In this episode, we examine the real history behind one of the most celebrated holidays: Thanksgiving. It’s a pretty big deal in the U.S., with all the food and big gatherings and special traditions. But why do we celebrate Thanksgiving like we do?
Join Joy and co-host Asa as they explore the history of Thanksgiving. Did the Pilgrims and Native Americans actually sit down for dinner together? Why do we eat turkey? And why do many Native Americans consider Thanksgiving a Day of Mourning? All that, plus a new First Things First featuring cranberry sauce, presidential turkey pardons and the first Thanksgiving day parade.
Read more about the history of Thanksgiving from Native Knowledge 360° here: https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/informational/rethinking-thanksgiving
This project from the National Museum of the American Indian provides educational resources based on the experiences and voices of Native Americans.
[CLATTERS] ASA: Hey, Joy. Um, it smells so good in here. Are you cooking something?
JOY DOLO: Oh, hey, Asa. My entire family is coming to visit for Thanksgiving this year, so I'm making a ton of food. Here, try this.
ASA: [CHOMPS] [COUGHS] Joy, what are these?
JOY DOLO: Oh, just a little something special I whipped up, super spicy barbecue pecan pies. I figured I love barbecue sauce, and I love pecan pie. So why not put them together? Do you love them?
ASA: Well, I--
Oh, Joy, what was that?
JOY DOLO: What was what?
JOY DOLO: Oh, that. That is just my neighbor's chihuahua. She gets really bad gas.
ASA: No. It sounds like a turkey.
JOY DOLO: Oh, you know what, I totally forgot. It's the radio. I must have left it on.
JOY DOLO: Actually, they're doing some construction next door, and I'm pretty sure that's just the sound of their power tools.
JOY DOLO: What?
ASA: There are turkey feathers all over the kitchen floor.
JOY DOLO: Sure. But--
ASA: And I'm pretty sure that's a big bag of turkey chow all over there.
JOY DOLO: That's for me it's such a great source of fiber.
ASA: And that's--
Yup. That is definitely a turkey sitting on your kitchen table.
JOY DOLO: Oh, you mean this turkey. Yeah. OK. I have a pet turkey now. The chihuahua next door really does have bad gas, though.
Welcome to Forever Ago from APM Studios. I'm Joy Dolo.
ASA: And I'm Asa.
JOY DOLO: And today, we're talking all about Thanksgiving.
ASA: Hold up, Joy. Can we discuss why you have a live turkey in your house?
JOY DOLO: So you know how I mentioned my family's coming to visit for Thanksgiving and I want to make the perfect meal for them?
JOY DOLO: Well, last week, I ordered a turkey because turkey is the quintessential Thanksgiving food. And this morning, my turkey was delivered--
JOY DOLO: Major uh-oh. At first, I was like what am I supposed to do with this massive live--
I mean, lively turkey. But then I started thinking, who says we need to eat turkey on Thanksgiving anyway? The President of the United States pardons a turkey every year. And I'm basically the president of podcasting. So why shouldn't I be able to pardon Julia Gobblerts?
ASA: Julia Gobblerts?
JOY DOLO: Oh, yeah. I named her after America's sweetheart Julia Roberts. They both have the same magnetic personality, dazzling smile, and all around charisma.
ASA: Makes sense. And I know what you mean. Lots of people in the us celebrate Thanksgiving with their families and friends. But why do we celebrate the way that we do?
JOY DOLO: Yeah, Thanksgiving is one of the few major holidays in the US, where we get more than one day off of school or work. It's got its own decorations, and traditions, and TV specials. So it's definitely a big deal in the US.
ASA: But its history is a little more complicated than what you might have learned in school.
JOY DOLO: Right. There are different stories about the first Thanksgiving, and the way we think about this holiday has changed over time. Did your teachers talk about Thanksgiving in school when you were growing up, Asa?
ASA: At my old school, we used to have like Thanksgiving, you know, like lunches or dinners, and it was like really cool.
JOY DOLO: Yeah. What did you eat?
ASA: Turkey, stuffing, stuff like that.
