Thanksgiving — untangling ‘what happened,’ ‘why we celebrate,’ and what it might mean to craft a better origin story

Sara Jolena Wolcott, M.Div.
21 min readNov 18, 2022


Thanksgiving: a feast, a celebration, a prayer, a fantasy, a reality, an origin story.

Increasingly, people are asking, “what really happened?”

The very question unsettles the holiday’s already shaky foundation. It evokes the question: “why are we celebrating Thanksgiving?”

Thanksgiving is a quintessential American holiday. It reflects and forms American identity, as expressed in children’s education, new comers’ cultural assimilation, and the secular liturgical calendar of the year. Our collective answer to,‘why we celebrate’ question is critical. It needs to be more substantial than, “this is just what we do.”

How “Americans” (people who live in America today) relate(d) to the first “Americans”, aka the indigenous peoples of this land, defines our collective identity. Mostly, that has been an ugly combination of violence, erasure, dismemberment, broken promises, and false narratives. Thanksgiving has long been the only American holiday that acknowledges the indigenous people of this land. In many parts of the nation, Indigenous Peoples Day, which is increasingly replacing Columbus Day, has become another moment in the liturgical secular calendar that recognizes the existance, contribution, and importance of indigenous peoples.

In the last few decades, there have been increasing recognition, first from indigenous peoples and joined from many other voices, of the importance of recognizing the false narratives that Thanksgiving is built upon and perpetuates. The Wampanoag peoples, who are the “Indians” in the “Indian and Pilgrim” narrative, have taken an active role in this conversation.

I’ve been one of many people who has been re-thinking a holiday that I grew up loving. For the past several years, I’ve researched, talked with indigenous colleagues, participated in indigenous-settler dialogues, and written various articles around Thanksgiving. During this time, the amount of resources around re-thinking/re-imagining/ re-narrating Thanksgiving has hugely blossomed. There are some very different narratives out there. This article presents my current understanding of some of the history… and, importantly, some of how we can think about it.

Thinking about “what happened”

So what happened?

To answer that question we actually have to ask, “what happened when”.

The history of Thanksgiving can not be well-explained in a linear fashion. That is because Thanksgiving, as a celebrated holiday, didn’t really “start” in the 1620s, for all that its troublesome origin story is located there. The holiday of Thanksgiving was invented as a national holiday in the mid-1800s.

As a result, the story told by the people in the mid-1800s about the origins of America in the 1600 reflects far, far more about white/dominant culture in America in the 1800s than it does about what actually happened in the 1600s.

It was a moment when (mostly white) America created an origin story of itself for itself, a story that shaped how the nation, states, social groupings, family patterns and food patterns was defined.

America in the 1800s was actively inventing, expanding, and re-defining itself. Much of that was in relationship to land: the solidification of what the U.S. meant by “ownership”, “management,” and what constituted appropriate use of land. To create and solidify any relationship with land is an inherently social process. The expectation that humans could and should own and improve land, and that an entire new society would be built up around land ownership by people (from Europe) who had little to no experience on that particular land was a sharp contrast to the social and ecological expectations of the people who had been stewarding this land for as long as anyone could remember: the indigenous peoples of this land. Indeed, the formation of what the United States has always been about its relationship with indigenous peoples. What gave these Europeans the right/ability to live in a place that already had a lot of other fully sovereign people who lived in it? Especially people who had fundamentally different ethical, practical, economic, and spiritual patterns of how to relate to land and to one another?

In the 1800s, that question played out through critical court cases such as Johnson v McIntosh (1823) which denied Indian claim to land, embedded U.S. claims to land via the Doctrine of Discovery, and became a foundational aspect of property law; in the Civil War, where definitions of whether people could be property were intertwined with a larger social and economic conflict; in the Indian Removal Act which led to the Trail of Tears and other forced removal of indigenous peoples from land; and Westward Expansion, the Gold Rush, Manifest Destiny, and related forms of ideological and practical dimensions of one group of people violently pushing another group of people out of their own homeland. Often killed. But not extermenated.

