Even though Greece doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, I went to an American school so the family and I sort of do — mostly because we love the idea of a day dedicated to gratitude. In that spirit, I am very grateful to all of you for your love and support all these years! And to all my American friends, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!
People of the First Light
The actual history of what happened in 1621 bears little resemblance to what most Americans are taught in grade school, historians say. There was likely no turkey served. There were no feathered headdresses worn. And, initially, there was no effort by the Pilgrims to invite the Wampanoags to the feast they’d made possible.
The Wampanoags, whose name means “People of the First Light” in their native language, trace their ancestors back at least 10,000 years to southeastern Massachusetts, a land they called Patuxet.
In the 1600s, they lived in 69 villages, each with a chief, or sachem, and a medicine man. They had “messenger runners,” members of the tribe with good memories and the endurance to run to neighboring villages to deliver messages.
They occupied a land of plenty, hunting deer, elk, and bear in the forests, fishing for herring and trout, and harvesting quahogs in the rivers and bays. They planted corn and used fish remains as fertilizer. In the winter, they moved inland from the harsh weather, and in the spring they moved to the coastlines.
They had traded — and fought — with European explorers since 1524.
Tisquantum, aka Squanto
In 1614, before the arrival of the Pilgrims, the English lured a well-known Wampanoag — Tisquantum, who was called Squanto by the English — and 20 other Wampanoag men onto a ship with the intention of selling them into slavery in Malaga, Spain. Squanto spent years trying to get back to his homeland.
During his absence, the Wampanoags were nearly wiped out by a mysterious disease that some Wampanoags believe came from the feces of rats aboard European boats, while other historians think it was likely smallpox or possibly yellow fever.
Known as “The Great Dying,” the pandemic lasted three years.
By the time Squanto returned home in 1619, two-thirds of his people had been killed by it. The English explorer Thomas Dermer described the once-populous villages along the banks of the bay as being “utterly void” of people.
The Pilgrims Come
In 1620, the English aboard the Mayflower made their way to Plymouth after making landfall in Provincetown. The Wampanoags watched warily as women and children got off the boat but knew their interactions with the Europeans would be different this time. After all, you don’t bring your women and children if you’re planning to fight. In their first winter, half the Europeans died due to cold, starvation, and disease.
The Wampanoags kept tabs on the Pilgrims for months but they had more pressing concerns. Ousamequin, often referred to as Massasoit, which is his title and means “great sachem,” faced a nearly impossible situation. His nation’s population had been ravaged by disease, and he needed to keep peace with the neighboring Narragansetts. He probably reasoned that the better weapons of the English — guns versus his people’s bows and arrows — would make them better allies than enemies.
In the spring of 1621, he made the first contact. It wasn’t that he was being kind or friendly, he was in dire straits and being strategic. The natives were desperately trying to not become extinct.
By the fall, the Pilgrims — thanks in large part to the Wampanoags teaching them how to plant beans and squash in a mound with maize around it and use fish remains as fertilizer — had their first harvest of crops. To celebrate its first success as a colony, the Pilgrims had a “harvest feast” that became the basis for what’s now called Thanksgiving.
The Wampanoags weren’t invited.
Ousamequin and his men showed up only after the English in their revelry shot off some of their muskets. At the sound of gunfire, the Wampanoags came running, fearing they were headed to war. One hundred warriors show up armed to the teeth after they heard the muskets fired.
Told it was a harvest celebration, the Wampanoags joined, bringing five deer to share. There was fowl, fish, eel, shellfish, and possibly cranberries from the area’s natural bogs. This feast lasted three days and was attended by 90 Wampanoag and 53 Pilgrims.
It was the first Thanksgiving. And it kicked off colonization.
A 1789 Massachusetts law made it illegal and “punishable by death” to teach a Mashpee Wampanoag Indian to read or write. The English pushed the Wampanoag off their land and forced many to convert to Christianity. There was a pray-or-die policy at one point: if you didn’t become a Christian, you had to run away or be killed.
Wampanoag land that had been held in common was eventually divided up, with each family getting 60 acres, and a system of taxation was put in place — both antithetical to Wampanoag culture.
Much later, the Wampanoags, like other tribes, also saw their children sent to harsh Indian boarding schools, where they were told to cut their long hair, abandon their “Indian ways,” and stop speaking their native language.
Tribe members were sent to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, which became the first government-run boarding school for Native American children in 1879. Its founder, Civil War veteran and Army Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt, was an advocate of forced assimilation, invoking the motto: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
But the Wampanoags persevered. Paula Peters is a Mashpee Wampanoag who is an author and educator on Native American history. When she was 8 years old, she said, a schoolteacher explained Thanksgiving to the students. After the story, another child asked, “What happened to the Indians?”