JOY DOLO: So does your family do like meals and stuff for Thanksgiving too?
ASA: So before COVID I used to like-- I think I went to like my great grandma's house. That's where we all were. And we had like such a good time. We had cookouts, and Thanksgiving. It was like so much fun.
JOY DOLO: Oh, yum. And so, OK, so what's your family-- what kind of food do you like or what kind of stuff did they make?
ASA: My mom made-- she makes turkeys.
JOY DOLO: Um.
ASA: She made mac and cheese once.
JOY DOLO: Yes.
ASA: Yeah, it was--
JOY DOLO: You have to do it.
ASA: It's so funny because like she attempted to make it, but it didn't really-- it didn't really turn out well.
JOY DOLO: Oh-- isn't she--
ASA: There was no seasoning on it.
ASA: Why are you calling your mama out right now on podcasts?
ASA: She's laughing. She's laughing.
JOY DOLO: She does so much for you, talk about her mac and cheese. Do you have a favorite part of the holiday season?
ASA: Hanging out with family, for sure.
JOY DOLO: Yeah. That's the best. So let's talk about where Thanksgiving comes from. Back in the '90s, when I was in elementary school, we were taught that the pilgrims left England because of religious persecution. Then they sailed across the Atlantic and landed at Plymouth rock to settle in what later became Massachusetts. And they wore hats with big buckles on them.
ASA: According to the story, the native American showed the pilgrims how to live in this new place, had a big harvest dinner with them, and then they went their separate ways.
JOY DOLO: Lots of people grew up hearing that story or some version of it. But here's the thing, a lot of it isn't true. So what's the real history?
ASA: It's tough to piece together exactly what happened. Because like other things in history, a lot of it just wasn't written down.
JOY DOLO: And the people who did write things down were mostly European explorers and settlers. Their idea of what happened was probably pretty different from the native Americans, and there are some big holes in the story. But here's what we do know.
ASA: A group of about 100 English colonists did travel across the Atlantic ocean to North America.
JOY DOLO: They set up colonies, which is when people moved to a new land and take part of that land for themselves.
ASA: The pilgrims were one of the groups that came to colonize North America.
JOY DOLO: Part of the reason why they came to North America was to live somewhere where they could practice their religion exactly the way they wanted to. And they also came looking for new ways to make money.
ASA: Right. So the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
JOY DOLO: This was more than 150 years before the United States was even created. There were no cars, or TVs, or phones. The only way people could communicate was by letter. And they mostly traveled around by horseback or on ships.
ASA: Right. And by the time the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, members of the Wampanoag tribe have already been living in the area for at least 10,000 years.
JOY DOLO: And this wasn't the first time they'd seen Europeans.
ASA: The Wampanoag tribe had been in contact with Europeans for decades before the pilgrims even arrived.
JOY DOLO: I know Julia Gobblerts. Pretty surprising, right? Since the early 1500s, European explorers had been visiting North America. They sometimes kidnapped native Americans to sell them into slavery in Europe and other parts of the world, including one person you might have heard of, Squanto.
ASA: In the Thanksgiving story, Squanto was the person who helped the Pilgrims learn how to plant crops and survived in this new land.
JOY DOLO: Squanto or Tisquantum as he called himself, was a real person. Here's what we know about him.
ASA: In 1614, six years before the pilgrims arrived, Tisquantum was kidnapped by an English sea captain. This captain wanted to sell him into slavery along with a few dozen other Wampanoag men.
JOY DOLO: The captain brought Tisquantum to Spain. But at the time, it was illegal to sell enslaved native Americans there. So he was able to escape. Eventually, Tisquantum made his way to England, where he learned English. And a few years later, he was finally able to go home.
ASA: But when he got there, his village was gone. And his tribe had gotten sick from a disease brought by European settlers.
JOY DOLO: This was a huge problem back then. When European settlers came to North America, they brought a whole bunch of germs with them. These were germs the Europeans were used to and had grown up with, so they didn't have a big effect on them. But for the Native Americans, it was the first time they had ever encountered these germs. Their bodies weren't able to fight them off as well, and thousands of native Americans died.
