A Side of Reality With Your Pumpkin Pie? Teaching your Kids about Thanksgiving

A Rockwell Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving presents something of a conundrum for the progressive parent, an intellectual and moral dilemma. Of course you want your kids to enjoy the holiday, while learning to be genuinely thankful for all that they generally take for granted: a loving and supportive environment, relatively lavish physical comforts, good education, plentiful food – all the privileges and opportunities they enjoy.

You also want to give them the historical background of Thanksgiving, but that’s where it gets tricky. Do you give them the standard schoolroom version, with happy pilgrims sitting down to feast with their native pals? Well in a way, that’s what happened. But do you delve into the ultimate fate of those native pals, tell them that many Native Americans mark Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning? Or do you just let it lie?

The American tradition of Thanksgiving stems from the very first celebration in 1621, when the remnants of the original 100 settlers who had sailed from Plymouth, England aboard the Mayflower held a feast to mark the unlikely fact that they were still alive. They wouldn’t have been, except for an extraordinary coincidence.

The Mayflower in stormy seas

If the colonists had been better sailors and navigators, and had made landfall in Hudson Bay where they had intended instead of Massachusetts Bay, they almost certainly would have all perished. But when the fifty or so survivors finally descended from the Mayflower in March of 1621, scurvy-ridden and weakened by exposure and disease, they were greeted by an Abenaki Indian.

A rather fanciful artist’s interpretation of Squanto meeting the Pilgrims

To their astonishment, the greeting was in English. A few days later, another Native American named Squanto arrived. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, and he had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery in Spain (European slavers had been raiding coastal villages for at least 100 years) before escaping to London where he worked for a local shipbuilder. Several years later, Squanto finally made it back to his homeland on an English exploratory expedition, just in time to save the lives of the Pilgrims.

Those early settlers may have been excellent at praying, but they were woefully inept at fishing and hunting, and completely clueless as to how to collect unfamiliar native food plants or coax crops from the stony New England soil. In short, they were very bad at getting enough food to survive. Squanto and members of the Wampanoag tribe (which had settled in the region roughly 10,000 years earlier) patiently taught them everything, particularly how to grow corn, and when the autumn harvest proved a success Governor William Bradford organized a three-day festival, inviting the settler’s Native American allies.

This was an excellent idea since the Wampanoag provided most of the food, including five deer, as well as most likely fish, shellfish, lobster, and a variety of beans and other vegetables. What they may or may not have had, was turkey. Governor Bradford had sent four men out “fowling,” but what they brought back is unknown. Food historians think almost certainly that there were ducks, geese, even swans and passenger pigeons, but the question of turkey remains, and will probably forever remain, a mystery.

The nice Pilgrim lady gives the Indian some food

So, the story as we know it of the first Thanksgiving is pretty safe. The pilgrims (a name they themselves never used – Daniel Webster coined the term Pilgrim Fathers in 1820) were seeking a better life free of persecution, they suffered horribly, they were aided (i.e. saved) by friendly and accommodating natives, and so they held a feast to celebrate a successful harvest and another year of life. Enough said.

November is Native American Heritage Month in the US, however, so when teaching your children about the holiday do you want to dip into what followed that first Thanksgiving? Well, I’ve read in a number of sources that the actual first Thanksgiving was declared by Massachusetts Colony Governor John Winthrop in 1637, to celebrate the safe return of those who had taken part in the Mystic Massacre, in which up to 700 Pequot, mostly women and children, were slaughtered.

The Mystic Massacre

There’s no doubt that the horrific massacre did take place (although the numbers of victims varies widely), and that Winthrop proclaimed a day of celebration for the ‘victory.’ Like most aspects of history, though, it’s not that simple. Firstly, the village called Mystic had been drained of healthy young men because they were off on a raiding party in Hartford, CT, part of a long series of violent incidents and retaliatory attacks that is collectively called the Pequot War. Moreover, the colonists were aided in the massacre at Mystic by a large party of warriors from the Mohegan, Narragansett, and Niantic tribes, so it certainly wasn’t a clear-cut case of white Europeans against Native Americans. Just like Cortes in Mexico, the colonists had been able to exploit long-standing inter-tribal animosity to their advantage.

