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My Two Cents on The Real History Behind Thanksgiving

Hello there my lovelies! I am so sorry I've been out lately, not to make excuses, but there's not a GREAT excuse, potentially just an explanation. I have been grappling with the lack of inspiration, caused by anxiety about the amount of stress on my plate. So what better way to combat stress? But to eliminate self-imposed stresses, which included this blog. So while I'm going to try to get a blog posted today, I make no promises, because quite frankly, I have no idea where I'm going with this… but I'm going to do my best to give you My Two Cents on the Real History Behind Thanksgiving

As most of us know, on the fourth Thursday of November (this week), Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. And while we use it as a time to be joyful and reflective of all the things we’re thankful for, it often makes me wonder who in the world came up with this day? So, I decided to do a little research (because the analyst nerd in me won) on the holiday Americans call “Thanksgiving.” 

While I doubt I'm going to teach most of you anything new, what I found out from the Forbes article, by Maia Niguel Hoskin, The Real History Behind Thanksgiving, and the Mental Floss article, by Ethan Trex, Why We Eat What We Eat on Thanksgiving was enlightening, and I thought I would add my two cents about it! 

Don't get me wrong, I think creating a day to force people—who are historically ungrateful—to stop and take stock of all the good things they have is a solid idea. But I think it's interesting that we celebrate a day of “thanks” by imposing on our children a story of cooperation that is gravely flawed and horribly inaccurate. In fact, for indigenous people, that time in history was one that they would never give “thanks” for. It was a time of great suffering at the hands of my ancestors who “discovered” land which they already inhabited and proceeded to infiltrate, spread disease, help themselves to their resources, then co-opt their culture then force their beliefs and way of life on them. 

So why do we even celebrate this day? 

Supposedly because the indigenous people “celebrated” with early settlers upon their arrival, and it is told as a story where the indigenous tribes agreed to help pilgrims learn how to fend for themselves—to be clear, I call bullshit. 

Obviously, the story is highly influenced by the point of view it’s told from, which is likely diaries of the early settlers. But it's not just that. There is likely not very much—if any—truth to the story that pilgrims ate with the indigenous tribes. First of all, just using common sense, there would've been a language barrier (indigenous tribes likely didn't speak English). Also, there's no proof of who the first unnamed tribe to “greet” settlers were, and in my experience with my kids, if they can't give specifics, it's probably a lie.

According to the Forbes article I previously mentioned, there isn't actually a record of indigenous people being invited to the first feast. In fact, the indigenous people mentioned in historical retellings of the first Thanksgiving may have actually been an army of 90 men sent by the Chief of the Wampanoag tribe to check on what the commotion was. The indigenous tribes who would've “greeted” pilgrims, were most likely not all sitting around the table like Charles Schulz might have us believe. 

On the contrary, early European settlers brought with them disease which ravaged the indigenous people, along with their white privilege which made them feel entitled to not only the indigenous people’s land, but also their resources and their women. In fact, according to Hoskin’s article, the first interaction between the pilgrims and the indigenous tribe that “greeted” them, was the pilgrims raiding their winter provisions. And while I do believe the indigenous tribes ultimately did end up teaching early settlers about planting and harvest, it was most likely at the wrong end of a gun, which at the time of European settlement would've been unavailable to indigenous people.

Ultimately, this isn't probably new information to anyone, but the “Thanksgiving” tradition we all know and love was not born out of a rosy fresh friendship between early settlers and the indigenous people whose land and livelihoods they stole. More likely, it's just like everything else in American history, a reflection of politicians trying to put a positive spin on what was a tumultuous time in our history, by giving us something to “celebrate.” 

Ok, that got a little deep, so let's lighten it up, and learn more about the weird buffet of food we eat on Thanksgiving.

Namely, why in the world do we eat mostly beige foods on Thanksgiving? 

Who the hell knows, but supposedly it's because we are mimicking things that may have been historically available, and trying to create a meal similar to what was offered at the first Thanksgiving. The main account for that day (according to the other Mental Floss article mentioned above) is from colonist Edward Windslow’s diaries, which were later turned into the book Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. 

And while it mentions birds, it doesn't specifically mention Turkey. According to Ethan Trex, the most likely reason we eat turkey is that it's indigenous to North America, its big enough to feed a lot of people (thus aiding in the “celebrating with family” aspect of the the holiday), and it's not so well-known/available that we eat it every other day of the year, but also wasn't so out of reach that it would've been unattainable for people to get in the early 19th century when the holiday gained widespread popularity. So take from that what you will, but personally, Turkey isn't my favorite part of the holiday.