ASA: Tisquantum's tribe was gone, but he stayed in the area, which brings us back to the Thanksgiving story.
JOY DOLO: Not long after the Pilgrims set up their colony, they met Tisquantum, and he did teach them how to grow crops, like corn. And some of the Wampanoags from a neighboring village led by their Chief Ousamequin did form an alliance with the Pilgrims. That meant they agreed to help each other survive and protect each other.
ASA: But you're probably wondering, what about that Thanksgiving meal? Did that actually happen?
JOY DOLO: Yeah, it sort of, we think. Historians think there was a harvest celebration in 1621, and some members of the Wampanoag tribe were there, including their chief. But there's no record that any Native Americans were even invited. And historians aren't sure why they were there.
ASA: Some think the Wampanoag showed up after the Pilgrims fired their guns into the air to celebrate a successful harvest.
JOY DOLO: Right. The story goes that the Wampanoags heard the gunfire and rushed to Plymouth. Once they realized the Pilgrims weren't declaring war, the two groups ate dinner together. But that's just one story, and we're not sure if it's true.
ASA: So we don't know why the dinner happened or even why the Wampanoags were there. And here's another mind blower for you, we're also not even sure whether they ate turkey.
JOY DOLO: Right. They might have eaten venison, which is meat from a deer, or maybe some kind of wild game bird, like pheasant. But they didn't eat sweet potatoes or cranberry sauce. And they definitely didn't eat pie.
ASA: Yeah. Because we know they didn't have butter or flour to make a crust or ovens.
JOY DOLO: So what could that first Thanksgiving have looked like? Pretty much everything that historians know about it comes from a single letter written in 1621 by Edward Winslow. He was one of the leaders of the Plymouth colony. And again, we're not sure if everything he wrote was true.
ASA: But here's one picture of what might have happened based on that letter.
JOY DOLO: The Pilgrims had finished gathering a big harvest of corn and barley and hunted a bunch of wild game birds.
ASA: About 90 Wampanoag men and their chief showed up. And they brought along five deer for the group to eat.
JOY DOLO: For three days, the group celebrated and feasted. They were really grateful they had survived their first year in the colony and for the bounty of food they had to eat.
ASA: So the idea of feeling thankful and having a meal together, that feels pretty similar to how we celebrate Thanksgiving today.
JOY DOLO: Yeah. But a lot of the stuff that we think of as classic Thanksgiving y things weren't around back then. So how exactly did we get the big Thanksgiving holiday that we have today with the turkey, and the pie, and the gatherings, and the big meal? Why am I making 20 side dishes, and why do I have a live turkey in my house?
I mean, aside from your witty banter and comforting presence, Julia.
ASA: Well, the live turkey part, that's all you, Joy. But the story behind why we celebrate Thanksgiving the way we do is pretty interesting. It all started with one lady, and lots of letters and--
JOY DOLO: Oh, oops. Thanks for the reminder, Julia Gobblerts. My pumpkin pie is almost ready. Asa, how about we have a slice and play a quick game of--
SUBJECT: First Things First!
JOY DOLO: That's the game where we try to guess the order things came in history. Today, we're looking at three Thanksgivingy things, canned cranberry sauce, the first presidential turkey pardon, and the Thanksgiving day parade. You know, the one with all the giant balloons. Which do you think came first, which came second, and which came most recently?
ASA: OK, so I think the canned cranberry sauce came first, the presidential turkey pardon came second, and the Thanksgiving day parade came third. Because I don't even think they had balloons back then so.
JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] OK, so-- OK, so we have a good order. Is there a reason that you chose this order? Like you have canned cranberry first. I mean, you have to have like cranberry. You have to. It's a necessity, whatever it's called.
ASA: It's necess-- it's necess--
JOY DOLO: It's necessary. It's a necessary necessity.