And just like in Mexico, many of the surviving natives were sold into slavery – in the case of the Pequot mostly to Bermuda and the West Indies, but many right there in New England. Yes, you almost always associate American slavery with the south, but in the 17th century it was common to find Native American slaves throughout southern New England.

“A primal fear of Indians, a desperate shortage of labor, a biblical sense of entitlement – these forces coalesced, leading to the enslavement of the Native Americans,” writes Rick Green in the Hartford Courant. “Partly it’s social control. But they also want the labor. People wanted household servants,” explains Margaret Newell, a professor at Ohio State University. Thousands of Native Americans, including Wampanoag, some of whom no doubt had had contact with the original Pilgrims, were made slaves, both in the new settlements and far afield.

Native slaves working a sugar plantation in West Indies

Although Native-Colonial relations had been steadily souring for years, it was the large-scale arrival of Puritan settlers after 1630 that caused tensions to flare. Unlike the early Pilgrims, the Puritans had zero interest in cooperation with the natives, whom they regarded as heathens, savages, little better than animals. Not a jocular and jovial bunch, the Puritans. Not inclined to inclusion. As more waves of settlers arrived, the Native American tribes were pushed farther westward, the Puritans simply appropriating land for themselves. Thus the long, sad story of the native peoples of America – a story that continues today – begins.

So where does that leave us in our Thanksgiving narrative for our children? I don’t really know. For the youngest ones, it’s clearly enough to say that this is a day when we give thanks for everything that we have, and since we’ve been training them for months to say ‘thank you,’ they might just get it.

For older kids, I think it’s appropriate to introduce some truths. It’s important that they know that while the original settlers of what became the Massachusetts Bay Colony were undoubtedly resolute and stouthearted, many also carried within them the hearts of religious zealots and intolerant prigs, which would ultimately lead to the atrocities (on both sides) of King Philip’s War and the insanities of the Salem witch trials. After such a congenial and cooperative event as the original 1621 feast with the Wampanoag, things went badly, to say the least.

1810 engraving of King Philip’s War

You don’t necessarily want your kids to swallow a heaping portion of misinformation and mythology along with their apple pie, but you also don’t want to sour them on what is, to me, one of the best holidays going. I guess you want to provide them with age-appropriate information and let them try to work out what it all means. There are some excellent online resources for teaching your kids about the Thanksgiving holiday, and here are some of our picks. If you have any more suggestions, please share them.

Scholastic.com – Teaching about the First Thanksgiving
National Geographic Kids
Scholastic.com – The First Thanksgiving
Plimouth Plantation – History Interactive

This article was published last year around this time, but with Thanksgiving nearly here I thought it might be worthwhile to give it another roll out. 

3 thoughts on “A Side of Reality With Your Pumpkin Pie? Teaching your Kids about Thanksgiving

  1. Ugh, this makes me sick.

    I really love thanksgiving but i’m not sure if I can ever celebrate it again after reading that. I mean, I guess atrocities have been committed on numerous days, but to have this holiday come directly from natives helping the people who will eventually slaughter them, enslave them, disease them, take their land, etc. feels very wrong. I’ll def have to think on this one, whether I pick a new date to celebrate a similar holiday, or while i celebrate thanksgiving, pay a homage to the people who have suffered. I wonder what would’ve happened if the natives would have let those settlers die. Do you ever think that? The what if’s of huge parts of history like slavery, colonialism, genocide, and war?


    • I know, I know. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, believe me. But I don’t think that giving up on the holiday is the right idea. I love Thanksgiving, not only for the chance to bring family and friends together but for the opportunity to reinforce the idea that we should indeed be thankful for all that we have. I guess we just need to teach our kids a bit of history and not gloss over the darker sides. I think paying homage to the people who made the survival of the first pilgrims possible is a good balance. Thanks for visiting and for sharing your thoughts!


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