The story of Thanksgiving and the National Day of Mourning

Without the help of the Native American community they met upon settling in America, the Mayflower Pilgrims would have likely never survived.

Instead, the mutual understanding between the two groups led to one of the world's most well-known dates - Thanksgiving.

But the story of Thanksgiving is more than turkey and Pilgrims.

It involves two groups of people - colonists who were aboard the Mayflower and the Native American people whose land they chose to settle on.

And although this groups formed an alliance for a time, the events of the 17th century and the years that followed the arrival of the Mayflower led to the unprecedented mass killing of Native American people, the seizing of their lands and the enslavement of their people.

For those descended from those who survived, it is not Thanksgiving - it is a National Day of Mourning.

The video below seeks to tell the story from the point of view of the Wampanoag tribe, descendants of those who watched the Mayflower arrive on their shores in 1620.

A ship arrives from the east 

After 66 days at sea in truly unpleasant stormy conditions, the Mayflower and its passengers finally reached North America on 21 November, 1620.

But instead of laying anchor in New Virginia where they had permission to colonise, storms had forced the Mayflower far off course and the ship landed in Cape Harbour, at what is now Provincetown - a place in which they technically had no right to settle.

A document, called the Mayflower Compact, was drafted and signed by 41 of the men on board. This laid down the rules for the Mayflower Pilgrims to abide by before going ashore, and for the good of their new colony. This was later claimed to be one of the foundations of American democracy.

Once the colonists agreed to work together, the Pilgrims sent search parties ashore to find an ideal place for them to settle, while also collecting juniper wood to burn in the ship’s rancid living quarters in order to make it smell a little better.

Plymouth MA

The Mayflower replica in Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts

After exploring the area, the settlers chose a clearing previously occupied by the Wampanoag, a local Native American tribe. The tribe had abandoned the village several years previously following the outbreak of a deadly disease known as the Great Dying brought to their shores by European sailors and slavers.

Deciding they would face no resistance in settling there, the colonists departed the shores of Provincetown arriving in Plymouth Bay Massachusetts on December 26, 1620.

Setting foot on land, no one was prepared for the harsh winter ahead and the colonists struggled to build their settlement, find food and ward off sickness.

Many had stayed on board the Mayflower, which soon became home to the sick and dying. By the end of the first winter, 50 of the 102 original Mayflower passengers had lost their lives.

Once his crew began to recover from disease, the Mayflower’s captain Christopher Jones sailed the Mayflower back to England, taking half the time that it did on its outward journey.

In March 1621, it is said that an English speaking Native American, called Samoset, entered the Plymouth colony and introduced himself.

He was a member of the Wampanoag, and after a night talking with the settlers he brought another English speaking Native American called Tisquantum - also known as Squanto, to meet the Pilgrims.

Squanto had been previously abducted by European sailors and sold into slavery. He had returned to his homeland having been liberated and working as interpreter for another sailor.

A meeting was arranged with the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, and when he visited the settlement one of the first to greet him was Edward Winslow.

A leader in the Separatist group, Winslow had not only been instrumental in organising the journey to America, but was also one of the men who signed the historic Mayflower Compact.

Edward Winslow

His interest in the Wampanoag tribe resulted a relationship forming between the settlers and the Native Americans. The Pilgrims were able to establish a peace treaty with Massasoit and the Wampanoag went on to teach them how to hunt, plant crops and how to get the best of their harvest, saving the Pilgrims from starvation.

This is was not thought to be an easy alliance though. It was one built on mutual interest - the colonists who become known as the Pilgrims needed help to survive, and the Wampanoag needed the colonists' help in warding off aggressive rival tribes.

Following a successful harvest in the autumn of 1621, the colonists decided to celebrate with a three-day festive of prayer.

The 53 surviving are said to have eaten with 90 indigenous people in what became known as the first Thanksgiving.

One account of this celebration is contained in the book Mourt’s Relation, primarily written by Winslow. The book describes in detail what happened from the landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims right through to this celebration.

Winslow’s account states:

“Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. 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 fruits 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 amongst 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.”

Today, the US celebrates Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. It was established in 1863, during the Civil War, when Thanksgiving became a national holiday. It's believed President Abraham Lincoln furthered an idealistic Thanksgiving narrative for strategic reasons.

One possible misconception of the modern retelling of Thanksgiving is that the Wampanoag were invited for a great feast. In the account above there is no mention of an invitation. Indeed, it has been suggested that the noise, including gunfire, from the celebration prompted the Wampanoag to investigate. They stayed and may well have eaten with the Mayflower's passengers.

The years of bloodshed that followed

When the Mayflower passengers arrived on the shores of North America, it is said that they formed an historic peace treaty with the Wampanoag chief Ousamequin which, albeit briefly, allowed the two groups to coexist in their shared lands.

The Wampanoag went on to teach their visitors how to hunt, plant crops and how to get the best of their harvest, saving these people, who would go on to be known as the Pilgrims, from starvation, leading to the events of the first Thanksgiving.

However, over the years more settlers arrive and their colonies continued to expand into Native American land, and relations soured – which came to a head following the death of Ousamequin some 40 years after the Mayflower had landed.

What happened next is still considered by many to be the deadliest war in American history, leading to the deaths of thousands of Native American people, their enslavement and the loss of their land.

  • Read the story of King Philip’s War here.

Watch our short film, We Are Still Here, on the history of the Wampanoag and their people today below, produced in partnership with SmokeSygnals.


Re-informing the history of Thanksgiving

In 1970 Wamsutta, known as Frank James, was the leader of the Wampanoag, in the year of the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower's sailing.

James had been invited to a Thanksgiving state dinner to mark the anniversary, as part of a celebration that embraced the misleading schoolbook narrative of the Pilgrims’ relationship with the Wampanoag that culminated in a great feast.

He was asked to give a speech to mark the occasion, one the organisers requested to read beforehand to check its content.

James wrote a scathing indictment of the Pilgrims. He described how they desecrated Native American graves, stealing food and land and decimating the population with disease.

The speech was deemed inappropriate and inflammatory and James was given a revised speech. He refused to read it.

He vowed that the Wampanoag and other Native peoples would regain their rightful place and was ‘uninvited’ from the programme.

Instead, supporters followed James to hear him give his original speech on Cole’s Hill, next to the statue of former Wampanoag leader Ousamequin.

This became the first official National Day of Mourning.

The legacy of Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving has long been popularised in mainstream history as a time of peaceful relations between the colonists and Native Americans.

This account has been much-disputed in the past.

Today, Thanksgiving for many holds a meaning unconnected to historical events.

It is a date where family and friends unite to give thanks for what they are most grateful.

The origin of Thanksgiving may be uncertain, and we are right to continue to question it, but what has emerged is a day where family and charity values are celebrated and thanks is given.

Mayflower 400 and Native America

Mayflower 400 is a true four-nation commemoration between the Wampanoag Nation, the USA, the UK and the Netherlands.

Native America is central to the Mayflower story, as is centuries of Wampanoag history and the voices of those determined to keep the stories of their ancestors alive through a series of commemorative projects, exhibitions and events.

These pages seek to tell their stories.

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