The Troubling History of Thanksgiving

Though Thanksgiving can be a happy time for American families to get together, the actual history behind the holiday is a lot more complicated, as Gary G. Kohls describes.

Originally published on Consortium News, Nov. 28, 2014.

By Gary G. Kohls

We turkey-celebrating, obese, sports-addicted, shop-until-you-drop, historically-illiterate couch potatoes are all beneficiaries of the acts of our guilty ancestors who may have been unaware perpetrators of the crimes against humanity that occurred during the never-ending, shameful 500 year-long history of genocide, ethnic cleansing, colonizing and occupation of the people and the land that rightfully belonged the aboriginal tribes that had inhabited North, Central and South America for thousands of years.

Then came Columbus (who had no clue where he was) and his sex-starved sailors who disembarked from their stinking ships and started pillaging the land and raping the most nubile female inhabitants back in 1492. (Soon cutting off the hands of those natives who couldn’t bring in their quota of gold from precious-metal-less mines.)

Sitting Bull, a Lakota Indian leader who led resistance to U.S. government policies against the Native American populations before being killed by Indian agency police in 1890.

Sitting Bull, a Lakota Indian leader who led resistance to U.S. government policies against the Native American populations before being killed by Indian agency police in 1890.

Thus started the systematic genocide against the aboriginal, non-white people leading eventually and perhaps inevitably to the cruelty and crimes against humanity that enslaved millions of black Africans, many of whom died in chains even before they reached this so-called “promised land.”

In many cases, the psychopathic killer-conquistadors who followed Columbus were initially welcomed, tolerated and even nurtured (a la the mythical First Thanksgiving), rather than being killed off as the criminal invaders that they were. Trusting the intruders to return their hospitality – in the spirit of the Christian Golden Rule – turned out to have been a huge mistake for within decades the slaughter began, performed in the name of Christ with the blessings of the accompanying priests whose mission was to convert the heathen to Christianity under threat of death.

Many of our European ancestors were greatly enriched by the U.S. Army’s massacres, the occupation and theft of the land, the exploitation of the resources, the colonization and the destruction of the aboriginal tribes’ way of life.

We pink-skinned progeny have been conditioned to believe way too many myths about our obfuscated history. Thanks to our cunningly censored history books and the myths learned in Sunday School over the ages, we have been led to believe the story about the “nice” Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and who gratefully shared a feast with their new friendly Indian neighbors (who were soon to be driven off their land and annihilated by the Puritan so-called “Christians” and others who soon followed).

The disinformation process about the first Thanksgiving (and the successor long weekend that follows every fourth Thursday of November in the U.S.) has been designed to absolve our ancestors of guilt for the cruel bloodbaths that were perpetrated in their names by obedient soldiers against the militarily weaker aboriginals, a pattern that has been repeated against many weaker nations all around the world throughout our history.

The following censored-out stories about a few of our so-called “heroes” need to be told in the context of the true history of the American genocide of the First Nation’s people that happened right in my home state of Minnesota. Those “heroes” include Minnesota’s first two governors and one humiliated Civil War general.

“The Sioux (aka Lakota) Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey in a genocidal declaration made on Sept. 9, 1862. Ramsey had made a fortune in real estate because of his dealings selling property to white settlers and businessmen after he himself had negotiated U.S.-Dakota treaties that cheated the Dakota tribes out of their land. (

“I shall do full justice, but no more.  I do not propose to murder any man, even a savage, who is shown to be innocent. I shall probably approve them (the executions of the 303 Dakota warriors) and hang the villains” — Ex-Minnesota Gov., Colonel Henry H. Sibley, whose troops had defeated Chief Little Crow in the Battle of Wood Lake on Aug. 23, 1862. Sibley had appointed the five-member military tribunal that tried, convicted and sentenced, via death by hanging, 303 Dakota warriors that had been captured in the battle that ended the six-week U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

Sibley was commenting on the fate of the convicted warriors, all but 38 of whom had their death sentences commuted by President Abraham Lincoln. Many warriors were imprisoned at Camp McClellan, near Davenport, Iowa, and more than 1,600 non-combatants were imprisoned at a concentration camp at Fort Snelling over the winter of 1862-63. Those who survived the cold, the starvation diets and the diseases were then deported to concentration camps in Nebraska and South Dakota (Pine Ridge). (

“The 38 Indians and half-breeds ordered by you for execution were hung yesterday at 10 am. Everything went off quietly.” Henry Sibley, in a Dec. 27, 1862 telegraph message to President Lincoln. 

