Back in the day, when the Puritans landed in Massachusetts in 1620, they were ill-prepared to survive the harsh winter. Maybe they would have had a better chance of making it through the winter with fewer challenges had they arrived earlier, but they set ground at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620 when the ground was already long frozen and the animals were either hibernating or had migrated.
By the time spring of 1621 finally arrived, half the colony had died due to inadequate food supplies, strenuous work, harsh weather and sickness. The Wampanoag tribe found them in terrible condition and shared what they knew about catching fish, planting crops, hunting, foraging and more to help them settle in their new-found home. All this effort led to a harvest in the fall and Governor William Bradford declared a three-day celebration that Americans refer to these days as the first Thanksgiving.
Years later, on November 26, 1789, George Washington issued a general proclamation stating that the following November 26 would be a day of celebration to “unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks, for His kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation.”
In 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was President, he proclaimed that the last Thursday in November would be recognized as “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficient Father.” For 75 years after that proclamation, each year the President of the United States would make a formal proclamation that the last Thursday in November was Thanksgiving Day. However, in 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to proclaim that the second last Thursday in November of that year was to be recognized as Thanksgiving Day. Two years later in 1941, Congress made it official: Thanksgiving Day was to always be the fourth Thursday in November.
But you know, Canadians have their own history and their own way of doing things. English explorer, Martin Frobisher, was trying to find a northern passage to the Orient but instead, found himself establishing a settlement in Newfoundland. And so it was that in 1578, he held a formal ceremony to give thanks to God for surviving the long journey from England to Newfoundland.
Not to be outdone, the French under the direction of Samuel de Champlain arrived in Quebec and held huge feasts of thanks every year when the harvest was done. They even formed “The Order Of Good Cheer” and invited their Aboriginal allies to come celebrate with them.
In 1879, Parliament declared November 6 as Thanksgiving Day however, over the years, many dates were used for Thanksgiving Day with the most popular one being the third Monday in October. After World War I, both Armistice Day and Thanksgiving Day were celebrated on the Monday of the week in which November 11th occurred until 1931 when it was determined that both these holidays should have their own day of celebration.
On January 31, 1957, Parliament proclaimed that “a day of general Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed” would be observed on the second Monday in October.
However, long before the American Thanksgiving Day and the Canadian Thanksgiving Day, First Nations people in North America had their own thanksgiving celebrations. The difference was that they didn’t mark just one day of the year off as Thanksgiving Day. The reason for this is because the concept of setting one day aside for giving thanks diminishes the fact that every day is a day of Thanksgiving.
As for the Wampanoag, ask them how the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock thanked them for helping them in 1621 when they found them. You’ll hear stories of how the Puritans stole wheat and bean supplies from the Wampanoag, sold the Wampanoag as slaves and worse. But historians don’t want to hear that version of what happened between the colonists and the Wampanoag.
You see, the Puritans struggled with the concept of good agricultural management. With help from the Wampanoag, the pilgrims were able to produce 20 acres of corn. The Wampanoag routinely brought food to the Pilgrims, realizing that they were not doing very well on their own. In other words, this was the first Welfare system established in America. On the first Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag brough duck, geese, venison, deer and grains to the pilgrims to help build up their stores for the coming winter.
Even with the generosity offered by the Wampanoag, they found that their new neighbours were hostile towards them and routinely subjected them to robbery, enslavement and murder. Notes in Governor William Bradford’s journals attest to the manner in which First Nations people were treated and were to be treated. In time word spread and the pilgrims were known to the Indians of Massachusetts by the name “Wotowquenange” which roughly translates into “cutthroats and stabbers.”
Even European historians such as Roger Williams wrote of the Indian wars that were “far less bloody and devouring than the cruel wars of Europe.” Captain John Mason ridiculed Indian warfare by calling it feeble and “hardly deserving the name of fighting.” John Underhill wrote in his journal that the Indian warfare was not “to conquer and subdue enemies.”
In the first 10 years of colonization in Massachusetts, the Indian population fell from 24,000 to less than 750 while European settlers grew from 0 to 12,000.
This year, as Canadian Thanksgiving draws to a close and American Thanksgiving is nigh, remember the history of this celebration in both countries. Remember that what you were taught in school about Thanksgiving left some of the most important details out. Remember that true Thanksgiving should be about thanking God for all that He has given you.
For more information on what really happened at Plymouth Rock, read “The Hidden History of Massachusetts: A Guide for Black Folks” by Dr. Tingba Apidta (ISBN 0-9714462-0-2).