When you celebrate Thanksgiving, is your celebration directly linked to a massacre by English soldiers against Pequot Indians in 1637? I have already written about the Pequot War, showing that there is no historical link between that massacre and the Pilgrims’ first thanksgiving celebration in 1621. However, the idea of people coming together to give thanks to God is not unique just to the Pilgrims or even to any of the English in New England, so no one should think that there is a direct link from the holiday to the slaughter of Indians in 1637. There were actually several different groups of people before and after the Pilgrims who lay legitimate claim to having the first Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims had a second Thanksgiving at the end of July in 1623, after they ditched their collectivism and experienced a bountiful harvest. After a 14 day drought they were blessed with a good drenching rain that saved their crops. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony also had a Thanksgiving celebration in 1630, giving thanks to God for the bounty of their fields.
They were not the first Englishmen to do this, however. The English down in Jamestown Virginia had a day of thanks and feasting in 1610 to thank the Lord for getting them through a rough winter. On December 4, 1619 the English settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Virginia celebrated with a “day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
But the English were not the first Europeans to have this day of thanks. In St. Augustine Florida on September 8, 1565 some 800 Spaniards (under the leadership of Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles) celebrated a mass of thanksgiving and shared their feast with the local Native Americans of the Timucua tribe.
On September 30, 1598 the Spanish explorer Juan de Onate ordered a celebration of thanksgiving and feasting with his people and with local Native Americans at the Rio Grande River, in what is now El Paso Texas. He had led an expedition of some 500 Spaniards—soldiers, farmers (their wives and children with them) and some 7000 head of livestock on a journey from Mexico to better land in Texas. The journey began in drenching non-stop rain for a week. Then it turned to blistering drought in which both humans and cattle almost went mad with thirst. When they finally made it to the Rio Grande, they realized that they were delivered, and their immediate response was to give thanks to God.
There are several other English, Spanish, and French thanksgiving celebrations in early colonial history, but these are the most notable and accurately documented. What do they all have in common? They are all initiated by professing Christians who had gone through great trial (a harrowing journey by sea or a harsh winter of starvation or near death by thirst in a desert). They all recognized that their lives depended on God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, and they set aside special time to honor Him and thank Him. They were humbled by their experiences, they knew how quickly our lives vanish, and they wanted to mark their brief history with gratitude to the God who lives and reigns forever. In some cases, they celebrated by sharing their food and happiness with neighbors who did not believe what they believed at all.
Isn’t that true tolerance? Isn’t that true peace? Isn’t that true harmony with the world around us—simple farmers thanking God for bountiful crops to feed their families and then sharing that bounty with their neighbors? Weren’t those people who believed in the God of the Bible truly setting an example for us in those early thanksgiving feasts? How can it be a bad thing to imitate them in our Thanksgiving celebration today?