The (Real) First Thanksgiving: the Wampanoag Perspective

Most of us know the story. Seeking a place to establish a Puritan church, the Pilgrims arrive on the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and have a hard winter, so the Indians teach them how to grow their own food over the next year. The following harvest, they hold a huge feast to honor the Indians with turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie and celebrate their new-found friends and the peace between them, and we’ve kept that tradition ever since. But most of this isn’t true, and every tale has more than one perspective.


Our storybook version, featuring a giant turkey, grapes, and a majority of Pilgrims.

To the Wampanoag, the Native American people who aided the Pilgrims, things happened in a very different way. Their story begins like this. The Wampanoag had seen whites before, but when the English Pilgrims arrived with women and children, they didn’t see them as a threat. The winter was hard, that is true. From hiding, the Wampanoag watched 46 of the original 102 settlers perish from cold and hunger. March 16 the following year, a Monhegan from Maine named Samoset made contact with the Pilgrims, and the next day returned with Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, a Wampanoag who had learned English. Squanto befriended the English and taught them how to fish, how to plant corn, and how to hunt for nuts and berries. As a result of their friendship, the Pilgrims entered into a peace treaty with Massassoit, the Wampanoag chief, and heeded the advice of their new friends.

In September or October, their crops had a good yield, and they decided to hold a traditional English harvest feast. Historians draw the story of the first thanksgiving from two accounts, one of which was written by Pilgrim Edward Winslow. His account mentions the Pilgrims “sent four men on fowling,” meaning bird hunting, and that “we exercised our arms,” meaning gun fire. These men did hunt for “turkey,” but the word referred to any kind of bird, not necessarily the centerpiece of the contemporary Thanksgiving table.


A more accurate representation, but still featuring a turkey at the center of the table and just six Wampanoag.

The Wampanoag weren’t invited to this feast originally, according to Tim Turner, Cherokee, manager of Plimoth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite and co-owner of Native Plymouth Tours.

“Most historians believe what happened was Massassoit got word there was a tremendous amount of gun fire coming from the Pilgrim village,” Turner said, “so he thought they were being attacked and he was going to bear aid.”

Massassoit came with 90 of his warriors, prepared to do battle. Since there was none, the Pilgrims invited their new friends to their feast. However, there wasn’t enough to feed everyone, so the warriors went out and brought back five deer, their contribution, according to Kathleen Wall, Colonial Foodways Culinarian at Plimouth Plantation.

The feast lasted three days and likely included pumpkin, fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams and plums in addition to the poultry and venison. There was no flour, so likely no pies or pastries. We can and should imagine a warm, three-day feast between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims, a picture of unlikely togetherness and a celebration that marks a large part of the American identity, but consider that there were 91 Indians and around 50 Pilgrims. Re-think that long table surrounded by settlers with a few Indians thrown in, and forget that it was annual tradition.


This representation is the most accurate, featuring a majority of Wampanoag, no turkey, and a large gathering.

Thanksgiving had been proclaimed by governors and presidents in the 13 colonies at one time or another, but as the country grew, many U.S. citizens didn’t feel it was appropriate. It wasn’t until magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for the national holiday in her writing, an effort bordering on obsession. For 40 years, Hale pushed for the establishment of a Thanksgiving Day, publishing editorials in Boston Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book. (Incidentally, she is also the author of the children’s song Mary Had a Little Lamb.)Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving, but it still wasn’t what we celebrate today.


Sarah Josepha Hale

During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, the holiday was pushed forward a week to create a longer Christmas shopping season, but public uproar convinced him to move it back to its original date. In 1941, Congress named Thanksgiving Day a legal holiday, the fourth Thursday in November.

This Thanksgiving, and every Thanksgiving following it, give gratitude for this wonderful country we live in. Enjoy your family. Enjoy your friends. Enjoy the fruits of your labor and all the things and people you have in your life. Give thanks for whatever fortune has bestowed upon you this year. Give thanks to those who fought and died to build this nation. Give thanks for being American, a wonderful, unique identity. Love your neighbor. Offer second chances. Make a new friend. Try to understand someone better. Buy things. Watch football. Because that’s what this holiday is all about.

But most of all, remember the whole story.

For more about the lives of indigenous Americans, visit the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas. From our table to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Bodmer Print

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

CHI_4646 - cropThis description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and at – throughout the year.

Bodmer print showing American Indian dancer

When studying American Indian culture, the drawings made by Karl Bodmer (1808-1893) are of great importance. This Hidatsa warrior is wearing a headdress identifying him as a member of the Dog Soldier Society. Items like these provide us with context, essential to come to a better understanding of the objects in the collection. In this case, the print is on display next to a case holding a similar headdress.

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

The more things change, the more they stay the same… Recently I read an interesting book, entitled “Are We Rome?” The author remarks how in some regards the Roman Empire and the current United States resemble each other very much. Take, for example, the issue of border crossings.

Claudius Glyptotek Copenhagen
Creative Commons License photo credit: Joe Geranio

For those who remember reading about Julius Caesar and his conquest of Gaul, the Roman Empire went through long periods of expansion, followed by consolidation, and eventual collapse as a political entity. As the Empire was expanding, there was a famous foray across the Rhine into what is now Germany. It did not work out well for the Romans, as they lost several legions, allegedly causing the first Emperor, Augustus, to cry out loud that he “wanted his legions back,” while also decreeing that the river Rhine would become the frontier. In 1987, the exact location of that battle was established. For about a century this notion held: the Rhine and the Danube formed the frontier between the so-called civilized world and the barbarians. Then Dacia (current day Romania) was conquered and the Romans found themselves on the other side of the river again. In 272 AD, they abandoned this province in return for a brief period of peace and tranquility.