It was in this context that Thanksgiving grew from a (settler) folk tradition in the north east to a national holiday.

Starting in the middle

From the middle of the story, in the midst of America’s Civil War, we can get a sense of ‘why’ America wanted to go back to its own beginning and to re-write a story.

From the vantage point of 2022, we can be critical of the 1860s’ Northeastern white folks’ (the ancestors of WASP) view of the 1600s. It becomes easy to see the ‘mistakes’ that they (mostly purposefully) made.

It is necessary to recognize historical truths. One of the reasons that the holiday of Thanksgiving is so fraught is because of the historical lies associated with it, especially the lie of acquiescence and the seeming permission of Native America for the Pilgrims to just take over everything. The blatant dehumanization that the Wampanoag communities experienced both prior to the 1600s and afterward is deeply fundamental to New England’s origins, history, and continued institution.

Of critical importance is to keep close in mind the following:

This story is by no means finished. Indigenous-settler relationships are changing across Turtle Island, and that includes in the Northeast. People on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Plymouth, and other parts of Massachusettes are changing their understanding of history. Dialogues are happening now that was close to impossible a century ago. The past does not determine the future.

Nor does the past rendition of the past determine our current or future rendition of the past.

How we tell our origin stories can and often does shift and change. Origin stories are told in ways that tell us as much about who we are and what we value now, as well as who we were 'then.’ The greatest leaders know the importance of origin stories: they know the importance of shifting how we understand our past.

Here is a version of ‘the origins of thanksgiving’ in which we start in the middle, go back to the beginning, and then move closer to the present.

Starting in the Middle:

When the American People were creating a new origin story for themselves.

The most famous moment of masterful re-storytelling of origin stories, or at least the one that I hear most clearly in my mind, starts like this: “Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers set foot upon this continent…..”

You probably know that sentence. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a defining moment in the Civil War and in the history of America. He elegantly retells the story of who America is at a time when self-processed Americans in both the North and the South of the country were in a bitter battle that was tearing the country apart.

The “our” in Lincoln’s statement is unquestionably English/European/white settlers in the 1600s. It is false on many levels — English/Europeans had been trading and sometimes living in the northeastern part of the United States for about a century prior to the Mayflower. He is originating the country not with the wide sweep of colonization but with a particular moment. In no way does it acknowledge the people who were enslaved from Africa and brought to these shores early on. And it certainly implies that the “our” (as in, “our country”) in no way includes Native peoples who were already here.

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863, which is part of the origin story of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, fits into a similar vein: he was aiming to bring the country together at a time when it was struggling. It speaks far more of the beauty of the landscape than the sheer ugliness of the war, lifting the spirits of a downtrodden society. It was an act of political genius….. And political acumen. By issuing it at that particular moment in the war, he demonstrated his cultural/social relevance and power across a divided country — including the South (and the West).

He was building on and very much influenced by the work of one of the most influential women in American history, Sally (Sarah) Josepha Hale, ‘editress’ of widely-read women’s magazines and perhaps the greatest single champion of Thanksgiving as a holiday. Her anti-slavery novel, Northwood, launched her career as a writer and brought Thanksgiving as a holiday to the attention of the American public. She saw Thanksgiving, which had some degree of being celebrated at various points in the Autumn in the northeast prior to her novel’s publication in 1823. She subsequently spent over two decades laboriously pushing for it to become a national holiday to bring the people together — at home. Her passion and reasoning were primarily for white America. The ‘godmother of Thanksgiving’ was not, so far as I can tell, particularly concerned about her country’s relationship with native peoples.

Forefather’s Day

Let’s now go a bit further back in time. Not to the 1600s, but to the early 1800s and late 1700s. At that time, Thanksgiving was somewhat randomly being celebrated in New England as a kind of harvest feast and local folk tradition, and we don’t know when the local tradition started. Hale certainly grew up with the holiday and loved it, influencing her subsequent pushing of it.

