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The Evolving History Of Thanksgiving And How We’re Teaching It

Kindergarten students learn about Thanksgiving.
Kindergarten students learn about Thanksgiving.
Deepa Fernandes/KPCC

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The legend of a three day Thanksgiving feast in November of 1621 between starving religious pilgrims from England and the native Wampanoag tribe in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts may have some truth to it. But scholars and others have been reevaluating the full truth behind Thanksgiving and how it’s being taught. 

It’s not just hand-shaped construction paper turkeys and a peaceful meal, but rather a complicated and messy past. Fifty years after the mythic celebration, the European colonists and Wampanoag people were enemies in King Philip’s War. In his first year as president in 1789, George Washington decreed that the 26th of November be a religious and patriotic holiday to celebrate the freedom of the new nation and give thanks to “all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us).” Short, firsthand accounts of the feast were discovered in 1820 (and published in 1841) by historian Alexander Young. Those were picked up by Godey’s Lady’s Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who implored Abraham Lincoln to proclaim a reboot of Thanksgiving as a permanent American holiday following the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1863, he did that. All the while, indigenous people across the continent endured violent cultural erasure by settlers for centuries.

With the growing movement to acknowledge indigenous history across the country, we discuss the complexities of Thanksgiving and how it’s being taught. Join the conversation by calling 866-893-5722. 


Peter Mancall, professor of history and anthropology at USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, he specializes in Native American and early American histories