, owing to the fact that the Massachusetts colony governor John Winthrop declared a day to celebrate colonial soldiers who had just slaughtered hundreds of Pequot men, women, and children in what is now Mystic, Connecticut.

Regardless, the popular telling of the initial harvest festival is what lived on, thanks to Abraham Lincoln.

The enduring holiday has also nearly erased from our collective memory what happened between the Wampanoag and the English a generation later.


Our popular understanding of the history of Thanksgiving is flawed. Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Tensions grew between the Wampanoag and the English settlers years after the Plymouth Thanksgiving.

Massasoit, the sachem, or paramount chief, of the Wampanoag, proved to be a crucial ally to the English settlers in the years after the establishment of Plymouth. He set up an exclusive trade pact with the newcomers and allied with them against the French and other local tribes like the Narragansett and the Massachusetts.

But the alliance became strained over time.

Thousands of English colonists poured into the region throughout the 17th century. According to "Historic Contact: Indian People and Colonists in Today's Northeastern United States," authorities in Plymouth began asserting control over "most aspects of Wampanoag life," as settlers increasingly ate up more land.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History estimated disease had already reduced the Native American population in New England by as much as 90% from 1616 to 1619, and Indigenous people continued to die from what the colonists called "Indian fever."


Massasoit meeting with Gov. John Carver while other North American men stood nearby. CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

By the time Massasoit's son Metacomet — known to the English as "King Philip" — inherited leadership, relations had frayed. King Phillip's War was sparked when several of Metacomet's men were executed for the murder of the Punkapoag interpreter and Christian convert John Sassamon.

Wampanoag warriors responded by embarking on a series of raids, and the New England Confederation of Colonies declared war in 1675.

The initially neutral Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was ultimately dragged into the fighting, as were other nearby tribes like the Narragansett.

Peace between the Wampanoag and the English settlers didn't last

The war was bloody and devastating.

Springfield, Massachusetts, was burned to the ground. The Wampanoag abducted colonists for ransom. English forces attacked the Narragansett on a bitter, frozen swamp for harboring fleeing Wampanoag.

Six hundred Narragansett members were killed, and the tribe's winter stores were ruined, according to Atlas Obscura. Colonists in far-flung settlements relocated to more fortified areas while the Wampanoag and allied tribes were forced to flee their villages.

The colonists ultimately allied with several tribes like the Mohegans and the Pequots, despite initial reluctance from the Plymouth leadership.


The colonial assault on the Narragansett fort in the Great Swamp Fight in December 1675. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Metacomet was dealt a staggering blow when he crossed over into New York to recruit allies. Instead, he was rebuffed and attacked by Mohawks. Upon his return to his ancestral home at Mount Hope, he was shot and killed in a final battle.

The son of the man who had sustained and celebrated with the Plymouth Colony was then beheaded and dismembered, according to "It Happened in Rhode Island." His remaining allies were killed or sold into slavery in the West Indies. The colonists impaled "King Phillip's" head on a spike and displayed it in Plymouth for 25 years.

In an article published in The Historical Journal of Massachusetts, the Montclair State University professor Robert E. Cray Jr. said the war's ultimate death toll could have been as high as 30% of the English population and half of the Native Americans in New England.

The war was just one of a series of brutal but dimly remembered early wars between Native Americans and colonists in New England, New York, and Virginia.

Popular memory has largely clung to the innocuous image of a harvest celebration while ignoring the deadly forces that would ultimately drive apart from the descendants of the guests of that very feast.

The holiday's dark past has some people rethinking Thanksgiving

Racial injustice in the US came to the forefront in 2020. With the coronavirus pandemic disproportionally affecting people of color and police brutality drawing attention across the US and the world, some people say it's time to reevaluate the meaning and celebration of the holiday.

Teachers, professors, and Native Americans told The New York Times about how they had rethought the holiday. Giving it new names, like "Takesgiving" and "The Thanksgiving Massacre," they recommend sharing the holiday's true history at the family gathering.

Some Native Americans have been doing this for decades on a larger scale.

The United American Indians of New England have been mourning on Thanksgiving since 1970, per the New York Post.

On the National Day of Mourning, Native Americans gather in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for a day of remembrance. Prayers and speeches take place accompanied by beating drums before participants march through the Plymouth Historic District. The day's plaque says:


Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole's Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their cultures. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. 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. Erected by the Town of Plymouth on behalf of the United American Indians of New England

The holiday may be a celebration of people coming together, but that's not the whole story when it comes to the history of Thanksgiving.