We do know that in 1769, the Colony Club (founded that same year) in Plymouth started celebrating Forefather’s Day, where they ate the traditional foods of New England and gave thanks to their Pilgrim forefathers, and told stories about their Pilgrim ancestors (including stories of Squanto helping the Pilgrims).

This was nearly 150 years after the Mayflower landed in 1620: certainly, no one alive at those gatherings had any recollection of what had actually happened then. Sometimes these gatherings were referred to as a Thanks Day. Possibly, the Club was solidifying a local food culture tradition.

This moment was caught up in solidifying a particular version of American history at a time, shortly before the American revolution, when increasing numbers of people (especially Catholics) who were not part of that strand of history were gaining political power. Indeed, even after Thanksgiving became a clear federal holiday, the Catholic Church did not support it, referring to it as a protestant holiday.

1769 was also the year that we see the first written reference to the 1621 dinner between the pilgrims and the Indians. It was in a footnote of an article. Somehow, that footnote was noticed and led to the story we have today.

This is to say that the (quite possibly many) earlier folk celebrations of Thanksgiving would not necessarily have referenced a dinner between Pilgrims and Indians.

Because in those roughly 150 years that had passed between, the “first thanksgiving dinner” was not referenced as such. Perhaps it was part of a few families’ oral traditions. It’s hard to say. But it was certainly not an entrenched holiday. Indeed, one of the two primary sources we have about the meal, found in William Bradford’s journal, was not ‘rediscovered’ until the 1850s. And there, it is mentioned only briefly. We’ll come back to that moment later on.

Not long after the start of Forefather’s Day, George Washington issues a Thanksgiving Proclamation early on in his presidency. It is not tied to that first dinner or to Native peoples at all. Later, that Proclamation was woven into the history of Thanksgiving as proof that this is a longstanding American holiday (and to be fair, Washington loved the Colony Club and Forefather’s Day and was a frequent attendee and presenter).

So what do we have? A very small group of white men located in Plymouth (not exactly the center of America in the Revolutionary War era) who became quite an influential meeting at the Colony Club, hosting everyone from George Washington to Daniel Webster for “Forefather’s Day,” starting shortly before the American Revolution. The slow growth of a gathering, not necessarily associated with Forefather’s Day, more commonly referenced as a Thanks Day and subsequently a Thanksgiving Day, centered around food and family, in many homes in the North East. And then the concentrated effort of Sally Josepha Hale to turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday…. This eventually led to Abe Lincoln’s Proclamation, which he accompanied by a turkey dinner at the White House.

The Image of Thanksgiving

From this point on, we see the vast number of paintings and other images that we often associate with the image of Thanksgiving today. In many ways, these are the images that shaped how we see Thanksgiving. And these are the images wherein almost everything is historically “wrong.”

They imagine a “first Thanksgiving” that they never saw between Indians and Pilgrims. Instead of looking to the descendants of the Wampanoag people, whom the Pilgrims were both dependent upon and knew quite well, as early treaties required cultural visits and getting to know each other for a sense of what happened, they looked West: to the Natives that they were, at that time, trying to forcefully exterminate. This is why most of the paintings of that time show Native people in Plains Peoples’ dress, not in the clothing worn by the Wampanoags. Those paintings were distinctly political. They depicted the origins that the white American imagination wanted to have…. and they depicted the relationships that white America wanted to have with its indigenous neighbors. The paintings, most of which picture the Native people in willingly subservient positions, seem to say: ‘give us your land and your food and go away/be subservient to us, and do so silently.’ Which the Native people, be they in Plymouth or the Great Plains, did not do.

Certainly Abe Lincoln was not courting favor amongst the indigenous peoples of this country. Just a year earlier, he ordered the largest execution in American history: 38 Native people (known as the Dakota 38). On the day after Christmas.

I don’t think the proponents of the particularly cared about what actually happened. The point was not the reality of the past. The point was to subdue the “wilderness” and the “wild men” who lived there.

