Here's what really happened and the truth about some commonly held Thanksgiving myths

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.

Thanksgiving in the US is traditionally a time for family and food.

Most of what we know about early American settlers comes from the journal of William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth, Massachusetts. He notes that in 1620, the Mayflower brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock, where they established a colony and began farming. 

The following year, they had a bountiful harvest and decided to give thanks for the food with a three-day celebration. Historical records show that there was indeed a meeting between the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag tribe at this time.

But the Native Americans weren’t honored guests. They likely weren’t even invited.

Many historians now think that Wampanoag soldiers heard celebratory gunshots and screams from Pilgrim settlements. The Wampanoag assumed they were under attack, and because they had a diplomatic treaty of mutual defense with the Pilgrims, they sent 90 soldiers to the settlers’ aid, explains Amy Jakober, senior communications officer for the First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening Native American communities and economies.

The Pilgrims may have celebrated in 1620, but that wasn’t actually Thanksgiving. So when was the first Thanksgiving? That occurred in the fall of 1621 in what is now Massachusetts. But here’s a piece of Thanksgiving trivia: It didn’t become well known until Bradford’s journal was discovered and published by Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, in the early 1800s.

Myth:  Pilgrims and Native Americans were friends that worked together.

Truth:  This was true in some limited conditions, like the diplomatic treaty of protection. But more often, the settlers took what they wanted while tens of thousands of Native Americans died of diseases brought by the colonizers (sometimes intentionally), and more were captured and sold into slavery. 

Even Squanto, famous for translating and teaching the settlers how to farm native crops, learned those skills out of necessity after being kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Spain. He returned to Cape Cod to find that he was the only surviving member of his tribe.

Myth:  The Pilgrims taught the “uncivilized” Indians about Thanksgiving.

Truth:  Many people still have a picture of Native Americans living in dirt and squalor until the European settlers enlightened them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Native Americans had large and complex societies long before settlers arrived. 

They already had established harvest celebrations, feast traditions, and holidays of their own. They were also well aware of the virtue of gratitude and had their own religious beliefs and rituals.