JOY DOLO: Say that three times fast. [LAUGHS] OK, so canned cranberry sauce, we can have that first because it's cranberries, you know. And then second, we have the presidential turkey pardon, and then we have the parade because balloons weren't invented until like-- I think a couple of weeks ago. That was a joke. [LAUGHS] Is that a good order? Is that what we want to go with?
JOY DOLO: So we have canned cranberry sauce is the oldest, the first presidential turkey pardon as second, and the Thanksgiving day parade third.
JOY DOLO: All right. We'll hear the answers at the end of the episode right after the credits.
ASA: We'll be right back.
JOY DOLO: Here at Forever Ago, we love talking about the surprising history behind some of our favorite inventions. Like remember how early ice cream was flavored with whale poop? Listeners, we want to hear from you. Do you have an invention you want to shout out for being totally awesome? It could be something unusual or something totally common that you think deserves more love.
AYA: Well, my name is Aya, and I am really glad people invented books. I love reading. It's my favorite thing to do in the whole entire world.
JOY DOLO: Send us a recording of yourself sharing your favorite invention and what's great about it at foreverago.org/contact.
You're listening to Forever Ago. I'm Joy.
ASA: And I'm Asa. Today, we're talking about the real history of Thanksgiving. A lot of what was taught for generations isn't really what happened.
JOY DOLO: We know the Pilgrims did cross the Atlantic and set up a colony in what would later become Massachusetts. But Native Americans had already lived there for thousands of years, and they had a complicated history with Europeans long before the Pilgrims showed up.
ASA: Right. European explorers had brought lots of germs with them to North America, and thousands of Native Americans got sick and died. Sometimes these explorers kidnapped Native Americans to sell them into the slave trade.
JOY DOLO: The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people did have a harvest dinner, but there's no evidence that the Native Americans were actually invited. And it didn't look like today's Thanksgiving. There was no pie, no cranberry sauce, maybe even no turkey. So where did that come from?
ASA: It all started with one person. And her name was Sarah Josepha Hale.
JOY DOLO: Ooh, story time. Love it. Wait, let me get my story time supplies. Crackling fire, check. Hot apple cider, [SLURP] check. And of course, my blobe.
ASA: Your what?
JOY DOLO: My Blobe. It's a blanket and a robe. Julia Gobblerts Has one too. See?
We wear them together whenever we're watching all our favorite Julia Roberts movies, Runaway Bird, Eat Pray Dove, the Pelican Brief, and of course My best Finch's Wedding.
ASA: Ah, cool. So back to Sarah Josepha Hale. Sarah was a writer and a poet who's best known for writing, wait for it, Mary Had A Little Lamb.
JOY DOLO: You mean one of the most popular nursery rhymes of all time?
ASA: That's the one. So in the 1820s, Sarah started writing articles, calling for Thanksgiving to be a national holiday.
JOY DOLO: So this was about 200 years after the Pilgrims first landed.
ASA: Yeah. And the population of the US was growing pretty fast around that time. More immigrants from Europe were starting to arrive, and people were moving West. Lots of people still lived on farms, grew their own food, and made what they needed by hand.
JOY DOLO: OK, so how'd Sarah first get interested in Thanksgiving?
ASA: Well, we're not totally sure. But historians think she probably read an old description of the 1621 harvest gathering written by Plymouth's former governor. And it gave her an idea. A national day of Thanksgiving could be the perfect chance for families to get together and celebrate their country. So along with writing articles, she started writing letters.
ACTRESS AS SARAH JOSEPHA: Dear sir, esteemed governor, respected gentleman. Dear sir.
ASA: For almost 40 years, she wrote 100 of letters to governors and presidents to campaign for Thanksgiving. And in 1863, she struck gold when she wrote to, wait for it, President Abraham Lincoln.
JOY DOLO: Get out of town. Lincoln? The President Lincoln?
ASA: It's true. Here's a part of what she wrote.
ACTRESS AS SARAH JOSEPHA: Dear sir, you may have observed that for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our great American festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.
JOY DOLO: Hang on. She wrote to him in 1863? So that would have been right during the Civil War, the war the Northern and Southern states fought over slavery.