That First Feast… and the Massacre

Now let’s go back to the ‘beginning.’ The beginning of settler-indigenous relations in the north-east of the United States did not start in 1620.

The history of this country starts not just centuries but eons prior to the Mayflower’s landing. Native peoples have lived on, shaped, told stories, danced, grown corn beans and squash, and given various forms of thanks on this continent for millennia.

For well over a century prior to the Mayflower, there had been ongoing exchanges up and down the Northeast coast. Well-established trading posts, as well as long histories of violence, thievery, and forced enslavement, were established prior to the Mayflower. So too, was a horrific epidemic, leaving the Wampanoag people emotionally and spiritually battered. The epidemic had upset traditional political alliances as well, causing confusion in the region and a distinct lack of agreement about how to treat the long-nosed, pale-faced strangers who could kill as easily as they could trade.

In part because of this long history, the Wampanoags in the region of what is now Plymouth did not trust the small Puritan settlement. During that first winter, they watched them. The Puritans did not behave well: they stole from nearby gravesites and food mounds. Many reasons (including a certain amount of political agency) prompted, in the Spring of 1621, a complex alliance to be forged…. Mostly on terms that, at least at first, seemed favorable to the Wampanoag. Then the Puritans were taught some of the complexities of the foodways, cultural patterns, and government practices of their hosts. They were treated generously and with kindness, despite the distrust of other indigenous neighbors.

In the fall of 1621, the Puritans decided to have a (for them unusual) day of celebration. They had, after all, survived a very tough year. As part of that, they fired their guns. Their Wampanoag neighbors heard the gunshots. They were afraid the small colony was under attack. So they armed themselves and rushed to their defense. Instead, the two groups faced one another, each fully armed. As Silverman remarks, it is a testament to their relationship at that time that they did not attack one another but instead had a conversation. The Pilgrims explained they were having a celebration. The Wampanoags decided to help them. A three-day feast followed. Almost no women and no children were present. It was not called Thanksgiving.

It is this feast that is mentioned in a few journals and which, nearly two hundred years later, was immortalized as "the first thanksgiving."

It was a very brief moment of friendship in what was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end of Wampanoag sovereignty.

A Thanksgiving proclamation was made a few years later: after the slaughter of a community in Mystic, CT. From there, history is primarily one of mistrust, warfare, and various forms of cultural genocide. Of course, there were some individual friendships. And a lot of learning.

But by and large, the story is that this particular group of Wampanoags took in the English Pilgrims, taught them how to live on the land… and were subsequently betrayed by them.

The Wampanoag story does not end with King Philip’s war, which effectively deprived the Wampanoag of their historical homeland and sent many of their leaders and their families into death and slavery. Their story continued through the subsequent 400 years to this day, where we are, finally, seeing a revitalization of language, culture, tradition, land, and recognition.

The “Americans” (a term once reserved for indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, such as the Wampanoags) of the 1800s did not particularly care about the history or fate of the Wampanoag peoples. We know that because of the way the people of Plymouth, Cape Cod, and the surrounding areas continued to treat the Wampanoags as less than fully human during that time period and the extent to which their existence was blatantly ignored even as northern white protestants complained at the brutality (though rarely the supposed necessity of) the highly public Trail of Tears.

Thanksgiving as a holiday was not designed to honor Native peoples.

It was designed to portray an image of different people coming together around food and giving thanks, which is critically important. A moment of a nation (built on white-Christian superiority and shaped by especially north-eastern protestant versions of the story) asserting it’s own identity.

The issue in the retelling of Thanksgiving is not the value of giving thanks.

It is, instead, about what we are giving thanks for. For food? Does that include the land the food was taken from? Does it include that that land historically belonged to someone else, and was forcibly stolen from them? Does it include the genocide and continued cultural subjugation that makes American life (in all of its so-called abundance and actual unsustainability) possible?

Are we giving thanks to a false history? Lifting up a false origin story?

