By Dr. Daniel DuBois
Professionally, I am an American historian. Personally, I am the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of Francis Cooke, one of the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower, landed in Plymouth in 1620, and helped found the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
What I have learned is that the history (or legend) of Thanksgiving is full of nuance, contingencies, and troubling contradictions. The Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean to worship in their own way and provide economic opportunity for their families; the waves of English colonists who followed overtook North America, violently displaced Native Americans, and called a land that was not theirs “home.” Two things can be true.
What the colonists understandably wanted — free living and opportunity — challenged the existence of indigenous rights and centuries of civilization predating the Europeans arrival in the Americas. What everyone got, ultimately, was hardship, suffering, war, and, eventually, a “new world.”
When I teach about this history, I try to account for all those themes surrounding the meal Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe partook with the Pilgrims in 1621 — what we now call the first Thanksgiving. The truth is, that story is very hard to tell. The collision of people, culture, religion, and land often is. The same is true today.
But where I find comfort is in the tradition itself, which now exists almost absent of the history that created it. Today, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving primarily as a reason to spend time with family and those we love: To eat good food, to share in good cheer, to show care and patience for one another. And to give thanks for our blessings.
In times of stress and confusion, it is important to honor such traditions, so that we make an effort to appreciate each other’s company. Our world is no more or less complicated and violent than the one the Pilgrims helped build.
But, likewise, the spirit of humanity that the first Thanksgiving is supposed to represent is something to be cherished today, as we like to think it was then.
Dr. Daniel DuBois is an associate professor of history and international studies at Saint Leo University in the College of Arts, Sciences, and Allied Services, and the director of the university’s Honors Program. He is the past president (2022-2023) of the Florida Conference of Historians. His research and teaching focus on American history, international relations, and the history of sport.