Why Do We Celebrate Thanksgiving? 7 Dark History of Thanksgiving

A painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris depicting the first Thanksgiving.Credit...Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States, It is celebrated with feasts, family gatherings, and expressions of gratitude. While popular fiction paints it as a harmonious event where Pilgrims and Native Americans met, the real story is more complex and full of dark moments. Here are seven dark aspects of Thanksgiving history that aren’t often mentioned.

What is Thanksgiving Day?

Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday celebrated in various countries, most notably the United States and Canada. It is traditionally a time for families and friends to gather for a feast, expressing gratitude for the blessings of the past year. In the US, Thanksgiving is often linked to historical narratives of pilgrims and Native Americans sharing meals in the early 17th century.

When is Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is celebrated on different dates in the United States and Canada.

When is Thanksgiving in America?

In the United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November each year. This tradition was solidified by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the Civil War, aiming to unify the country and provide a moment of gratitude.

When is Thanksgiving in Canada?

In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October. This date was established earlier than in the U.S., with the Canadian Parliament officially declaring it a national holiday in 1957.

7 Dark Histories of Thanksgiving

While Thanksgiving is often portrayed as a harmonious event between Pilgrims and Native Americans, the reality is far more complex and somber. The traditional story of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 overlooks the subsequent conflicts, displacement, and suffering experienced by Native American communities.

1. The Myth of the First Thanksgiving

The commonly told story of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, where Pilgrims and Wampanoag people peacefully shared a meal, is largely a myth. While there was a harvest feast, it was not an annual celebration nor was it the harmonious event often depicted. The Wampanoag, who had helped the Pilgrims survive their first year, were later subjected to violent conflicts and displacement as more settlers arrived.

 2. Massacre in Mystic

In 1637, sixteen years after the purported first Thanksgiving, the Pequot Massacre occurred in Mystic, Connecticut. Colonists, along with their Native American allies, attacked the Pequot village, killing hundreds. This brutal event was later celebrated by some colonists as a “day of thanksgiving,” marking a grim chapter in the history of European-Native American relations.

 3. The Proclamation of Thanksgiving

In 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving, but it was President Abraham Lincoln who established the modern holiday during the Civil War in 1863. Lincoln’s proclamation was partly intended to unify a divided nation. However, this holiday was born out of a period of intense national strife and bloodshed, overshadowing the celebratory nature of the day.

 4. The Role of Sarah Josepha Hale

Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential writer and editor, campaigned for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday. Her advocacy, while successful in making Thanksgiving a permanent fixture in American culture, also promoted a sanitized version of history that glossed over the violent realities of colonization and the suffering of Native Americans.


 5. The Impact of European Diseases

When the Pilgrims arrived, they encountered indigenous populations already decimated by diseases brought by earlier European explorers. These diseases, to which Native Americans had no immunity, caused widespread death and suffering, drastically reducing their populations and weakening their societies, making them more vulnerable to colonization.

 6. Displacement and Broken Treaties

Following the initial encounters, many Native American tribes faced displacement as settlers expanded westward. Treaties were often made and broken by the U.S. government, leading to further loss of land, culture, and life for indigenous peoples. These broken promises are a dark legacy tied to the settlement periods celebrated by Thanksgiving.

 7. The Erasure of Native American Narratives

Thanksgiving celebrations often omit the perspectives and experiences of Native Americans. The holiday tends to focus on Pilgrim narratives, erasing the stories of the indigenous people who were crucial to the survival of early settlers and who suffered greatly in the years that followed. This erasure contributes to a lack of understanding and acknowledgment of the true history and continued struggles of Native American communities.


Why is Thanksgiving Bad?

Critics argue that Thanksgiving perpetuates a myth that glosses over the violent colonization and systemic oppression faced by Native Americans. The holiday can be seen as a celebration of colonialism, ignoring the devastating impact European settlers had on indigenous populations.

What is the Main Purpose of Thanksgiving?

The main purpose of Thanksgiving, as it is celebrated today, is to gather with loved ones, enjoy a meal, and reflect on the things for which we are grateful. It is a time for connection and appreciation, often marked by traditional foods such as turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.

 Why Did the Original Thanksgiving Happen?

The original Thanksgiving, according to historical accounts, was a three-day feast held in 1621 by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag people. It was a celebration of the Pilgrim’s first successful harvest in the New World, with the Wampanoag contributing to the feast as allies who had helped the settlers survive their first year.

What is the True Story Behind Thanksgiving?

The true story behind Thanksgiving is one of survival, cooperation, and struggle. Although the fiesta of 1621 occurred, it was not the beginning of peaceful co-existence. After this incident, relations between settlers and Native Americans deteriorated, leading to decades of warfare and the displacement of many indigenous tribes. The Thanksgiving narrative as it is widely known today emerged much later, often leaving out these dark aspects of history.

While Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude and togetherness, it is also important to recognize and consider the darker aspects of its history. Understanding these 7 dark histories behind Thanksgiving allows us to more fully appreciate this holiday and honor the experiences of Native Americans who have been impacted by events following the arrival of European settlers. By acknowledging the complexities of Thanksgiving’s past, we can create a more inclusive and truthful commemoration.