ASA: Bingo. The United States was really divided during the war, like literally. So President Lincoln got this letter from Sarah and thought, hey, she might be on to something here.
ACTOR AS ABRAHAM: Hey, she might be on to something here. This new Thanksgiving holiday could really bring the country together. A time for gratitude, a time for family, a time for really tall black hats that everyone would wear for one day and look really, really cool. Actually, scratch that last part.
ASA: Less than a month after Sarah sent her letter, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of every November would be a national day of Thanksgiving. And Sarah started publishing recipes for what she imagined were traditional Thanksgiving foods, things like turkey, pumpkin pie, and apple pudding.
JOY DOLO: Wait, so that's why we eat turkey and pie on Thanksgiving?
Sorry, Julia Gobblerts. I mean, that's why some of us eat turkey?
ASA: Yeah. This whole thing is pretty wild, right? Thanksgiving, at least the way we celebrate it today, was dreamed up by this one person. But there's something that's bugging me.
JOY DOLO: What's that?
ASA: Well, the whole reason why we decided to do this episode is to learn about the history of Thanksgiving, right?
JOY DOLO: Right.
ASA: But the Thanksgiving story glosses over the tougher parts, like how white colonists pushed Native Americans from their homelands and sold them into slavery and spread germs to them. Is there a way to celebrate Thanksgiving that acknowledges that?
JOY DOLO: Yeah, I was talking the other day with Steven Peters about this. He's a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. That's the Native American tribe we heard about in the Thanksgiving story. And Steven says when he was growing up, he was taught that old story about the first Thanksgiving, you know that the Wampanoags were friendly helpers who disappeared after the harvest dinner.
STEVEN PETERS: And so that's one thing that is always, always very challenging is that as Native Americans, it seems like we're only-- we're only brought in in the context of how we benefited the pilgrims when they arrived.
ASA: But like we talked about earlier, the Wampanoags and the other Native American tribes had thousands of years of history and a rich culture before the Pilgrims even got there.
JOY DOLO: Yeah. And Steven told me that the pilgrims landing was really just the beginning of a very tough history for Native Americans. For many years, there was an effort to erase their culture and get them to stop practicing important customs and traditions.
ASA: So how did the Wampanoag people think about Thanksgiving then? Do they celebrate it?
JOY DOLO: Well, for the reasons I mentioned, the Wampanoags and many other Native Americans think of Thanksgiving as a day of mourning. That means that they think about what was lost back then, their homelands, their ancestors who got sick and died, some of their traditions. But they also have dinners and spend time reflecting on what they're thankful for. Here's what Steven said.
STEVEN PETERS: It very much is a celebration of us and our culture still being here in the face of everything. For us, it's gratitude that we survived. It's gratitude that our ancestors didn't give up. It would have been very easy to just assimilate and just melt into what often was referred to as the melting pot of the United States of America. They didn't do that. And so that's what we're thankful for.
JOY DOLO: Steven said, instead of trying to push people of all backgrounds to melt into one big pot of sameness, our society is starting to move toward a place, where we can understand and celebrate our differences. And that's a good thing.
ASA: Yeah. The United States is made up of all different cultures from all over the world. So why should we all celebrate Thanksgiving the same way?
JOY DOLO: Totally. We asked you, our listeners, to tell us how your families are celebrating the holidays in your own way. Here's what you told us.
JAMOMO: On Thanksgiving, I like to eat my mom's stuffing. It's my favorite dish because there are water chestnuts in it. It sort of tastes like an explosion of different textures and flavors.
XAVIER: For Thanksgiving, my family has turkey, stuffing, blueberry cobbler, and the usual American Thanksgiving meal. But we're also from Liberia, West Africa. And we eat traditional Liberian foods. My favorite dishes served on Thanksgiving are palm butter and rice, palava sauce and fufu, and kola.
SASHA: In our family, we don't really celebrate Thanksgiving, but we do love the fall season and all the harvests that the earth gives. My mom is from Latvia, and she cooks some delicious Latvian foods. My favorite one is this dish with vegetarian sausages, sauerkraut, beans, and potatoes. I love how the saltiness and the sourness combines and creates this amazing mixture of different tastes.
