The history surrounding behind the holiday: Thanksgiving

A conversation with NDSU History Professor Donald Johnson

From hand turkeys to pilgrim paper hats, each person has a different perspective on what the history of Thanksgiving was. Some choose not to celebrate thanksgiving due to the destruction that Indigenous peoples faced when the settlers came to the region. There are others that think that Thanksgiving is still a worthwhile holiday to celebrate. 

An Associate Professor of History at NDSU Donald Johnson explained how there isn’t one real meaning of Thanksgiving, but throughout history people have celebrated in America for different reasons. 

The first Thanksgiving is said to be first celebrated between August and September in 1621. This was celebrated between the English settlers and the Wampanoag people in modern day Massachusetts. The cause of this celebration was really a combination of an English harvest festival and a relational celebration of the Wampanoags. 

“Both of them saw it a little bit differently,” said Johnson. He explained that the English saw it as a sign that they had made it in the “new world”. The English first settled in 1620, but were not able to use the land until the spring due to the harsh weather. Until the harvest of 1621, they had to survive off of the food that they had brought from England.

For the Wampanoags, “it was a sign that these people were going to be long term friends and allies,” he said. This was something that the Wampanoags did ever so often with their allies to cement their friendship. It celebrated that they had a new trading partner and an ally in the region. 

The friendly relations and era of peace lasted between the Wampanoags and the English Settlers for about one generation. They “maintained an alliance that lasted from the 1620s to about the 1670s,” said Johnson. This era of peace ended in the 1670’s when King Philip’s War, or Metacom’s Rebellion, broke out over the expansion of English land onto Wampanoag region. 

This event “puts an end to most of the good relations that existed between the local Native Americans and the English,” said Johnson. 

Johnson also explained how throughout history there have been various reasons to celebrate the holiday. “It’s hard to have one real meaning of Thanksgiving in American History,” he said. 

The holiday was not officially celebrated during the first 100 years after the first Thanksgiving. During the Revolutionary Era, George Washington established it as a more nationalist holiday. “The Continental Congress started declaring days of Thanksgiving to mark victories or revolutionary events,” said Johnson. 

The meaning then changed during the 1860s and the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln celebrated differently in 1863 by focusing on the idea of upcoming freedom. “That was very much a thanksgiving to represent the new birth of freedom that he was anticipating after the end of the civil war,” said Johnson. 

It wasn’t till the 1900s that Thanksgiving was tied back to the Native Americans. “That version of Thanksgiving was much more celebratory of American democracy and American freedoms, though it lost its connection with the Native Americans at that point which wasn’t brought back into it until the 20th century.” 

It was in the 1900s that it became focused more on American prosperity and wealth. Today Thanksgiving has been seen more as a consumerist holiday, being paired with Black Friday shopping. Although the holiday can be celebrated for many different reasons, there are other details that are looked at to recognize the full extent of who we are celebrating. 

“There are elements that we can focus on with Thanksgiving that I think are positive in celebrating our heritage and the history of our country,” said Johnson. However he added that “it’s important to look at it with clear eyes, and see that there were injustices and crimes committed against Native Americans.”

People will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday next week on Thursday, November 24. NDSU students will not have school on the 23 through the 25 of November in recognition of Thanksgiving.

“For such a historic holiday it seems to reflect more on the present than it really ever does on the past,” said Johnson.

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