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The Brutal, Dark History Behind the Origins of Thanksgiving

As kids, many of us probably learned a sanitized version of the first Thanksgiving story — but it wasn’t all peace, love and pass the gravy. While it’s true that the settlers at Plymouth and their allies from the Wampanoag tribe gathered in 1621 for an epic, three-day feast to celebrate the settlers’ first successful harvest, that’s far from the end of the tale. In kindergarten and beyond, we learn that English religious exiles began establishing civilization in the new world, winning over the local tribes with overtures of friendship, who then taught them how to grow crops to sustain their burgeoning society from that day forward. The real story is a lot more complicated, and a lot less kid-friendly.

Fact is, the peace that brought the Wampanoag and the settlers together at the table wasn’t as solid as we’d like to believe. A lot of bloodshed took place both before and after that first feast. Today, many Native Americans and others mark Thanksgiving as a solemn day of remembrance instead of celebration. Here’s the rest of the details on what went down after the plates were cleared in Plymouth, Mass.

At least 100 people came to dinner

If you’re cooking for a big crowd this year, take comfort in the fact that more than 100 people came to the first Thanksgiving – and they didn’t even have running water! At least 90 Native men and 50 Englishmen came to the feast, Plimoth Plantation colonial foodways culinarian Kathleen Wall told Time. The Native people dined on the ground, like they did at home, and the English ate at the table, like they did at theirs.

The assembled likely played marksmaship games and ran footraces in between dining on deer, geese, turkey and other fowl. The festivities also lasted three days, since it took the Wampanoag a solid two to walk there.

The Wampanoag leader brokered peace

A Wampanoag leader named Massasoit first negotiated a treaty between the Plymouth settlers and the Wampanoag tribe in 1620, including an agreement that no one from either group would harm anyone from the other. They also agreed to leave their weapons at home when trading, to further ensure peaceful commerce. For about 10 years, Massasoit and the Pilgrims remained allies, trading English goods for Wampanoag land, access to natural resources and other assets.

But tensions began to rise after Massasoit passed away in 1661 and his son, Wamsutta took over. In the years between 1630–1642 alone, about 25,000 European colonizers arrived, while a devastating plague cut the native population by more than half. Wamsutta himself died mysteriously in 1662 while visiting the Puritans to discuss gathering tensions between the two groups, Atlas Obscura reports. His successor, Metacomet, only fanned the flames.

Violating a treaty led to bloodshed

In 1675, three Natives were executed after murdering a man who had served as a translator to the settlers, which only further inflamed distrust between the two groups. Metacomet feared the Natives would lose more land to the new arrivals, and built a coalition of various Native tribes to protect themselves and their resources. By the fall of 1675, the coalition began to clash with settlers, attacking settlements in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The Narragansett tribe wanted to remain neutral, but wouldn’t give up Wampanoag who had taken refuge in their encampment, or refuse to harbor women, children and the elderly or infirm from that tribe seeking shelter from the conflict. As a result, the Puritan forces attacked the Narragansett stronghold, killing up to 600 Natives and about 150 settlers in the bloody battle and its aftermath.

The conflict further devastated Native populations

What became known as King Philip’s War ensued, so named after Metacomet’s English moniker. It decimated both the Native tribes and the colonies. Wampanoag abducted settlers and held them ransom, and settlers pillaged and destroyed Native villages. Much of the colonies were burned and looted, taking decades to fully recover.

An article in The Historical Journal of Massachusetts says the war could have claimed as many as 30% of the English population and half of the Native Americans in New England. It ended when Metacomet was killed, beheaded and dismembered, according to It Happened in Rhode Island. His remaining allies also got executed or sold into slavery in the West Indies. The colonists impaled “King Phillip’s” head on a spike and displayed it in Plymouth for 25 years, as a macabre effigy to the strife.

Native people never really recovered

That wasn’t the only conflict between Native peoples and the colonizers. Other wars raged in Virginia, Connecticut, New York and elsewhere and the Native American population has never really recovered. For the thriving societies that were already living here when the Europeans arrived, the settlers’ arrival wasn’t the beginning of a new world, but the end of one.

For that reason, Native Americans and supporters have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day since 1970. Participants in the National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It’s a day of remembrance, spiritual connection and protest against the racism and oppression that Native Americans have suffered and continue to experience, to this day.

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