For a long time, it was thought that the incursion in 9 AD represented the first and last military operation into Germany. Not so any more, apparently. Recent reports out of Germany indicate that some time between A.D. 180-260, there was a major battle fought between Roman troops and Germanic tribes. The newly uncovered battlefield near Kalefeld-Oldenrode, is located south of Hanover. Coins, weapons and other military gear were retrieved from an area one mile long and a third of a mile wide. Interestingly, among the artifacts encountered was a Roman horse sandal, or hipposandal in technical lingo. You read this right: a horse sandal, not a horse shoe.

Boundary - Boulder
Creative Commons License photo credit: joiseyshowaa

In all of this I see parallels to our current situation related to the border between the US and Mexico. What now constitutes the border area, was first inhabited by American Indian peoples, later incorporated into Mexico and ultimately made part of the US, either by force of arms, or by purchase. Along large stretches of this border, a fence is going up. One of the goals is to control who crosses the border and to safeguard life and property on this side of the fence.

All of this echoes sentiments expressed almost two millennia ago.With regards to the Roman situation we have the benefit of hindsight; we know how that story ended. With regards to the current situation, who knows? Future historians will have the privilege of assessing that scenario. Of one thing I am certain: future archaeologists will not be finding any horse sandals along the Rio Grande.

The Quest for High Bear

Currently on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is a selection of mainly Plains Indian artifacts. They come to us from Mr. Gordon W. Smith, who put his collection together from 1925 through 1939. What makes this collection very special is not only the historic nature of the items (those that are on display were made for and used by American Indian people), but also the context. We have information on who made these and when and for whom. That is a treasure trove of information sadly often lost with objects of this nature.

Arapaho beaded vest
Early 20th century
Beads, thread, tanned hide, sinew.

The Arapaho live on the eastern plains of Colorado and Wyoming. The vests they create – such as this one – tend to be decorated with geometric designs; sometimes they depict the American flag.

The use of glass beads dates back to the arrival of the first European settlers, with some of the earliest beads being manufactured in Venice, Italy. They were used in commercial exchanges as well as in missionary work. This was the case with Father DeSmet, who worked extensively among the Plains and Northwest Indians.

Lone Dog’s winter count.
Tanned hide, paint
1801-1876, South Dakota

There are various ways to keep track of the past. Most of us would rely on written documents to refresh our memory; among American Indians oral traditions and pictorial records are of great importance. Among these pictorial records are the so-called winter counts. These drawings can be painted on either animal hide or muslin.

Winter counts are histories or calendars which record events with images, with one image representing a year. In Lakota, they are called waniyetu wowapi. The Lakota word waniyetu means “year,” which tends to be measured from first snowfall to first snowfall. It is often translated as “a winter.”

These winter counts were used in conjunction with an extensive oral history. Each year was named for an event, with the images serving as a reference source that could be consulted regarding the order of the years. The events used to name the years were not always the most important things that happened, but rather the most memorable. One such event, “The year the stars fell,” has been identified as the year 1833, when the Leonid meteor storm  was visible. Information courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Education Office.

Lakota dress
Buckskin, glass beads, thread
Ca. 1870

In its basic form, this is a typical dress worn by Plains Indian women. It consists of three assembled parts: the front, the back and the yoke. These three pieces give the garment a T- shape outline.  Very likely this dress was made during the winter months, when the cold forced people to stay inside and work on clothing.

This dress is a good example of the great diligence and talent on the part of the women who made it. It is estimated that it took 300,000 small glass beads to complete the decoration.

In February 1934, Ms. Olive Dean wore this dress to a costume ball in Washington, D.C.  She was awarded the first prize for the most outstanding costume by the two judges, Anna Ball, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s daughter and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.

Osage friendship blanket
Wool fabric, silk ribbon, thread
Late 19th century

These blankets, sometimes also referred to as wearing blankets, are still being made today.

In the early 1800s, Osage women began to sew mosaic ribbon work patterns around the borders of wool blankets, transforming them into extraordinary robes. Girls and women wore these robes at weddings and other special events and the ribbon work ranged from relatively simple bands of ribbon work to richly patterned reverse appliqué ribbon work, a technique of sewing a cut out ribbon pattern on to a differently colored ribbon background. The bold compositions were created by splitting the cut out pattern into two colors and maintaining a strict symmetry. Free hanging tabs of ribbon often framed the bottom edge of the robe.

The blankets were wore around the women’s shoulders and positioned over their forearms so that the ribbon work draped as a cascade of color in front of them. Despite the extreme fragility of the ribbon to tearing and fraying and its susceptibleness to fading and running, Osage women celebrated this art form. They also sewed reverse appliqué bands of ribbon on shawls and skirts and at the shoulder of their blouses. Today women wear these blankets as important garments that are emblematic of their Osage identity. (Information courtesy of Eva Fognell, Curator. Thaw Collection of American Indian Art. Fenimore Art Museum. Lake Road. Cooperstown, NY.)

Amulet in the shape of a turtle
Tanned hide, sinew, beads, umbilical cord
Early 20th century

Upon the birth of a child, the umbilical cord was saved inside an amulet. These amulets would quite often take on the shape of a turtle, as is the case here, or a lizard. In both cases, these animals are seen as good omens for a long and safe life – since the lizard often survives by shedding its tail, the turtle can retreat into its shell for protection.