I don't think Sally Joshua Hale intended to lift up a false origin story. I think she (astutely) recognized the power of gathering around the foods of the land she loved in the (women's sphere) container of the home. And for many people, settler and indigenous, that remains the core of the holiday.

But it behooves us to recall that food- and the table itself — would not have been possible in its current form without genocidal histories.

Terminology: What do we mean by “Thanksgiving”?

The very term “Thanksgiving” is quite confusing. What it meant in the 1800s is closer to what it means today, but it is And it is quite different than what it meant in the 1600s.

We are, once again, reimagining our origin stories.

Every year, the awareness that Thanksgiving is based on some kind of myth/false story grows. No doubt the Day of Mourning practiced since 1970 on Thanksgiving Day has contributed to unsettling some of the false stories. In most of the articles, I see people saying, "this is not what actually happened in the 1600s," which is in many ways true.

Perhaps if we recognize that the story of Thanksgiving can be started in the “middle” and not in the “beginning,” we will be able to recognize the extent to which America created an origin story based on a few slim facts. As such, I hope that gives us the courage to recognize that we can tell different origin stories. What was created by human hands can be undone by human hands and rebuilt in a better image of both facts and truths.

We are searching for different histories, especially origin stories because we need to. The old stories, backed as they are in the dismemberment of the peoples from one another, in dehumanization and disconnection, no longer serve a people who need firmer realities and to realize our inherent interconnectedness. The country needs to shift its relationship with native peoples at every level.

Perhaps we need that ‘first thanksgiving’ moment more than ever before. Even if no one called it a Thanksgiving at that point in time. We need to come together across differences and let ourselves play and eat together instead of fighting one another.

But given the violence that has already happened, there is a lot of truth, care, healing, and a shifting of roles that has to happen before the trust that is needed to lay down our weapons of war (real and proverbial) can occur.


Note: the parts in red are part of the 'classic’ Thanksgiving story. The parts in dark red are increasingly part of the Thanksgiving story — I see them mentioned much more than they used to be.

Since Time Deep and Long

Northeastern tribes, along with all other indigenous groups we are aware of, gather for feasts centered around giving thanks throughout the year: since time immortal. Sometimes these included an offering/sacrifice. These included Autumnal Harvest Festivals/Celebrations. In the Northeast, this would have included the Green Corn Feast Day/Celebration. These celebrations were and continue to be deeply spiritual. Celebratory moments were often filled with ball games. (Rubber balls and early variations of what we now call soccer were invented in Mezo-America; Northeastern woodland people esp Haudenosaunee, played what we now call ‘lacrosse,’ or, more appropriately translated, ‘Little Brother of War.”

European days of “Thanksgiving” or “Thanks days” are usually deeply spiritual/religious, specifically around solemn occasions. These often would have been days of prayer and sometimes fasting (ie, a sacrifice or offering to gain God's attention and favor). It was common during Christendom (and possibly earlier) to offer a Day of Thanksgiving after winning a victory in battle.

European harvest festivals, which would have included prayers and giving thanks, were not necessarily solemn and, in the early modern era, probably not called "Thanksgiving.” These were often filled with feasting, games, shooting/sportsmanship,

Early Settler-Indian Origin Stories and Thanksgiving history

1497 — an exploration of Atlantic Canada and the beginning of the fish/cod trade in Newfoundland to feed Europe

1524: Southern New England/Wampanoag people begin to have interactions with Europeans (Dutch, English, French)

1580: 300 European ships a year working the fisheries in Newfoundland

1598: The Spaniards and the first American Revolution by the Pueblo

1604, an English explorer captured Tisquantum, who came to be known as Squanto and brought him and several others to England, where he and others stayed and learned English, returning in 1614.

