Unit 5: Summary

Learning Themes:

Americans have long thought the history of the American holiday Thanksgiving to be relatively simple. The actual story of how the story of “the First Thanksgiving” was written and retold and how the holiday was developed and embraced by a nation is surprisingly complex. In many respects, the growth of the distinctly American holiday and the myth associated with it parallels (and continues to parallel) the development of the nation itself. In this unit, students will explore how the 1621 harvest feast came to be known as the First Thanksgiving, the country’s protean holiday, and how the meaning of the holiday changes as new meaning is layered.

Key Ideas

  1. There are innumerable ways to “give thanks” and celebrate thanksgivings. The idea of giving thanks and communing with friends and family is cross-cultural and centuries old. Though there are many traditions associated with Thanksgiving, many families have their own unique traditions as well.
  2. The American holiday of Thanksgiving means different things to different people. It is multi-layered and each generation adds its own meanings, understandings, and traditions to holiday. Some meanings and traditions reflect individual families or communities or the state of the nation at that time, such as the arrival of new immigrants, the outbreak of World War II, or the Civil Rights Movement.
  3. Thanksgiving as an American holiday evolved over time. In the 19th century, advocates such as Sarah Josepha Hale linked the 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims, and the Wampanoag with a long-standing New England harvest tradition making them the founders of the holiday in generations of popular imagination. She used the media to popularize the connections in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the magazine she edited for many years.
  4. For many Wampanoag people, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning. Some choose to spend the day honoring those who came before them and the challenges they endured with fasts, songs, and spending time with family and friends. Others choose to speak out about challenges still facing Indigenous people today.

Learning Goals

In this unit, students will:

  • Give example of how information and experiences may be interpreted differently by people from different cultural groups
  • Demonstrate how holding different values and beliefs can contribute or pose obstacles to understanding between people and groups
  • Identify examples of continuity and change as depicted in stories, photographs, and documents
  • Compare and Contrast differing stories or accounts about past events, people, places, or situations, and offer possible reasons for the difference
  • Use sources to learn about the past in order to inform decisions about actions on issues of importance today
  • Identify and describe examples of tensions between and among individuals, groups, and institutions
  • Show how groups and institutions work to meet individual needs and promote or fail to promote the common good.
  • Locate, access, organize, and apply information from multiple sources reflecting multiple points of view
  • Evaluate positions about an issue based on the evidence and arguments provided and describe the pros, cons, and consequences of holding a specific position
  • Examine the influence of citizens and officials on policy decisions.

Primary Sources

Essential Questions

  • How did the American tradition of celebrating the holiday of Thanksgiving begin?
  • Why did Americans start telling the story of the “First Thanksgiving”? Why do some keep telling it?
  • What is the past? How is “the past” different from “history?”
  • What role do we have in creating history?
  • How do historians use primary sources and educated guesses to research the past and create history?
  • How can we celebrate Thanksgiving respectfully?

Suggested Activities

Upper Elementary/Grades 3-6

  • If your school hosts a holiday event or dinner, have the students present about the history of the harvest celebration of 1621 and the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Or, instead of a traditional Thanksgiving celebration, have a “giving thanks” celebration that celebrates and gives thanks for all cultures. Students could be encouraged to wear their own cultural dress and share their own traditions of thanksgiving.
  • Oral history and storytelling is an important way of passing important information from generation to generation. Students can work in groups or individually to interview elders in their community about their thanksgiving traditions.

Middle and HighSchool/Grades 6-12

  • Students work in groups to research a public monument in their town. What historical event does it commemorate? Whose voices or perspectives are missing from the history? As a group, students draft a new text for the monument and participate in a local monuments “tour.”
  • Students work in groups or individuals to compare Wamsutta’s speech to other speeches by civils rights leaders and activists past and present.
  • Students use the materials in the unit to design their own museum exhibit. Students can pick a theme, write an introduction for the exhibit, select the items to exhibit and write a label for each describing how it relates to their chosen theme. Students should think about what they want to public to know about their chosen theme as they design their exhibit. Students offer tours of their “museums” to other students groups, family members, or school faculty.
  • Creative Prompt: What does thanksgiving mean to you today? Encourage students to use themselves and their communities as primary sources along with the available resources in this guide.

Additional resources