What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving




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By Jessica Greenburg

   The majority of Americans look forward to Thanksgiving.  There’s plenty of home-cooked food, sporting events broadcasted on television, a chance to reconnect with family, and hard-to-beat bargains on the day after, known as Black Friday, sales.  The majority of Americans also think they know the story of the first Thanksgiving. However, many are incredibly mistaken.
   The modern idea of Thanksgiving, which includes pilgrims and American Indians peacefully enjoying a meal of turkey and other foods at a feast they had planned to celebrate their friendship, is a manufactured concept, a rewriting of history. This idea was not prominent until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of the month of November.
   Here’s where it gets tricky.
   In 1939, the last Thursday of November fell on the last day of the month. Retailers were upset because they were afraid that, since most Americans do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving, shoppers would buy less merchandise. The retailers begged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the next-to-last Thursday of November. He agreed, and in 1940 Thanksgiving was again held on the next-to-last Thursday of the month. However, sales statistics showed that shoppers didn’t buy any less merchandise based on when Thanksgiving was held, so it was unnecessary to change the date of Thanksgiving. So, to settle the matter once and for all, the United States Congress stepped in and declared that Thanksgiving would be held on the fourth Thursday of November every year.
   Right here, we see that the date of Thanksgiving itself was not planned to honor a historic moment – but rather to boost retail sales. Now let’s turn to the story of the first Thanksgiving.
   The previously mentioned idyllic picture of pilgrims and American Indians sharing a meal that is taught in elementary schools across the country was created during the Civil War by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s book. Hale’s intentions were admirable – she wished to bring a nation torn apart by conflicting ideas back together. A clever way to do this was to celebrate an earlier partnership between two diverse sets of people living in the same land.  Hale wrote to President Lincoln, who agreed to use this story and holiday as a way to draw the feuding Americans back together. This tale of friendship in the worst of times caught on – and has never faded from prominence in American culture.
   The true story, however, is much grimmer.  In 1637, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, proclaimed a day of thanks for the safe return of a group of hunters from the colony. Some of these colonists decided to celebrate by going to loot a village.  And loot they did; over 700 Pequot Indians were massacred and their supplies stolen. The colonists later had a feast, and a few non-Pequot Indians who wandered by did partake in some of the food, some people say because the colonists were frightened of revenge. But the pristine picture later painted by white Americans was grossly inaccurate.
   Today, a group of American Indians known as the United American Indians of New England meet every year when most Americans are eating their own feast and watching football on television at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. These Indians have a Day of Mourning in which they remember the lives that were lost over 300 years ago.
   The modern holiday of Thanksgiving is evidently dreamt up by the American government in an attempt to draw together its citizens - but ultimately ends up isolating an entire sub-culture of the population.
   The final decision on what should be celebrated each November is in the hands of individual Americans: should we celebrate the slaughter of innocent people? The achievements of both the native peoples and the colonists who settled in the plentiful land? Or the wholesome image that makes people feel good about eating, shopping, and not having to go to work?



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