Most Americans are familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims, struggling in the New World, formed an alliance with the local Wampanoag tribe. One man in particular, Squanto, taught the Pilgrims to farm local crops like squash and beans—lessons that allowed the Pilgrims to survive. At the time of the autumn harvest, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag came together for a great feast of Thanksgiving, a feast that we reenact each year as a cherished national holiday.

This classic Thanksgiving tale of cooperation and goodwill is more fable than history. The events that led to the Thanksgiving feast are far more complicated. The Wampanoag had encountered European colonists since at least 1524, almost 100 years before the first Thanksgiving in 1621, and these encounters were far from friendly. Records show that colonists often kidnapped members of the Wampanoag and brought them back to Europe. The Wampanoag sometimes fought back, and other times attempted to negotiate with the colonists to increase their own power against their rivals. In 1616, a disease brought from Europe ravaged the New England tribes, decimating two-thirds of the Wampanoag population. Distrust of the Europeans was so high that any alliance with the colonists would have been entered as a last resort.

When Ousamequin (commonly called Massasoit) of the Wampanoag signed a peace treaty with the Pilgrims in March 1621, he did it grudgingly, believing that this was the only way to save his people from the neighboring Narragansett tribe. For the negotiations, Ousamequin enlisted the help of Tisquantum, whom we know as Squanto, a Wampanoag who had escaped from slavery and lived briefly in England before returning home in 1619. For all the tension and distrust between the Wampanoag and the colonists, one thing is certain: the treaty lasted for decades. The Pilgrims and Wampanoags enjoyed peace and prosperity for as long as the signers of the treaty lived.