Reframing Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving cartoon

In his much-acclaimed book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James W. Loewen evaluates the misrepresentations and often omitting of historical truths in textbooks, explaining how myths of our history continue to be perpetuated today. The third chapter of his book, “The Truth About the First Thanksgiving,” offers a sobering and at times much more interesting outlook on one of our most celebrated holidays.

The “First Thanksgiving” story many of us have been taught involves Pilgrims coming to America on the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth Rock, and sharing in a bountiful feast with the Indians (most likely involving a giant turkey and an overflowing cornucopia, one of my favorite things to draw in elementary school). I have a distinct memory of dressing up as an Indian, complete with a leather dress and feathers in my braided pigtails, while other classmates wore Pilgrim attire, for our very own reenactment of the First Thanksgiving. Activities like these are fun for young students because they involve playing make-believe, dressing up in costumes, and eating yummy food.

But Loewen would argue that there are a lot of mistruths behind this story. What many of us don’t know, or at least what isn’t being conveyed in most American history textbooks, is that a devastating plague had swept through North and South America before the Pilgrims arrived. Loewen tells us that “for decades, British and French fishermen had fished off the Massachusetts coast…it is likely that these fishermen transmitted some illness to the people they met. The plague that ensued made the Black Death pale by comparison…within three years the plague wiped out between 90 percent and 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England,” (70). The epidemic spread west, not stopping until it reached the Pacific Coast.

When the Pilgrims got to Plymouth, which, as Loewen points out, was likely not their intended destination, they found not “virgin wilderness,” as is it often characterized, but entire established, settled villages decimated and abandoned, the ground littered with corpses because no one was left to bury them. The Pilgrims faced no threat from the Indians when they arrived: “Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader, was eager to ally with the Pilgrims because the plague had so weakened his villages” (72). Loewen goes on to point out that Pilgrims stole food and crops from what few Indians remained alive, some even robbing their graves.

There is also the story of Squanto, who some of us may remember as being the Indian that knew how to speak English and taught the Pilgrims how to plant things. But what many textbooks leave out is how Squanto learned the English language, and the near-mythical journey and toil that he endured under the hands of British and Spanish slave traders. After being captured by a British captain and taken back to England, Squanto served 9 years as an employed slave, then returned back to Massachusetts, only to be seized again by another British slave raider and sold into slavery in Spain. Squanto then escaped from slavery and Spain and returned to Massachusetts by way of England and Newfoundland. When he finally arrived, he found his home village Patuxet – aka Plymouth – in ruins. He had no other choice than to comply with the Pilgrims, and “as translator, ambassador, and technical advisor, Squanto was essential to the survival of Plymouth in its first two years” (84).

Loewen shares other fascinating information about this time, including cannibalism in the early Virginia colony, and concludes this about our celebration of Thanksgiving:

“The civil ritual we practice marginalizes Indians. Our archetypal image of the first Thanksgiving portrays…the Pilgrims in their starched Sunday best next to their almost naked Indian guests…The notion that ‘we’ advanced peoples provided for the Indians, exactly the converse of the truth, is not benign. It reemerges time and again in our history to complicate race relations. For example, we are told that white plantation owners furnished food and medical care for their slaves, yet every shred of food, shelter, and clothing on the plantations was raised, built, woven, or paid for by black labor. Today Americans believe as part of our political understanding of the world that we are the most generous nation on earth in terms of foreign aid, overlooking the fact that the net dollar flow from almost every Third World nations runs toward the United States.” (86)

So even though Thanksgiving is a great time to enjoy being with family and loved ones and practice gratitude for the gifts we have been given, it’s important to know the real history behind this holiday. By being cognizant of these historical truths, we are recognizing the marginalization of Native Americans in our history, reframing history and changing the perspective of one of our country’s most significant events. Awareness of these truths, whether in a classroom setting or maybe even integrated into your own observance of Thanksgiving, can also help foster community building. By acknowledging marginalized groups and gaining a better understanding of our collective experience, we are taking ownership of our learning and creating new ties that unite us as a community of learners and Americans.

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: New Press, 1995.

  • Read an excerpt from “The Truth About the First Thanksgiving” on google books
  • Find the entire book on Amazon
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