Also, most of the more “traditional” dishes like cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes were likely unavailable at the time of the first Thanksgiving. Sugar would've been a luxury and probably did not grace the first Thanksgiving table, so if cranberries were available, they would’ve been in their whole berry, original state, and most certainly not in my kids favorite form (jellied with can marks on the side🤣). Most likely, Windlow’s diaries mentioned berries, and somewhere along the way we decided since cranberries were probably available then, and are seasonal to the fall, that's how we started using them. Similarly, the first account of green bean casserole comes from the back of a can of Cambell’s soup, so if green beans were at the first Thanksgiving, they weren't mixed with cream of mushroom soup and topped with fried onions. 

Trex’s article doesn't mention stuffing, but I remember reading somewhere once, that stuffing was likely created sometime in the 18th or 19th century, maybe during the depression, by a person trying to make use of stale bread by soaking it in the drippings from the turkey, while also attempting to round out/create a more filling meal. I don't know if either my recollection of this story, or the timing are even accurate, but they kinda make sense, so I've always just believed it. I don't know who else would've come up with soaking bread in liquid then adding some of the most inexpensive/least nutritious vegetables available to it. Plus, I doubt there was any bread at the first Thanksgiving, because that required a lot of ingredients that would've been unavailavle. So if bread was there, I doubt there would've been extra that would've been turned into stuffing. 

I also mentioned sweet potato casserole earlier, but Trex’s article brings up the point that like sugar, potatoes wouldn't have been available at the time of the first feast, and certainly not marshmallows. Similar to the stuffing story, I remember my grandma (who was alive during the depression) telling me she ate a lot of potatoes, because they were filling and there were a lot of them because they were cheap. So maybe sweet potato casserole was born in that time period? Who knows, but Trex’s article mentions several recipes from the 1900s, so I'm inclined to believe that dish came much later. Similarly, he mentions pumpkin pie, which couldn't have been at the first Thanksgiving for all the reasons mentioned above plus no flour or butter. But likely pumpkins of some sort were there, just not in pie form.

One thing I learned from this research is that Thanksgiving didn't become a national holiday until after Bradford’s diaries—which were lost for nearly a century—resurfaced in 1856. According to Trex’s article, their resurfacing gave credence to politicians who wanted to create a national holiday. To be honest, it would not surprise me in the least if the “diaries” were actually a historical work of fiction. I'm not saying they are, I'm just saying it's fortuitous timing that they popped up around the time politicians wanted to create a national holiday.

Ultimately, the point of this is to say, the holiday we know and love is not the jolly picture it's been created to be.

To be clear, I celebrate the holiday. I, like most Americans, use the day to try to reflect on only the positive things in my life while setting aside the other stresses and things I'm concerned about. And it's a really nice tradition. Though I do always try to take a moment during the day to try to remind my kids that the story they learned in school likely wasn't wholly the truth. And that we’re enjoying the day on the backs of people who gave up A LOT for us to live this privileged life. We have also historically used the day to volunteer for at least a few hours serving food to the homeless and underprivileged in our community. Because ultimately, no matter what my financial/socioeconomic state, I know it could always be worse. So I'm thankful for what I have, and acts of service are a great way to remind me of that.

So that's all folks, that's My Two Cents on the Real History of Thanksgiving. While it's not a great reflection on my country, or of the history of the holiday, it's not all bad. It is a great time to reflect on the good. So while I will continue to take the time to be grateful for the fact I can write this blog, and give thanks for my friends and loved ones, I know that I am privileged. I don't know exactly what my heritage is, but since my maternal grandmother for sure has indigenous lineage, likely, I'm a reflection of both sides of the “first Thanksgiving table.” Part of my ancestors come from the side of the table who were doing the raping and pillaging, but the other part were likely from the other side. So I will always take time to remember the meaning of this holiday. I would also like to apologize on behalf of my ancestors, who took what they wanted, creating an untenable relationship, and then rewriting history to make themselves look better. Ultimately, it's hard to know exactly what happened, but I know it's not what it's been made out to be, and I'm sorry to the indigenous people of America for what is likely a sad time in your history.

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving, but don’t forget to reflect on how this holiday actually came to be. To the rest of you, Happy Thursday! Have a great week my friends!


-Rose Rayne Rivers

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