Tell Your Students the Truth About Thanksgiving


By Andrew Pillow

Thanksgiving break is coming up. Many teachers use this time to give students a bunch of fluff assignments. However, some teachers do actually try and incorporate some content among the hand turkeys and pilgrim coloring books. This content typically includes the normal “Thanksgiving narrative”:

The pilgrims were having a hard time. The natives helped. They celebrated. They lived happily ever-after. The end.

Don’t teach your students about the “Happily-Ever-After Thanksgiving”. Your students need to know the truth about the relationship between the Pilgrims and Natives.

There are plenty of resources available to help you plan a historically accurate lesson. However, if you are not in the mood to do any research or look for yourself here is the gist:

The Pilgrims and the Natives were not friends

The most endearing image of Thanksgiving is a nice pretty scene of Natives and Pilgrims gathering in a village and mingling as if they were old friends. This likely is not how either side would have described their interactions back then.  They were not old buddies. Actually they weren't even actually invited to the Thanksgiving celebration. The relationship was mutually beneficial. While there were undoubtedly some friendships among the groups, people shouldn’t mistake a tenuous truce as a true friendship. As a matter of fact, by the colonist’s own accounts they stole from the natives and in some cases even dug up their dead. And these are the things they did to the Wampanoag, the tribe that they were allegedly friends with.

Other tribes like the Pequot had a much worse experience. Which brings me to the second point.

Thanksgiving has at-least some connection to a massacre

We know that the Pilgrims celebrated “the first Thanksgiving” in 1621, but it remains a topic of hot debate how the annual tradition came about. Some historians contend that the actual annual Thanksgiving holiday came on the heels of a massacre.

In 1636 a murdered settler led to the blaming and subsequent massacre of a Pequot village. Men, women, and children were killed in some the most horrific ways possible. After this “victory”, William Bradford the Governor of Plymouth proclaimed that day to be a day of “Thanks giving” and “For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”

The relationship between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag deteriorated

Massasoit was the leader or Sachem of the Wampanoag that brokered the peace and the treaties with Pilgrims. By the time is son took over that role, relationships with the Pilgrims had deteriorated to the point where war was on the horizon.

The war concluded with Massasoit’s son’s head being displayed as a “warning” for years after in Plymouth.  


Telling your students the truth doesn’t mean you have to ignore the “positive” message of the Thanksgiving holiday. But as teachers we owe it to our students to give them accurate information.


Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.