1607: Jamestown — first English settlement in Virginia

1608: French found Quebec

1609- Henry Hudson travels up the River that goes both ways, renames it the Hudson River

1613: the Haudenosaunee peoples in New York and the Dutch craft the Two Row Wampum

1614: Tisquantum, or Squanto, is captured by an English captain along with nearly 30 other men; they are sold into Iberian slavery. He has been rescued/escaped, learns enough English to be a useful translator, and eventually returns to his homeland (1618) with CPT Dermer. (Both sides, at this point, deeply distrusted and frequently captured, as well as traded, with the other).

1616–1619: The Great Dying: Horrific epidemic (probably not only smallpox) devastated Wampanoag communities up and down the coast. Entire villages died.

1620: (June) An English ship captures and slaughters Wampanoag men; Wampanoag men subsequently assault an English crew

1620 (December): Mayflower landed in the area the Wampanoag called Patuxet; Pilgrims raid graveyards

1621: Spring: Wampanoag sachem Ousamequin reached out to pilgrims and began the process of brokering a complex multi-cultural alliance, and effectively brought the English into their political and economic system of governance, foodways, local politics, and cultural exchanges.

1621: Feast between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag men

1637: Massacre against the Pequot peoples by the English settlers in Mystic, CT. They shot, clubbed and burned alive over 700 native men, women and children. William Bradford subsequently holds a “day of Thanksgiving” in Plymouth

1650: the first revolutionary war on what is now American soil against a European power was the Pueblo people against the Spaniards in what is known as the Pueblo Revolt. The Pueblo people, led by Pope (Po-pay), won control of Santa Fe.

1675–1676: King Philip’s War/Pumetacom’s was — one of the bloodiest, most horrific wars in colonial New England. Hundereds of Wampanoag and Narragansetts were killed. 12 of New England’s towns were destroyed; the economy was left in ruins, and the Wampanoag were effectively left landless in their traditional homeland. It ends with Pumetacom’s head mounted on a spike in Plymouth, the very site where his father, Ousamequin, once feasted with the English on the site of captive natives. His wife, Wootonekanuske, and son were brutally treated. Subsequently, the pilgrims observed August 17 as a day of thanksgiving in praise of God for saving them from their enemies.

1670s: relative quiet from the Wampanoag community as they somehow survive and recover from the horrors of the war

1680: the town of Eastham on the outer Cape prohibited the Nauset Wampanoag from gathering pine knots, tar, and cutting wood on the town commons (as was their custom): symbolic of persistent denial of Wampanoag to their traditional land and food-ways.

1689: Increase Mather praised the Wampanoag congregation, Sakonnet, as a “great congregation,” — symbolizing the full-out conversion to Christianity and finding ways of organizing without alarming their English neighbors; the Vineyard Indians become the most active missionaries in Wampanoag country and Plymouth colony.

The 1690s onwards: Wampanoags are pushed into reservations and controlled by debt, consistently deemed to be breaking the law, and forced into variations of slavery and forced servitude in the name of “justice.” Children are sold or bound as security for their parents’ debts.

1763: outbreak of yellow fever slayed more than 200 Wampanoags in Nantucket.

1769: “Forefathers Day” Celebrations begin in the “Old Colony Club” of Plymouth, New England

1769: An article by Rev Alex Young includes a footnote (the first such mention) that mentions a dinner and reads: “This was the first Thanksgiving, the great festival of New England.”

1776: Declaration of Independence

1777: “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise” day during the Revolutionary War

1780s: Whaling industry grows, manned in part by Native labor

1789: George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation

1794: Mashpee children continue to serve as bound laborers; 100 of 242 Awuinnah Wampanoags live far away from home as servants to whale men; an estimated 5 of 13 whalemen from Nantucket were Native.

1796 — first American cookbook, American Cookery. Includes several recipes for Thanksgiving dishes, including turkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing with bread, eggs, thyme, marjoram, salt, pepper, and pies (including mince and apple) and pumpkin and “Indian pudding.”


1810–1893: Overt displacement of Native peoples West of the Mississippi, aka, Westward Expansion

1818: White insistence on ‘pure’ Native blooded people gains prominence on the Vineyard.

