Thanksgiving History 101

Eliza Clark
November 11, 2014

Thanksgiving is many things to many people: a welcome long weekend and rest from school and work; a time for extended families to gather from far and near; a major travel period with traffic jams and airport snarls galore; a giant collective cooking project; the Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloon parade; a time of service when shelters, churches, and community centers serve thousands of meals to those in need; a weekend to watch a lot of football; and the official kick-off to the holiday shopping frenzy.

Amidst the hullabaloo, it's easy to forget that Thanksgiving is also many children's first history lesson, although often an inadvertent one. Kids pick up on the history of the day from advertising, from holiday decorations featuring turkeys in pilgrim hats, and other less than historical sources.

Given that Thanksgiving is most children's introduction to early American history, it's worth taking some time to consider what we want to teach them about the origins of this beloved holiday.

Here are some commonly understood facts to start with:

When? The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621, 393 years ago!

Where? In Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Who? A group of English people called the Pilgrims who had sailed to America in 1620 and members of the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans. The Pilgrims' leader was named William Bradford; the Wampanoags' leader was named Massasoit.

Why? The Pilgrims were celebrating and giving thanks to God for a successful harvest and having survived their first year in Massachusetts. The Wampanoags helped the settlers grow crops and hunt game, and joined them for three days of feasting. The Wampanoags and the English had made a peace treaty the spring before.

And then what? The English settlers continued to thrive in America, but the peace between the Wampanoag and the English did not last beyond a generation. The Native people of Massachusetts were decimated by war and disease. New Englanders continued to celebrate Thanksgiving, and in 1863, President Lincoln declared it a national holiday.

Beyond the basic facts, teaching children about Thanksgiving is a chance to show them a bit about how history is made. Kids love stories, and that's what history is: a set stories about the past, based on surviving sources.

There are two primary sources that tell about the first Thanksgiving, and both are well worth reading aloud to your kids over the weekend or even around the dinner table. 

An excerpt from a letter by a Pilgrim sent to friends in England:

"And God be praised we had a good increase... Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty." (from Mourt'S Relation Or Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth

And an excerpt from William Bradford's history:

"They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which is place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports." (from Of Plymouth Plantation)

There are other ways to tell the history, though. To help kids see another side of the story, you can read to them an excerpt from a November 2014 statement by the current Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council:

"As you know, each November our people are faced with a challenging question: Is Thanksgiving a time of celebration or mourning?

I've come to realize that this is not an either/or question. It's both. Historically, Thanksgiving represents our first encounter with the eventual erosion of our sovereignty and there is nothing wrong with mourning that loss. In fact, as long as we don't wallow in regret and resentment, it's healthy to mourn. It is a necessary part of the healing process.

Still, though our sovereign nation may not be exactly where we would like to see it today, we are still here - striving for something better for our people. To see the wheel of history begin to slowly turn in our favor is something to be thankful for, and celebrate." (from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe web site)

For more ideas on teaching this important history, see:

National Geographic Kids - First Thanksgiving


Plimoth Plantation - Thanksgiving History

From the Parents

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