This is a popular image of the first Thanksgiving, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. But this is definitely NOT what happened.

What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving? The Wampanoag Side of the Tale

Gale Courey Toensing

When you hear about the Pilgrims and “the Indians” harmoniously sharing the “first Thanksgiving” meal in 1621, the Indians referred to so generically are the ancestors of the contemporary members of the Wampanoag Nation. As the story commonly goes, the Pilgrims who sailed from England on the Mayflower and landed at what became Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 had a good harvest the next year. So Plymouth Gov. William Bradford organized a feast to celebrate the harvest and invited a group of “Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit” to the party. The feast lasted three days and, according to chronicler Edward Winslow, Bradford sent four men on a “fowling mission” to prepare for the feast and the Wampanoag guests brought five deer to the party. And ever since then, the story goes, Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. Not exactly, Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer told Indian Country Today Media Network in a conversation on the day before Thanksgiving 2012—391 years since that mythological “first Thanksgiving.”

We know what we’re taught in mainstream media and in schools is made up. What’s the Wampanoag version of what happened?

Yeah, it was made up. It was Abraham Lincoln who used the theme of Pilgrims and Indians eating happily together. He was trying to calm things down during the Civil War when people were divided. It was like a nice unity story.

So it was a political thing?

Yes, it was public relations. It’s kind of genius, in a way, to get people to sit down and eat dinner together. Families were divided during the Civil War.

So what really happened?

We made a treaty. The leader of our nation at the time—Yellow Feather Oasmeequin [Massasoit] made a treaty with (John) Carver [the first governor of the colony]. They elected an official while they were still on the boat. They had their charter. They were still under the jurisdiction of the king [of England]—at least that’s what they told us. So they couldn’t make a treaty for a boatload of people so they made a treaty between two nations—England and the Wampanoag Nation.

What did the treaty say?

It basically said we’d let them be there and we would protect them against any enemies and they would protect us from any of ours. [The 2011 Native American $1 coin commemorates the 1621 treaty between the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony.] It was basically an I’ll watch your back, you watch mine’ agreement. Later on we collaborated on jurisdictions and creating a system so that we could live together.

What’s the Mashpee version of the 1621 meal?

You’ve probably heard the story of how Squanto assisted in their planting of corn? So this was their first successful harvest and they were celebrating that harvest and planning a day of their own thanksgiving. And it’s kind of like what some of the Arab nations do when they celebrate by shooting guns in the air. So this is what was going on over there at Plymouth. They were shooting guns and canons as a celebration, which alerted us because we didn’t know who they were shooting at. So Massasoit gathered up some 90 warriors and showed up at Plymouth prepared to engage, if that was what was happening, if they were taking any of our people. They didn’t know. It was a fact-finding mission.

When they arrived it was explained through a translator that they were celebrating the harvest, so we decided to stay and make sure that was true, because we’d seen in the other landings—[Captain John] Smith, even the Vikings had been here—so we wanted to make sure so we decided to camp nearby for a few days. During those few days, the men went out to hunt and gather food—deer, ducks, geese, and fish. There are 90 men here and at the time I think there are only 23 survivors of that boat, the Mayflower, so you can imagine the fear. You have armed Natives who are camping nearby. They [the colonists] were always vulnerable to the new land, new creatures, even the trees—there were no such trees in England at that time. People forget they had just landed here and this coastline looked very different from what it looks like now. And their culture—new foods, they were afraid to eat a lot of things. So they were very vulnerable and we did protect them, not just support them, we protected them. You can see throughout their journals that they were always nervous and, unfortunately, when they were nervous they were very aggressive.

So the Pilgrims didn’t invite the Wampanoags to sit down and eat turkey and drink some beer?

[laughs] Ah, no. Well, let’s put it this way. People did eat together [but not in what is portrayed as “the first Thanksgiving]. It was our homeland and our territory and we walked all through their villages all the time. The differences in how they behaved, how they ate, how they prepared things was a lot for both cultures to work with each other. But in those days, it was sort of like today when you go out on a boat in the open sea and you see another boat and everyone is waving and very friendly—it’s because they’re vulnerable and need to rely on each other if something happens. In those days, the English really needed to rely on us and, yes, they were polite as best they could be, but they regarded us as savages nonetheless.