“There will be no peace in this region by virtue of treaties and Indian faith. It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux (aka the Dakota) if I have the power to do so and even if it requires a campaign lasting the whole of next year.  Destroy everything belonging to them and force them out to the plains, unless, as I suggest, you can capture them. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.” Civil War Major General John Pope, in a letter to Colonel Sibley, urging an all-out effort to totally exterminate the Dakota, (letter dated Sept. 28, 1862).

Pope was infamous for his abrasiveness, conceit and loud mouth, with which he alienated his colleagues, his officer staff and his soldiers. Significantly, Pope had recently been summarily relieved of his command of the Union Army of Virginia and demoted to Minnesota after his humiliating defeat by Robert E. Lee at the Second Battle of Manassas just a month earlier (Aug. 31, 1862). 

As Thomas Dahlheimer recounted in “A History Of The Dakota People In The Mille Lacs Area”:

“Grieved by the loss of their lands, dissatisfied with reservation (aka, concentration camp) life, and ultimately brought to a condition of near starvation, the Dakota people appealed to US Indian agencies (involving ex-Minnesota governors Sibley and Ramsey) without success. The murder of five whites by four young Dakota Indians ignited a bloody uprising in which more than 300 whites and an unknown number of Indians were killed. In the aftermath, 38 Dakota captives were hanged in Mankato (the day after Christmas Day 1862) for ‘voluntary participation in murders and massacres,’ and the Dakota remaining in Minnesota were removed to reservations in Nebraska. Meanwhile, the Ojibwa were relegated to reservations on remnants of their former lands.

“What happened to the Dakota in 1862 and afterward was a grievous crime against humanity. If it had occurred in this present day and age the United Nations and the international community would condemn it and declare it to be ethnocide and genocide. A United Nations world court indictment would be issued and the perpetrators of this ethnocide and genocide would be rounded up, tried, convicted and punished for crimes against humanity.”

From Gov. Ramsey’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of Nov. 3, 1862:

“…in commemoration of His goodness, and by a public act of Christian worship, let us recognize His mercy in that He has delivered our borders from the savage enemies who rose up against us, and cast them into the pit they had privily dug for us; that our friends have been rescued from the horrors of captivity, and that our homes and household treasures are now safe from the violence of Indian robbers and assassins.”

According to a plaque on Cole’s Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts:

“Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in a National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”

Dr. Gary Kohls is a retired family physician from Duluth, Minnesota who has been involved in peace, nonviolence and justice issues and often writes about militarism, racism, fascism, imperialism, totalitarianism, economic oppression, anti-environmentalism and other violent, unsustainable, anti-democratic movements.

2 comments for “The Troubling History of Thanksgiving

  1. December 2, 2014 at 08:31

    In fact, what native Americans and native Australians suffered at the hands of European settlers is little different to what the native British commoners suffered at the hands of British elites since 1066 and what native Irish commoners suffered at the hands of British and French Huguenot settlers since the time of Elizabeth I.

    In Britain, the theft of common land and dispossession of its inhabitants was termed ‘enclosure’. Descendents of the dispossessed were sent to Australia in 1788 as convicts.

    This is described in the book Demography Territory Law: Land-Tenure and the Origins of Capitalism in Britain – a new theory by Sheila Newman. I have almost finished reading it and will review it shortly.

  2. Joe Tedesky
    November 29, 2014 at 00:32

    The troubling history is how we are all taught history. I love learning about history. My only problem is retaining it all. My only wish would be to hear more about all the peoples who made the past become the reality we live with today. That’s for the good and the bad. It would be a wonderful thing if our schools were to teach more about the Native American, more about the African American, and certainly more about the Hispanic people who once walked upon our earth. It wasn’t just a few white guys, but a multiethnic lot who build, and made this country great. So, why not celebrate their lives, and learn more about them?

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