In recent years, it became clear that authentic history was not always taught in schools. The history we grew up learning was often false and missed many key details. As Thanksgiving approaches, the conversation about the history of Thanksgiving in America comes back around – and for good reason.
Teaching authentic history is essential. Understanding history helps students make sense of the world around them. How did we end up here? What events have impacted the present day? Only authentic history can teach students these things.
Of course, teaching the history of Thanksgiving in America doesn’t mean teaching details that are inappropriate, especially at particular age levels. There may be certain details and events that are reserved for high school. But that doesn’t mean lying or “prettying up” things for younger students. It means sticking to age-appropriate facts!
I know that teaching the history of Thanksgiving in America can be uncomfortable (or even unfamiliar, since it’s likely you didn’t learn this history in school). I want to answer some common questions and share resources that make teaching Thanksgiving simple.
Who were the “Pilgrims”?
First, “pilgrims” actually called themselves Separatists! This name comes from the fact that they were “separating” from the Church of England. Many immigrants at the time were in search of religious freedom.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that the term “pilgrim” came about. This term was used to describe the passengers of the Mayflower, who made their journey in 1620. Honestly, it is impressive that the Separatists even survived this journey, as trauma at sea was common during this time.
When teaching the history of Thanksgiving, Separatists are a big part of that story! There are some great historically accurate resources you can use, including articles and videos.
- Who Were the Pilgrims? from Plimoth Patuxet Museums
- The Pilgrims: The Origins of Separatism by PBS
- Church of English by Encyclopedia Britannica
- Mayflower and the Mayflower Compact by Plimoth Patuxet Museums
Who were the Wampanoag?
The Wampanoag lived in and around the area that became Plymouth colony.
The Separatists were not the first English people they had encountered. During the first encounter, disease spread rapidly amongst the Wampanoag and significantly diminished their population.
The leader of the Wampanoag in 1620 was Ousamequin, also known as Massasoit. He saw the arrival of the Separatists as a potential benefit. The Wampanoag wanted protection from a neighboring Native American rival, the Narragansett. The Separatists and Wampanoag agreed on a peace treaty.
This treaty stayed in place for half a century. During that time, the Native Americans taught the Separatists several survival skills, such as fishing, hunting, and planting crops. Upon the first harvest, the Wampanoag and Separatists had a feast together. This would later be called the first Thanksgiving.
Here are a few resources to teach students about the Wampanoag –
- Why the Wampanoag Signed a Peace Treaty with the Mayflower Pimgrams by History
- Alliance with Massasoit’s People and the First Thanksgiving by PBS
- Native American Relationship to the Land by PBS
- Who are the Wampanoag? by Plimoth Patuxet Museums
Who was “Squanto”?
When teaching the history of Thanksgiving in America, it’s important to refer to “Squanto” by his real name, which is Tisquantum. Tisquantum was captured at a young age and taken to Spain. He managed to avoid being sold into slavery, and instead, made his way to London.
He eventually was able to make his way back to the Wampanoag in Pautuxut, only to find complete devastation. Years earlier, Europeans had arrived in the area, and disease spread amongst the Wampanoag in the area, killing thousands.
When the Separatists arrived, Massasoit found Tisquantum to be an asset in communicating with them as he was familiar with some of their ways and he was able to communicate with them. Tisquantum acted as an interpreter between the Wampanoag and the English.
Tisquantum was appointed as a Native American emissary, and he served as an interpreter for Governor William Bradford. He died while acting as a guide for the governor around Cape Cod.
Check out these resources to use with students when teaching the history of Thanksgiving in America –
- Squanto by Encyclopedia Britannica
- The Tragic Truth behind the Wampanoag, Squanto, and the Thanksgiving Story by the Smithsonian Channel
- The True Story of the Native American behind the First Thanksgiving by All That’s Interesting
Where does the name Thanksgiving come from?
A big misconception for students when teaching the history of Thanksgiving is that this term was used by Separatists and the Wampanoag. However, it wasn’t until 1863 that this term was coined.
Sarah J Hale wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln asking to make a national day of Thanksgiving. The United States was very divided following the Civil War. Sarah wanted to reunite the country with this holiday.
Thanksgiving was suggested to take place on the last Thanksgiving in November. However, it didn’t become an official holiday until 1939 with an official declaration from Congress.
You can learn more about the naming of Thanksgiving with these resources –
- Sarah J. Hale from Women’sHistory.org
- Meet Sarah Josepha Hale from Yesterday is History
Books for Teaching About the History of Thanksgiving
I wanted to include books both for teachers and students! The teacher reference books are great guides for learning more about the history behind Thanksgiving in America, and the people involved in creating this history. The student books are great for read-alouds, independent reading, stations, and so on. The student books are picture books, but you can use them for any grade level to introduce different topics.
Teacher Reference Books:
- This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving by David J. Silverman
- Mayflower: Voyage, Community, War by Nathaniel Philbrick
- Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story by Danielle Greendeer
- If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving by Chris Newell
- We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell
- The People Shall Continue by Simon J Ortiz
- Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard
I hope these resources make teaching the history of Thanksgiving in America just a bit easier! I know it can be a tricky topic, but our students deserve authentic history! To make teaching about Thanksgiving even easier, I created a History of Thanksgiving resource, perfect for 4th grade and up.
This resource includes video notes to pair with a History of Thanksgiving video, multiple perspective article analysis, primary source analysis, and more. With this resource, students will be looking at the various people and events that compose the true history of Thanksgiving!