So you did eat together sometimes, but not at the legendary Thanksgiving meal.

No. We were there for days. And this is another thing: We give thanks more than once a year in formal ceremony for different season, for the green corn thanksgiving, for the arrival of certain fish species, whales, the first snow, our new year in May—there are so many ceremonies and I think most cultures have similar traditions. It’s not a foreign concept and I think human beings who recognize greater spirit then they would have to say thank you in some formal way.

What are Mashpee Wampanoags taught about Thanksgiving now?

Most of us are taught about the friendly Indians and the friendly Pilgrims and people sitting down and eating together. They really don’t go into any depth about that time period and what was going on in 1620. It was a whole different mindset. There was always focus on food because people had to work hard to go out and forage for food, not the way it is now. I can remember being in Oklahoma amongst a lot of different tribal people when I was in junior college and Thanksgiving was coming around and I couldn’t come home—it was too far and too expensive—and people were talking about, Thanksgiving, and, yeah, the Indians! And I said, yeah, we’re the Wampanoags. They didn’t know! We’re not even taught what kind of Indians, Hopefully, in the future, at least for Americans, we do need to get a lot brighter about other people.

So, basically, today the Wampanoag celebrate Thanksgiving the way Americans celebrate it, or celebrate it as Americans?

Yes, but there’s another element to this that needs to be noted as well. The Puritans believed in Jehovah and they were listening for Jehovah’s directions on a daily basis and trying to figure out what would please their God. So for Americans, for the most part there’s a Christian element to Thanksgiving so formal prayer and some families will go around the table and ask what are you thankful for this year. In Mashpee families we make offerings of tobacco. For traditionalists, we give thanks to our first mother, our human mother, and to Mother Earth. Then, because there’s no real time to it you embrace your thanks in passing them into the tobacco without necessarily speaking out loud, but to actually give your mind and spirit together thankful for so many things… Unfortunately, because we’re trapped in this cash economy and this 9-to-5 [schedule], we can’t spend the normal amount of time on ceremonies, which would last four days for a proper Thanksgiving.

Do you regard Thanksgiving as a positive thing?

As a concept, a heartfelt Thanksgiving is very important to me as a person. It’s important that we give thanks. For me, it’s a state of being. You want to live in a state of thanksgiving, meaning that you use the creativity that the Creator gave you. You use your talents. You find out what those are and you cultivate them and that gives thanks in action.

And will your family do something for Thanksgiving?

Yes, we’ll do the rounds, make sure we contact family members, eat with friends and then we’ll all celebrate on Saturday at the social and dance together with the drum.

Related articles:

Latest $1 Coin Celebrates 1621 Wampanoag Treaty

The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story

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S Duval's picture
S Duval
Submitted by S Duval on
I don't know how accurate the 1st Thanksgiving story is. My ancestors include Wm Bradford and Alice Southworth. The story is that many of the same people were at their wedding in Plymouth Plantation. I will read Wm Bradford's history (written years later) and see how it compares. It would be sad to learn that this is all false. Call me curious. I've read too much history to discount everything.

leah's picture
Submitted by leah on
I think it is so sad that even to this day people here in America don't even know the name of the tribe and still just call them " the Indians" !!! well my children will know them as the Wampanoag tribe and they will teach there children so from now on there not just " the Indians"

Pastor Drew's picture
Pastor Drew
Submitted by Pastor Drew on
The United Church of Christ claims a historical connection with the 'Pilgrims' who were a Protestant faction in England called Separatists. They established a 50 year peace with the Wampanoags - that lasted as long as the individuals who agreed to it were alive. The Pilgrims became absorbed by a more severe - and intolerant form of English Protestants called the Puritans. The Puritans waged war against the Native people under Massaoit's son, Phillip, that set the tone for the genocide that would follow in American history. Blemished as it was, the history of the peace between the Pilgrim Separatists and the Wampanoags still stands as an enduring example of two cultures that retained their cultural identity while coexisting in relationship.

