It was only after World War I that a version of a partnership of 17th-century European pilgrims and New England Indians sharing a celebratory meal took hold in elementary schools across America. We can thank the invention of textbooks and their mass purchase by public schools for embedding this “Thanksgiving” image in our society.
The event commonly called the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. European settlements were already accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings,” thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.
In the 16th century, Spaniards held Thanksgiving services routinely in what was to become the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607. Jamestown, Va., held a thanksgiving in 1610.
Early 18th-century colonies observed days of thanksgiving at different times, designating a day of thanksgiving in honor of military victory, adoption of state constitution or an exceptionally bountiful harvest.
A Thanksgiving Day celebration was held in December 1777 by colonies nationwide, commemorating the surrender of British General Burgoyne at Saratoga.
The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was given by the Continental Congress in 1777, its temporary location being York, Pa., while the British occupied the national capital at Philadelphia.
John Hanson, president of the Continental Congress, on Oct. 11, 1782, declared that the fourth Thursday of every November was to be Thanksgiving Day. This proclamation was published in The Independent Gazetteer and the Chronicle of Freedom the following month.
In September 1789, Congressman Elias Boudinot, of New Jersey, proposed the House and Senate ask President George Washington to proclaim a day of thanksgiving. The following month, George Washington created the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the government.
President John Adams declared Thanksgivings in 1798 and 1799. James Madison renewed the tradition in 1814 and again later. Thanksgiving Day was annually appointed by the governor of New York in 1817.
As we give thanks this holiday season, let us not forget there is a darker side to our November tradition of Thanksgiving.
In mid-winter 1620, the English ship Mayflower landed on the North American coast, delivering 102 exiles. The original people of this stretch of shoreline had already been killed off.
In 1614, a British expedition had landed there. When they left, they took 24 Indians as slaves and left smallpox behind. Three years of plague wiped out up to 96 percent of the inhabitants of the coast, destroying most of the villages.
By the time the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts Bay, they found only one living Patuxet Indian named Squanto, who had survived slavery in England and knew their language. He taught them to grow corn and how to fish, and he negotiated a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Nation. At the end of their first year, the Pilgrims held a great feast honoring Squanto and the Wampanoags.
As word spread in England about the paradise to be found in the new world, religious zealots, Puritans, began arriving by the boatload. Finding no fences around the land, they considered it to be in the public domain. Joined by other British settlers, they seized land and captured strong young Natives, enslaving some and killing others.
But the Pequot Nation had not agreed to the peace treaty Squanto had negotiated, and they fought back.
The Pequot War was one of the bloodiest Indian wars ever fought.
In 1637, Massachusetts Colony Gov. John Winthrop proclaimed a “Thanksgiving” to celebrate the safe return of a band of colonial volunteers who had just returned from what is now Mystic, Conn., where they massacred 700 Pequot Indians.
A group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill for what they say is a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a statue of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember the long departed.
This holiday season, don’t forget to be thankful for family, friends and fortune — and for not being around to welcome Europeans to this continent.