What Really Happened on the First Thanksgiving?

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Each year, elementary schools around the United States put on plays meant to celebrate and recreate the magic of the first Thanksgiving. At some point in your education, you too may have donned a construction paper pilgrim hat or a colorful collection of turkey feathers while acting out what supposedly happened during that fateful post-harvest feast.

Even if you weren’t involved in a kindergarten stage production, many of us were taught the classic tale of the first Thanksgiving: that a group of friendly Native Americans welcomed the pilgrims to the new world over a meal of turkey and potatoes after a successful harvest. But as many of us approached adulthood — and possibly learned more about how, throughout history, the U.S. engaged in the systematic displacement and genocide of Indigenous populations across the country — the sneaking suspicion that there may have been more to the story of Thanksgiving only grew stronger.

And for good reason. The first Thanksgiving wasn’t at all the story that’s been mythologized and rewritten for history books. While there may be some small segments of truth embedded in the narrative we’re told, it’s not a coincidence that many Native American groups regard this holiday as a time of mourning. To shed light on a more historically accurate version of events, we’re taking a look at what really took place during the first Thanksgiving.