curtj's picture
Submitted by curtj on
What is not in the history books, or stories, is that the pilgrims murdered the Indigenous people who has saved them three years prior from starvation. How is that for thanking the people who saved you? Captain Miles Standish and his men lured the chiefs into a blockhouse under the ruse of a meeting. Once the Indigenous were inside, the windows and doors were slammed shut, the Indigenous were shot, stabbed with swords and the survivors hung from the rafters. It figures, the descendants worship the murderers just as they worship Columbus, famous lost slaver, rapist and mass murderer who died of syphilis, with over half a million murdered Indigenous attributed to him.

ronald williams-EL's picture
ronald williams-EL
Submitted by ronald williams-EL on
ronald williams-EL Some of the lair's have trained to keep the lies alive even in today's world the continuing lies of treaties then and now have been bro-king since the corralling of the melinnated people the so called "Indians" said it best to some of the pale faces <> Him talked with forked tongue <> And it still stands true to this day.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
When ever someone invites me to Dine, To Break Bread with THEM, I always Refuse. I cite several reasons for doing so, Poison, or THEIR words Poisoning my mind, Sitting down I am at a Disadvantage, I do not know what is Under the Table or On the Chair, I do not know who Cooked it, where it came from, how it was Killed or Produced. The old story of how the Ottowa Chief had his Brother for Dinner one day, Chief

Ogema's picture
Submitted by Ogema on
Hahaha, Really so the Native American people that got murdered and then them Coomocks sat down and began eating or celebrating was a lie. Get your History correct man! We were murdered for our land and then they sat down and prayed to God and thank him for the new land and as they say "broke bread" and celebrated over dead men women and babies. That is how Thanksgiving became in to existence.....

Barbara Barton's picture
Barbara Barton
Submitted by Barbara Barton on
Thank you for sharing. Where are the records of those early journals held?

poet's picture
Submitted by poet on
This is a very educating article and not racist at all. There is one thing the American government has always done and thats tell a good story.

Cindra's picture
Submitted by Cindra on
Thank you. As a teacher, I want to make sure that I always have the facts straight BEFORE I celebrate or teach anything!!! Bless you!

Roger Burke's picture
Roger Burke
Submitted by Roger Burke on
Remind me again why we have a Thanksgiving Day parade – and has it ever been anything else but a devise to get Xmas shopping going early, before somebody invented Black Friday, which as we all know now starts on Thursday --- like some damn Jewish holiday --- which, I am told, it now is with Thanksgivukkah, but won’t actually be again for another 79,000 years. OK, for you, 78,999. To be honest, everybody has always celebrated Thanksivukkah. We get one turkey, and miraculously it seems to last in one form or another for 8 days. And in concussion: The Story of the first Thanksgiving (by an Oklahoman) (Roger Miller Show, 1967 -- an approximate re-creation.) Many years ago, hundreds of years ago, when America was still a foreign country, our forefathers (John, Paul, George and Ringo) came to our shores on three ships: the Anna, the Maria and the Alberghetti. A long winter was setting in and the Pilgrims had nothing to eat. So they decided to hold a dinner for the Native Americans, and asked them to bring the food. But the Indians didn’t have any either. It was then that one of the Pilgrims, a monkey breeder named Miles Gibbon, discovered that the monkeys he had been breeding could be really quite tasty, not to mention filling. So he rustled up a mess o’ them, and offered some to the Indians when they came over with not even a covered dish. The Indians were so grateful, they turned to Myles and said, “Why thanks, Gibbon.” And ever since then, we’ve celebrated that first Thanksgibbon Day. Favorite Roger Miller writer’s quote: “The human mind is a wonderful thing, it starts working from before you're born and doesn't stop till you sit down to write a song.” (Referred to the process of trying to get out of that block as “inducing labor.)

