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The True Origins of Thanksgiving and Its Dishes

Reading the book "Indian Givers" sparked Sue's desire to speak truth to history—to give credit where credit is due.

The Pilgrims and Wampanoag give thanks for the abundance of food the earth provides.

The Pilgrims and Wampanoag give thanks for the abundance of food the earth provides.

Some people wonder if the story of the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims celebrating the first Thanksgiving is true. Other people wonder why we keep eating the same foods every Thanksgiving. And I wonder why the potential for good relations between Native Americans and American colonists has still not been worked out after all this time.

The Story of the First Thanksgiving Dinner

The story about the "first" Thanksgiving party in Massachusetts is true, but it's not the only one. Massachusetts Governor William Bradford hosted that party. He left notes of it in his journal, as did one of his assistants, Edward Winslow. Winslow's journal entry below shows some of the preparations the Pilgrims went through. Here is the story.

The harvest in 1621 was a good one. In October, Bradford invited his friend, Massasoit, and the Wampanoag to join his own group of about 50 surviving "saints" in thanks for the bountiful harvest they had jointly produced. About 90 Wampanoag attended.

The Wampanoag, after having witnessed half of Bradford's group perish the year before from starvation and fever, had taught the survivors how to identify, cultivate, and cook the native foods that grew so abundantly in the area. The party was held not only to celebrate survival and a great harvest, but also to honor the friendship that had evolved between two very different cultures, each with a lot to share.

Thanksgiving Journal Entry by Edward Winslow (Mourt's Relation)

". . . our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours ; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie."

—Caleb Johnson's Mayflower History

We are all thankful to our mother, the earth, for she gives us all that we need for life.

— Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Thanksgiving Address

Sarah Josepha Hale worked hard to persuade Abraham Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Sarah Josepha Hale worked hard to persuade Abraham Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Thanksgiving Day Proclamation

Unfortunately, less than 16 years later, the Pilgrims and other Indians of that region were at war. Too many Pilgrims were too free with Indian property that wasn't theirs, including land, viewing the Indians as somehow less worthy beings (heathen) than they were.

Although both cultures had an awareness of a Greater Being looking out for them, their names and images for that Being were different, and Europeans used it as an excuse to take whatever they wanted—as a "God-given" right. They expected Native Americans to speak the same language they did, and handle land rights and conflicts in the same way. Diplomacy nearly always ended up as manipulation, rather than honest negotiation, which resulted in countless genocides and never-ending conflict.

More than 200 years later, President Abraham Lincoln responded to the entreaties of Sarah Josepha Hale (of Godey's Lady's Book) to create a national holiday of Thanksgiving—intended to help pull the nation together after a brutal Civil War, and also to remind everyone of the abundance of the land they lived in. She had noticed that such celebrations had continued sporadically across the fledgling nation, and had been working for 40 years to create a national holiday, called Thanksgiving, that would help bridge the differences.

Lincoln finally declared it so. His Proclamation of Thanksgiving was written in October 1863, two years before the Civil War ended. Over time, historians rewrote some of the early history of white settlers to include Native Americans in the celebration. We now celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of every November.

When Is Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States. Canada has its Thanksgiving celebration on the second Monday of October.



Thursday, November 25th


Thursday, November 24th


Thursday, November 23th

Turkey and Other Native American Foods

By Lincoln's time, explorers and merchants had introduced American native foods worldwide, where some were accepted and others were not. Ireland adopted the potato as its own, Italy accepted tomatoes and zucchini, Switzerland took cocoa, and India and China embraced the hot and sweet peppers the Americas produced.

Each region of the world already had its own game bird, so turkey didn't catch on worldwide. But here in the United States, turkey became the most popular source of meat for traditional Thanksgiving dinners.

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Traditional Food for Thanksgiving Dinner

In the U.S, it became the practice to prepare original American foods for Thanksgiving, which meant feasts of turkey or quail with cranberry sauce, corn on the cob, yellow squash and/or yams, green beans, and mashed potatoes and gravy, finished off with pumpkin and/or pecan pie.

All of these foods and more are indigenous to this continent. The fact that some of them have saved many other countries from starvation (especially potatoes), is a tribute to the Amerindians who first cultivated and shared them, and the Europeans who transported them in their ships to the folks back home.

The charts below show, in alphabetical order, foods that Native Americans cultivated, some of which are now considered an integral part of other countries' "traditional" dishes.

Indigenous American Foods Used Worldwide



Beans (except green beans)



Cassava (tapioca)


Corn/maize (including popcorn)

Maple syrup


Passion fruit


Peppers (hot & sweet)


Pine nuts


Sweet potatoes & yams

Sunflowers & seeds




Indigenous American Foods Just Starting to Spread


















Wild rice

Note: These lists are taken from a fascinating book called Indian Givers, by Jack Weatherford. This book lists an amazing number of additional products the American Continent gave the world, some of which are so commonplace worldwide that I had no idea they came originally from here.

Every year families cook and eat Thanksgiving dinner together. It's a time for appreciating the love of relatives and friends, along with the abundance we all share.

Every year families cook and eat Thanksgiving dinner together. It's a time for appreciating the love of relatives and friends, along with the abundance we all share.

Celebrating Thanksgiving Today

My immediate family celebrates Thanksgiving with a traditional American dinner, which we all pitch in to prepare and clean up afterward. The dinner is accompanied by great discussions, games, laughter, roasted marshmallows, and singing with guitars and harmonies.

It's a loving, creative gathering of parents, siblings, and kids, where we remember and appreciate the lives of our parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who have passed on, and of other family members living too far away to join us in California.

An Attitude of Gratitude

It was amazing to me to see how many American foods, originally cultivated by the first inhabitants of this continent, have played such a major role in the health and survival of people worldwide. For that, alone, I am grateful. Yet Amerindians have shared so many additional things that have made our country great, that I find it disappointing we have not yet developed an equitable working relationship between our two cultures.

This year I've decided to dedicate Thanksgiving to whatever partnerships currently exist between Native Americans and the mainstream US population, however unacknowledged those partnerships may be. The first step toward rectification is appreciation, after all, and I am honored to extend appreciation to those who gave so much to my ancestors that has filtered down to us today.

I awoke this morning with a devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thanksgiving Blessing

To all Native Americans up and down the entire Americas: Thank you for the generosity you offered so many years ago. May we find a way to create new partnerships in these times that counteract the worst of the past with something better, thereby generating mutual benefit, respect, and understanding.

© 2011 Sustainable Sue


uniquearticlesbuz from USA on November 21, 2011:

Very interesting hub........

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