Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to AskEverything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask by Anton Treuer

What is the real story of Thanksgiving?

There are parts of the Wampanoag-Puritan relationship that have been correctly incorporated into the Thanksgiving narrative. But there are many dimensions to Puritan-Indian relations that have been greatly embellished and exaggerated.

Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag forged a peaceful relationship with the Puritans. A Patuxet Indian named Tisquantum, or Squanto, who had briefly been a captive in England, lived with the Wampanoag in the early 1600s when this relationship developed. Massasoit, Squanto, and many Wampanoag did teach the Puritans how to farm corn, beans, and squash, rotate crops, maintain soil fertility, and survive in the harsh New England climate. So this first part of the Thanksgiving myth bears some truth.

However, there is no evidence of a tribal-white harvest celebration during the first Puritan winter in America in 1621. Although the Wampanoag, Pequot, and other Indians in the region routinely celebrated their fall harvest, the first evidence of a white-tribal harvest celebration appears in 1637. Also, it is an obvious romanticization to assume that the Indian-white relationship was all peace, hugs, and good eating. Metacom, also known as King Philip, was one of Massasoit’s sons. In 1675, a chain of events led to a massive conflict sometimes called King Philip’s War. Around 5 percent of the white population and 40 percent of the native population in the region was killed. Metacom’s wife and children were sold as slaves in the West Indies, and the chief himself was killed by the Puritans. His head was placed on a pike and displayed in the village of Plymouth for more than twenty years.

The real Thanksgiving—it was complicated. Thanksgiving wasn’t established as a holiday until the Civil War era and didn’t become a formal federal holiday until 1941.