I also love these potato pancakes that are called draniki. They're made of shredded potatoes then formed into pancakes and put on a frying pan. When you put some sour cream on them and then start eating, it's so good.
JOY DOLO: Thank you Jamomo, Xavier, and Sasha for sending in those recordings. The way we think about and celebrate Thanksgiving has changed many times over the years and will probably keep changing.
ASA: Yeah. And some schools are actually starting to teach this history by focusing on stories from Native Americans themselves, like the NK360 project from the National Museum of the American Indian.
JOY DOLO: We'll have links in our show notes. So yeah, we're constantly redefining Thanksgiving, like how I redefined my new pet turkey Julia Gobblerts, a.k.a. America's Sweetheart as my buddy, not my dinner.
ASA: Um, Joy.
JOY DOLO: Yes, Asa?
ASA: Julia Gobblerts is on the kitchen table eating all of your barbecue pecan pies.
JOY DOLO: Julia, no! Those pies are way too spicy for you. You know you get heartburn so easily. Here, you want some green beans?
No? Or-- oh, how about some yummy cranberry sauce or mashed potatoes?
Wait, not the orange jello salad. It'll give you terrible gas.
This episode was written by [LISTING HONOR ROLL] We had help from [LISTING HONOR ROLL]
Sound design by [LISTING HONOR ROLL] Theme music by [LISTING HONOR ROLL] is our executive producer. We had engineering help from [LISTING HONOR ROLL] The executives in charge of APM Studios are [LISTING HONOR ROLL] Special thanks to [LISTING HONOR ROLL] the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.
ASA: And if you want access to ad free episodes and special bonus content, subscribe to our Smartycast.
JOY DOLO: Check it out at foreverago.org/contact. OK, Asa, ready to hear the answers for First Things First?
ASA: I'm so ready.
JOY DOLO: As a reminder, our three things were canned cranberry sauce, the first presidential turkey pardon, and the Thanksgiving day parade. And that was also the order, OK. Are you ready?
JOY DOLO: OK. So first up in history, you were absolutely correct. It was canned cranberry sauce.
ASA: I told you, guys.
JOY DOLO: No, I knew. I knew you were right. I knew it. So the first canned cranberry sauce was sold back in 1912. It was invented by a lawyer, who decided to leave his job and become a cranberry grower in Massachusetts.
JOY DOLO: So you're right, cranberry has been around a long time.
ASA: So that means I probably got the first two and three mixed up.
JOY DOLO: Oh, yeah. So what do you think came second then? I'll tell you what, it wasn't the presidential pardon.
ASA: I knew it. It was a Thanksgiving Day Parade.
JOY DOLO: It was. The first Thanksgiving day parade was in 1924. It's also known as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
JOY DOLO: Yeah. And this tradition first began in 1924 as a way to boost sales for the department store. But then it didn't have any giant balloons, but it did have animals from the central park zoo.
JOY DOLO: Isn't that interesting?
ASA: Yes. And then last but not least, we have the first presidential turkey pardon. And this is the tradition, where a US president spares the life of a turkey during a ceremony. The first US president to officially pardon a turkey was-- who do you think it was?
ASA: Ronald Reagan?
JOY DOLO: It was president George HW Bush in 1989.
ASA: Oh. Wow.
JOY DOLO: Yeah. He declared the turkey would not end up on anyone's dinner table and sent him to live at a nearby farm.
That is the luckiest turkey I've ever heard of.
JOY DOLO: What a great way to get out of it. That's crazy. OK, so you were right for the most part. You got the cran-- cran-- canned cranberry? Canned cranberry.
ASA: Canned cranberry sauce.
JOY DOLO: Canned cranberry sauce.
Canned cranberry sauce, and then the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and then the presidential pardon. I think you're the smartest person I've ever met.
ASA: [LAUGHS] Thank you.
JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] We'll be back next week with the story of how women went from being banned from the Olympics to becoming Olympic superstars.
ASA: Thanks for listening.
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