6 Things You Didn’t Know About The History Behind Thanksgiving

by Dawn Day

If you grew up in the United States, at some point in your elementary education you were probably asked to craft, color, read about or dress up like pilgrims and Indians around this time of year. I distinctly remember standing with the rest of my classmates, donning a paper bonnet and apron, as we performed a skit about sailing on the Mayflower and landing at Plymouth Rock. It wasn’t until I was 20 years old that I actually learned some of the real history behind Thanksgiving—like that the settlers plagued Native Americans with all kinds of devastation. Along with Thanksgiving’s origin story, it is a holiday with a rich history worth exploring. So in case you’ were duped by the U.S. school system too, or you just want some interesting convo starters to ease the awkward chit chat with Aunt Betty, here are six truths behind the history of Turkey Day. Warning: It might make you think differently about stuffing your gullet with pumpkin pie. 

1. Settlers did share a meal with the indigenous American people, but then they slaughtered them.

Accounts in the writings from different early settlers like William Bradford document the successful first harvest of the Mayflower’s travelers in 1621, and also describes Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe at the time, with about 90 men joining in on the three day festivities. Not too long after, the Pequot Massacre happened in 1637, where more than 700 Native American Indians were killed by colonists. Colonists lit the homes of the Native Americans on fire, and killed anybody who tried to escape. Bradford’s writings also confirm that they considered the people they were killing to be enemies. So much for the mythical idea that the Pilgrims and Indians lived happily ever after that so many schoolchildren across the nation have in their head. 

2. Every year the United American Indians of New England gather for a National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts.


The United American Indians of New England organize a gathering every year in Plymouth on the American Thanksgiving holiday to honor the indigenous ancestors who suffered at the hands of the European settlers. A National Day of Mourning takes place on the fourth Thursday of every November where Native Americans mourn the genocide of their people, and the land that was stripped from them. Participants often fast from sundown the night before through the afternoon of the demonstration as a way to recognize the importance of the day. The day involves a march through historic Plymouth, and speakers discuss history and current issues for native people in the Americas.

3. Abe Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving holiday after a Union victory during the Civil War.

One thing that gets lost amidst the pilgrims and Indians décor is that President Abraham Lincoln officially declared Thanksgiving in 1863 during the war-torn United States’ Civil War. The declaration came after the Union Army won a battle, leading the president to announce a national day of thanks. 

4. Turkeys first became the center of the T-Gives meal a little more than 150 years ago.

Andrew Smith, author of The Turkey: An American Story, said in an interview with Southern California Public Radio, that the pilgrims didn’t actually eat turkey at that very first famous meal in 1621. Smith said that turkeys were common at that time, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the bird became the center of the Thanksgiving feast.

5. FDR tried to move Thanksgiving to help the Great Depression.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt shifted Thanksgiving up a week in an attempt to get stores more cash. Since holiday shopping officially commences after Thanksgiving, FDR thought that moving Turkey Day would help stores get more sales since an extra week would be wedged in before Christmas. In 1941, however, Congress said, “Uh-uh, not cool,” to the prez, and it was changed back to the fourth week in November–just like honest Abe wanted.

6. Before Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, there were Ragamuffin parades—say what?

Last year NPR’s Linton Weeks reported a story titled, “When Thanksgiving Was Weird.” The story explains that Thanksgiving in the United States once upon a time involved kiddos dressing up like beggars and ragamuffins and asking, “Anything for Thanksgiving?” Reminds you a bit of Halloween costumes and, “Trick-or-Treat!” doesn’t it? Apparently this very popular tradition of Ragamuffin parades got washed away by another tradition that came about in 1947: The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Photos via Flickr/Chica and Jo, United American Indians of New EnglandFlickr/Library of Congress and Flickr/Library of Congress.

Published November 25, 2015

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