A Lesser-Known History of Thanksgiving


©Wiki Commons

Farrukh Tahir, Canada

In September 1620, a ship named the Mayflower left Plymouth, England with a crew of 102 passengers on their way to the New World. These passengers included religious separatists and businesspeople looking for new opportunities in the Americas. 

The journey was a long and treacherous one, lasting for about 66 days. After finally docking on land, the crew reached their intended destination one month later at the mouth of the Hudson River, just south of where they originally arrived. 

For majority of the first winter season, most of the crew remained onboard to weather the cold months and because they were unable to build suitable infrastructure in time. Many of the original crew died due to the cold and lack of provisions, but they were not alone. 

They were helped greatly by the Abenaki tribe as well as other indigenous peoples of America. They were taught how to cultivate corn, to hunt, to extract maple syrup, to catch fish – essentially everything that they needed to learn to survive. 

1621 marked the year the new settlers were successful in their first corn harvest, and so the pilgrims – as they are so referred – organized a small feast to thank God for their success in harmony with the indigenous people, without whose help this would not have been possible. 

©Wiki Commons

Thanksgiving as an Official Holiday

More feasts such as this one took place in the future and eventually in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln officially designated Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the USA to be held on the third Thursday of every November. In 1941, it was reallocated to the last Thursday of every November, but the holiday remained more or less the same.[1]

But there is another side to the coin that is less often spoken of. 

A Lesser-Known History

There seems to be a darker history behind Thanksgiving, and some claim that the holiday is used to marginalize the violence and cruelty of the USA toward the indigenous people of America. In many cases, the historical background of Thanksgiving from the perspective of the Native Americans has not been well documented. 

According to sources, after having settled in with the help of the Wampanoag people, the European pilgrims warred with the Wampanoag and other native tribes. The native peoples food stores were pillaged, they were subjected to foreign disease and driven out of their land by force. 

The native tribes endured great cruelty for many centuries and their population was reduced drastically. It is for this reason that Natives gather on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, not to celebrate Thanksgiving, but to come together for a National Day of Mourning.[2]

Thanksgiving for Native Americans

For Native Americans, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the oppression their people and culture faced. At Cole’s Hill, the inscription of a monument of the National Day of Mourning reads: 

‘Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. 

To them, Thanksgiving is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture.’[3]

Instead of having a turkey dinner, Native Americans spend Thanksgiving in honouring their ancestors, in their remembrance and connecting with them spiritually. 

Gratitude is in Us All

Although the true history and origin of Thanksgiving is paramount and should not be neglected, the core and crux of this holiday has always been gratitude toward God. Today, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with the same spirit of showing thanks to God and others and giving back to humanity. 

Among the Native people, it is an ancient and cherished practice to show gratitude for everything that they have used for their own benefit, whether it be for the plants and animals consumed as food of even the wood used for building material. 

Gratefulness in Islam

Giving thanks and showing gratitude is also central to Islam just as it is important for American and Native people. In fact, being grateful to God is something observed by Muslims on a daily basis and in each and every daily prayer. In the Holy Qur’an, God states: 

‘If you try to count the favours of God, you will not be able to number them.’[4]

Muslims are taught on a most fundamental level to always think back to the countless blessings and favours of God bestowed on them and to thank God for them. In fact, the founder of Islam, the Holy Prophet (sa) went to such lengths in his worship to show gratitude to God that is unparalleled. 

Whilst giving the example of the Holy Prophet (sa), the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Promised Messiah (as) stated: 

‘Look at the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, when he would sometimes stand so long in worship at night that his feet would swell up. His companion asked why he was working so hard when he was free of sins? He replied, “Should I not be grateful?”’[5]

So, despite its difficult past, Thanksgiving should serve as a reminder to everyone that instead of just taking one day out of the year and showing thanks, gratitude should be shown to Almighty God and others all the time. 


[1] https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving

[2] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/thanksgiving-myths-facts-mayflower-landing

[3] https://blog.nativehope.org/what-does-thanksgiving-mean-to-native-americans

[4] The Holy Qur’an (16:19)

[5] Malfuzat Vol. 10, p. 112