The history behind your turkey and gravy

by Michael Sun, News Reporter, and Lily Zarr, News Editor
graphic by Lauren Ramos

As students and faculty prepare for Thanksgiving this year, images from the traditional Thanksgiving origin story come to mind: icons of Pilgrims with buckles on their hats and Native Americans dressed in feather headdresses. However, the story of Thanksgiving has been heavily mythologized, and there is much more to it than the lighthearted hand-turkeys we were taught was the spirit of Thanksgiving.

When the Pilgrims first arrived at Plymouth in 1620, they were underprepared and struggled to survive. Although they were aided by food stores they found in an abandoned Native American village, over half of them died during the harsh winter. In the spring, they met with Native Americans for the first time, and a Patuxet named Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, taught them how to farm and survive off the land.

In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest along with the Wampanoag people, who joined them for three days. Not many details of this gathering are known as the primary sources are sparse, but this celebration is considered to be the original Thanksgiving. Although this was a peaceful gathering, the relationship between British colonists and Native Americans was strained. As the colonial presence increased, violent conflict emerged, ultimately leading to colonists taking over Native American land.

In the following years, the Pilgrims began to celebrate a day of harvest each fall or early winter, which was a common practice in many communities in colonial America. Days of thanks continued to be held in many areas of the country, but Thanksgiving did not become an official holiday until 1863. Some presidents had proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in the past, but it was Abraham Lincoln who made the holiday official to promote reflection and stability during the Civil War. 

As the years progressed, new traditions were added, and Thanksgiving is now one of the most celebrated holidays. Events — from football games to national parades — fall on or close to Thanksgiving; the president even pardons a turkey each year. Today, Thanksgiving is associated with large sales, with Black Friday and Cyber Monday falling shortly after it.

History and psychology teacher Paul Estin said that although Thanksgiving was originally a harvest holiday, he doesn’t associate it with its historical meaning.

“If it were really a harvest holiday, it should come earlier [because] late November in New England is long past harvest time,” he said. “So I’ve never really managed to connect it so much with its traditional roots.” 

History teacher Julie Masi said that to her, Thanksgiving is a time to spend time with her family and be grateful. Regardless, when thinking of the historical context, she said there should be a focus on the oftentimes unacknowledged relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers.

“We should remember the contributions that Indigenous tribes made and [what they] did for the early settlers in New England and across the colonies,” she said. “We should also remember the many violent conflicts and clashes and efforts to really wipe out Indigenous populations that happened later.”

English teacher Alan Reinstein said that although he enjoys the holiday, he realizes that it is important to acknowledge Thanksgiving’s history.

“It’s a celebration of coming to this place and not a celebration of the land itself,” he said. “Since it, in principle, ignores the Native people, I’m a part of that problem because I’ve always enjoyed Thanksgiving. It’s a lovely time to bring forth some gratitude.”