Caerwynn's picture
Submitted by Caerwynn on
and I am Thankful that there are those who remember, and those who share. Happy Thanksgiving Cousin, to both of you.

aaron hunter's picture
aaron hunter
Submitted by aaron hunter on
All lies!! We all know that the indains were eaten by the cannibals whites!! The rwal story has always been buried jus like our black brothers were all destryed!! Please tell the truth & people stop celebrating all these white american man made holidays!!

Mr. Rose's picture
Mr. Rose
Submitted by Mr. Rose on
The truth is always bitter to swallow but a lie people just gobble that stuff up......And yes pun intended

Anonymous373965's picture
Submitted by Anonymous373965 on
Thats amazing. I wish I would have been taught what REALLY happened. Once again thats the Government and Media for you. They have to "Sugarcoat" everything so its "perfection". I think I would have the truth over a "sugarcoated" perfection any day.

Rich's picture
Submitted by Rich on
It's nice to read about the real thanksgiving. We need to understand where we came from.

mnh's picture
Submitted by mnh on
thanks for the information about thanksgiving and i will use it in ny school project

Mel 's picture
Submitted by Mel on
I'm not able to find any evidence to support the Pilgrims being Jehova's Witnesses. Anyone have info about that?

Kent Madin
Kent Madin
Submitted by Kent Madin on
I would very much enjoy having a meal with Ramona Peters. Would love to hear more of this story.

scd's picture
Submitted by scd on
If a Wampanoag man or woman that was there at the time of the so called "First Thanksgiving" were somehow, by the miracle of modern science, resurrected from the dead and then interviewed on CNN, FOX and CBS and told the same story and more of the encounter with the whites, white people would STILL deny it! They would STILL want to tell it their way! Even if GOD Almighty were to tell the same story whites would argue with Him!

Geneva Kitchen Andersen
Geneva Kitchen ...
Submitted by Geneva Kitchen ... on
The truth is refreshing and it's about time school history books tell the truth

Stella Kawalski
Stella Kawalski
Submitted by Stella Kawalski on
Everything on this Planet that white people gave come in contact with has been either Destroyed or Tainted. If you dont think so.... take a look around this country. Water is polluted.,.. Air is Polluted ... even peoples Minds are Polluted!. Then look around at all the Countries 'Murrika' brought "Democracy" to. . . . . Vietnam..... Iraq.... Libya . . .Cambodia. (oopsie... we are not supposed to know about Cambodia... kinda like Yemen today !) Yea... The Amerikan "Toxic Touch" Not to mention the Systematic Destruction and Eradication of ancient Cultures Thousands of years old! Along with their Murderous Christan Religion.... No One had a chance. America DESTROYED the Iraq Museum hours after bombing the shit out of Baghdad . Artifacts were stolen by Amerikan Military in a calculated plan to acquire anything dug up from within the "Fertile Crescent" area over the past 150 years . . ! . ... also known as the *Birthplace of Civilization. And now because of our War on the Middle East and Syria... there are Hundreds of Thousands of Refugees... Women and Children .. that are dying because of Amerikas WAR MACHINE ! ... Imagine if the Native Americans treated the Pilgrims as Horrifically as WE... The so called 'Amerikans' are treating the Syrian Women & Children refugees now. Amerikas arrogant attitude today... makes Me SICK!.... Grateful.? No. !... Pathetic ? YES! ....... Christian Religion.... . . . The WORST thing to happen to America . . . . . . . . Since the WHITE MAN !!!

Barb Amsden's picture
Barb Amsden
Submitted by Barb Amsden on
I am thankful for hearing another part of history that makes a lot of sense and is consistent with stories and pictures that I have from my forebearers as they tried to build a life in the wilds of the west coast. They were white, from Denmark, and they were helped by native people, with herbal medicines, with transport, with entertainment. From a book I have by a government heritage organization, white colonists said: "The Indian people, they were a very important factor in the life of the colony." and "The Indians were surprisingly very good to us. They could have resented us pretty badly but they were awfully good to us." My Thanksgiving wish is that all people who make comments have the courage to do so in their own names and that they have the wisdom to write their views with respect to the author and for other readers. Happy Thanksgiving to all and a special thanks to Gale Courey Toensing for the Wampanoag history.