As society so often does, the history behind the first Thanksgiving has been romanticized to the point that it seems more like a Hollywood motion picture than the history of a nation. In truth, there wasn’t anything pretty about it, nor the events which caused it to happen in the first place. With thanksgiving happening this week, I wanted to take a moment and remind us of the true history behind Thanksgiving.

It was first celebrated nationally in 1789, when Congress implored President George Washington to issue a proclamation regarding the day of thanks. It has been a federal holiday, though, since 1863, when President Lincoln declared a it such, saying it was a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” However, neither of these days mark the first day of Thanksgiving; that occurred in 1621.

We all remember learning about the pilgrims in school and, when the topic of the first thanksgiving arose, we were often shown paintings of the Indians and pilgrims laughing and sitting around a big table, often depicting a turkey on it. (More on that later) That day wasn’t so pretty, especially when you take into consideration the horrid events leading up to it.

In 1620, the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth rock after crossing the Atlantic on the Mayflower. In that tiny ship were 102 passengers who sought religious freedom from the King, along with a few who simply wanted to come to the new world. Their voyage across the ocean lasted 66 long days, most of which were not pleasant. They left in September of 1620 and landed on November 11, 1620.

We picture them exiting the ship immediately and beginning to set up camp. However, that’s not how it went down. According to journal entries from those settlers, the majority of the passengers stayed on the ship because winter had already set in where they had landed. To say that their first winter was harsh would be a huge understatement.

Only half of the original passengers survived that first went, with the other half dying due to exposure, scurvy, and outbreaks of other contagious diseases. In fact, it was the sicknesses that took most and not the cold.

When they finally set foot on Plymouth, they were met by an Abenaki Indian who, surprisingly, spoke English. Several days later, he returned to the settlement, this time with the famous Squanto, a Pawtuxet Indian. Seeing their weekend state and malnourishment, Squanto began teaching the settlers how to grow corn, catch the river fish, extract sap from the trees, and which plants to avoid.

Through the leading of Squanto, the pilgrims formed an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe which would be one of the only times where the natives and European colonists coexisted. That fall, the pilgrims experienced a very successful corn yield and had gained experience in hunting and fishing. To thank the Indians, Governor William Bradford organized a feast and invited their Native American Allies.

So, you see, it wasn’t as romantic as some might portray it. However, it is an incredible story of surviving and kindness. Had it not been for the Native Americans sharing their wealth of knowledge and experience, every single settler would have perished. What did they eat that day? Click here too look at that.