1820: “Five Kernels of Corn” speech by Daniel Webster for Forefather’s Day

1823: Johnson v McIntosh court case

1827: Sally Josepha Hale’s Northwood antislavery novel devotes a detailed chapter to the New England Thanksgiving dinner, which features the turkey.

1830: Indian Removal Act

1831–1850: Trail of Tears, starting with the Choctaw, including the Cherokee, Muscogee (creek), Seminole, and Chickasaw; eventually, 70,000 Native people were forced displacement/ethnic cleansing

1840s-1860s: Sally Josepha Hale becomes the “editress” of the women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book and uses her position to track various Thanksgiving celebrations and argue for Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated on the third Thursday of the month, eventually reaching multiple presidents.

1848: Seneca Falls Convention — first attempt at organizing women towards suffrage, inspired in part by Haudenosaunee women in the region

1855: William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation is rediscovered. It includes a brief paragraph describing the feast in 1621.

1860: Aquinnah’s Wampanoag Jane Wamsley and Deacon Simon Johnson lead the effort against the efforts of Massachusetts to force US citizenship on the Wampanoags and divide their common lands into taxable, sellable private-property tracts.

1861: Confederate president Jefferson Davis called for a day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of the month for his troops for solemn reflection and prayer.

1862: Dakota 38: largest mass execution in U.S. history: Dakota indigenous leaders executed by Abe Lincoln the day after Christmas

1863: Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

1867: Image: Home to Thanksgiving by painter George Henry Durrie

1869: Ulysses S Grant declares the third Thursday in Nov as the national holiday

1873: Princeton vs. Yale football game on Thanksgiving weekend, leading to annual football over Thanksgiving weekend

1879: Opening of the Carlisle Indian School for assimilation of Indian children/ culture destruction

1882: Louisa May Alcott writes the novella, An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving

1893: Princeton v Yale football game held in New York to mass fanfare; 120,000 athletes playing in 5,000 Thanksgiving football games across the country.

1896: Buffalo holds a “Turkey Trot’ — the beginning of running races on Thanksgiving (Thanksgiving is one of the most popular days of the year for running races)

The late 1800s and early 1900s: “golden age of Thanksgiving” when Thanksgiving was idolized in imagery, including a wide range of thanksgiving greeting cards

1896: Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook, including the Thanksgiving Dinner, was first published


1907: the city of Fall River in MA focuses on “the last Wampanoag family living on what was left of the Watuppa reservation to vacate in order to make way for a reservoir.”

1917: Women gain the right to vote (movement began in 1848)

1920: National Football League starts playing annual football games

1924: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

1943: Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving dinner painting, Freedom from Want

1970: Wampanoag Frank B James was invited to speak at a dinner in Plymouth commemorating the 350 anniversary of the landing of the pilgrims. He wrote a speech; the organizers did not like it and asked him to revise it; he refused and withdrew from the program. The undelivered speech becomes well-published. He subsequently holds a pro

1970: Day of Mourning held by some Native folks at Plimoth; grows annually

1978: Indian Religious Act

1987: Gay Head/Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe received federal recognition as an Indian nation (Mashpee did in 2007), leading to the ability to recover land, including a 481-acre reservation at Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard.

1990s Jessie Little Doe Baird painstakingly works to revitalize the Wampanoag language via linguistics at MIT; the language is now taught in Mashpee High School

2012: Giving Tuesday begins

2015: Increase in criticism around the Thanksgiving Pageant and the ways the Thanksgiving stories are told

2020: 400-year anniversary of Plymouth landing, leading both Plymouth Plantation and the Wampanoag community to create a series of online and offline exhibitions and educational programs

2021: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren puts forward a bill, S.2907., Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding Schools Practices Bill to Congress



Sara Jolena Wolcott, M.Div.

ReMembering and ReEnchanting our world. Retelling Origin Stories and other myths and truths. Entrepreneur, legacy advisor, and unconventional minister. Healing.