By Kelli Breland, A&E Editor

The word “Thanksgiving” usually brings forward images of steaming turkey, buttery mashed potatoes, festive cornucopias and happy pilgrims sharing a meal with “the Indians.”

Corporate marketing, elementary school classrooms and cultural traditions often spread and reinforce this joyful modern day connotation of our celebrated historical event’s name.

As a society we focus on these positive aspects, and in many cases, we don’t really look past the decorations and Thanksgiving Day sales at all.

But these connotations and traditions take into account only a fraction of the issues and events that surrounded the real first Thanksgiving.

This year, be thankful that you were not a ‘pilgrim’ of the Plymouth colony. This Puritan colony, located in what is now Massachusetts, was founded in 1620.

Plymouth’s first Governor, Edward Winslow, declared the first Thanksgiving in the early 1620s, although it was not an official holiday until the late 1860s. According to the writings of Winslow and other salvaged primary documents and artifacts, life in the colonies was far from picturesque at the time.

Consider the fact that 104 colonists embarked on the Mayflower in September 1620. After enduring a grueling, 66-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean that killed two passengers, the survivors landed near Plymouth Rock, Mass.

During the first winter alone, almost half of the remaining 102 colonists perished from cold, sickness and starvation. Research conducted by physical anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution confirms that conditions across the colonies were so bad that the Jamestown colony, which was the original destination of the Mayflower, had to resort to cannibalism to survive.

To continue living, the undernourished and unprepared Plymouth colony formed a pact with the local Wampanoag tribe. The colonists received food and resources as well as hunting and agricultural lessons, while the Wampanoags received protection from enemy tribes.

This transactional relationship between the colonists and the Wampanoags sparked a three-day feast and celebration that we now refer to as the first Thanksgiving.

Yet the story does not end with a happy celebration of peace, prosperity and exchange. In the following five decades, colonial expansion and political tensions chipped away at Plymouth’s relationship with the Wampanoag tribe.

During King Phillip’s War, which lasted from 1675-1676, the Plymouth colonists fought against the Wampanoags, who had joined three other native nations. The war almost completely wiped out the Wampanoags.

Now, in modern times, we need to take this historical information into account as we consider how we view our beloved holiday, Thanksgiving. This single event was a positive product of colonization, as it resulted in benefits for both the colonists and the natives for a certain period of time.

But it’s the other moments in history — moments of war, sickness and death — that caused and were effected by the first Thanksgiving that we need to take into account.

We need to look at the whole picture of before, during and after the Plymouth colonies feast with the Wampanoag tribe. Just focusing on the Thanksgiving moment disregards these important moments of history in a way that some people even find disrespectful.

In fact, there are modern day movements in the United States called “Unthanksgiving Day” and “National Day of Mourning.” According to one website,, “the organizers consider the national holiday of Thanksgiving Day as a reminder of the democide and continued suffering of the Native American peoples.”

Whether you believe in Thanksgiving or Unthanksgiving, one thing remains clear — it is important to remember we have this holiday because of a 400-year-old history of collaboration between two groups of people.

As you cut into your slice of succulent turkey this year, take away the positive aspects of Thanksgiving, but don’t ignore the suffering, war and conflict that preceded and came after the first Thanksgiving as a result of colonization. ◼︎

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