The teacher answered, “Sadly, they’re all dead.”
“No, they’re not,” Paula Peters replied. “I’m still here.”
In the 1970s, the Mashpee Wampanoags sued to reclaim some of their ancestral homelands. But they lost, in part, because a federal judge said they weren’t then officially recognized as a tribe.
The Mashpee Wampanoags filed for federal recognition in the mid-1970s, and more than three decades later, in 2007, they were granted that status.
In 2015, about 300 acres were put in federal trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag under President Barack Obama. That essentially gave them a reservation, although it is composed of dozens of parcels that are scattered throughout the Cape Cod area and represents half of 1 percent of their land historically.
President Donald Trump’s administration tried to take the land out of trust, jeopardizing their ability to develop it.
Mashpee Wampanoag tribal officials said they’re still awaiting final word from the Department of the Interior — now led by Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head the agency — on the status of their land.
While they are waiting, the Wampanoags are dealing with other serious issues, including the coronavirus pandemic. The tribe paid for hotel rooms for covid-infected members so elders in multigenerational households wouldn’t get sick.
Even before the pandemic, the Wampanoags struggled with chronically high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, cancers, suicide, and opioid abuse. In the expensive Cape Cod area, many Wampanoags can’t afford housing and must live elsewhere.
They also worry about overdevelopment and pollution threatening waterways and wildlife.
“The land is always our first interest,” said Vernon “Silent Drum” Lopez, the 99-year-old Mashpee Wampanoag chief. “It’s our survival.”
Five years ago, the tribe started a school on its land that has about two dozen kids, who range in age from 2 to 9. They learn math, science, history, and other subjects in their native Algonquian language. The tribe also offers language classes for older tribal members, many of whom were forced to not speak their language and eventually forgot it.
A National day of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving had been celebrated nationally on and off since 1789, with a proclamation by President George Washington after a request by Congress. However, the celebration was at the discretion of the President. President Thomas Jefferson chose not to observe the holiday at all.
Each State celebrated it differently — if at all. Some States celebrated Thanksgiving as early as October and others as late as January. It was largely unknown in the American South. Its celebration was intermittent until President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, calling on the American people to also, “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience… fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation.”
Sarah Josepha Hale
Lincoln had been prompted to do so by a series of editorials by Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale was an American writer, activist, and influential editor. She was also the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Hale may be the individual most responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Her advocacy for the national holiday began as early as 1827 and lasted decades until it was successful.
Hale, who wanted to improve her country and promote patriotism, wanted Thanksgiving to become a unifying holiday that celebrated peace. However, Southerners rejected the holiday as another Northern imposition. In Virginia, Governor Henry Wise scoffed that he refused to acknowledge the “theatrical national claptrap that is Thanksgiving.”
The holiday was personal to Sarah Hale. As a New Englander, Hale regularly celebrated Thanksgiving with her family. In Northwood, her 1827 novel, Hale devoted a full chapter to the holiday. She also saw Thanksgiving as an opportunity to bring Americans together in a time of increasing polarization. When war broke out between North and South, Hale saw Thanksgiving as more important than ever.
In a letter to Lincoln dated Sept. 28, 1863, Hale encouraged the president to make an “immediate proclamation” recognizing Thanksgiving as a national holiday. She openly linked the holiday with the war effort, calling it “fitting and patriotic” to hold Thanksgiving as a “great Union Festival of America.” The editor encouraged Lincoln to choose the last Thursday in November for the holiday in memory of George Washington’s 1789 day of Thanksgiving. Since Nov. 26, 1863, was less than two months away, Hale gently suggested that “an immediate proclamation would be necessary.”
Less than a week after receiving Hale’s letter, Lincoln issued the proclamation Hale recommended. In his Oct. 3, 1863 proclamation, the president explained, “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, the American people should take some time for gratitude.”
Even when Lincoln finally proclaimed a national Thanksgiving day, Sarah wasn’t done. She started promoting different ways to celebrate the holiday and wrote numerous editorials in her magazine, suggesting recipes appropriate for the holiday. Many of those recipes became traditional thanks to her — among them, the tradition of a turkey dinner and pumpkin pie.
Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the date was moved to one week earlier, observed between 1939 and 1941 amid significant controversy. From 1942 onwards, Thanksgiving, by an act of Congress, signed into law by FDR, received a permanent observation date, the fourth Thursday in November, no longer at the discretion of the President.