Most Americans think of Pilgrims and Indians peacefully sitting down to a feast. Schools recreate the event with stereotypical Indian feathers and fake Pilgrim hats, and images of turkeys and pumpkin pie enter people's heads. Before I continue, Virginia disputes this scene as being the first Thanksgiving as Berkeley plantation had a similar gathering in 1619, more than a year before the often recreated harvest celebration in Massachusetts. There are also a couple of places in the former Spanish colonies that claim the first Thanksgiving in the 16th century, and those of us who study history are generally aware that many of the indigenous people, commonly called Indians, had feasts giving thanks for thousands of years before the arrival of any colonists.
What most people regard as the "first" Thanksgiving was created as an official holiday in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. The original feast was a three-day affair in the autumn of 1621. First off, the Pilgrims weren't called by that name until the 18th century. They were Puritans. Some say they came in search of religious freedom. Others say they knew full well there was land in the "New World," free for the taking. Hundreds of Indians had already been to England as slaves, and my experience with the history of Virginia makes me tend to believe the latter statement.
The Puritans had set out to claim their Holy Kingdom in the Americas. Few went to Virginia, and they were essentially banned from settling there due to their extreme ideas of wanting to overthrow the English government. Enter Tisquantum, better known as Squanto. Tisquantum was originally from the town of Patuxet (later named Plymouth by the Puritans) and was kidnapped by sailors around the age of fourteen in 1614. Captain John Smith, from Jamestown fame, was on the voyage and even he admitted to the inhumane conditions of the captives.
While Tisquantum made his way to England, his tribe was annihilated by smallpox. He learned English and made a difficult journey back to his homeland where he would arrive in time to serve as an interpreter between the Puritans and Wampanoag people. There are several different accounts concerning how the three-day feast came about. Some say the Wampanoag were invited, others say they weren't. In any case, the group got together with the Wampanoag bringing most of the food, which included deer and most likely turkeys. Pumpkin and corn were likely, but not the traditional pie and cornbread. Those food items didn't yet exist in the 17th century. The two groups came together to negotiate. Neither side trusted the other. The Puritans believed the Wampanoag were heathens, and the Wampanoag had experienced their corn being stolen, after they had shown the settlers how to survive (sounds a lot like Virginia!).
The greatest myth surrounding the idyllic scene is that the Pilgrims and Indians became great friends. Less than a generation later in 1637, English and Dutch mercenaries attacked and killed 700 Pequot men, women, and children, burning many of them alive. Others were clubbed to death or shot. The governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared the victory "a day of thanksgiving."
In 1675, Metacom, son of the sachem who helped the original starving settlers, led a rebellion, commonly called King Philip's War, against the "New Englanders." By the end, most of the Native people were dead, sold into slavery, or had fled to Canada. The Colony again declared the victory as a thanksgiving.