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Schoolchildren starring in a "First Thanksgiving" skit in 1963.Denver Post/Contributor/Getty Images
American mythology says that 401 years ago, pilgrims and Native Americans came together for the first Thanksgiving.
But the peace did not last; The settlers and natives were at war a generation later.
For some, the holiday is just a reminder of Native American oppression.
Thanksgiving is traditionally a time for family and food in the United States.
American schoolchildren usually learn that the tradition dates back to the Pilgrims who helped found Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts in the 1620s.
As the story goes, friendly Native Americans taught struggling colonists how to survive in the so-called New World. Then everyone came together to celebrate 1621 with a festival.
Thanksgiving 2022 would mark the 401st anniversary of that "first" American Thanksgiving. But in reality there were Thanksgiving celebrations before Plymouth, and the peace celebrated that day was tenuous.
In fact, the true story behind the holiday is so murky that some people are reconsidering how to celebrate the holiday, or whether they should do so at all.
School children at the statue by Massasoit, 'Great Sachem of the Wampanoags', on the hill overlooking Plymouth Rock and the harbour. Tom Herd/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
The Plymouth Thanksgiving of 1621 was not the first
According to National Geographic, settlers in Berkeley Hundred in modern-day Virginia celebrated their arrival with Thanksgiving as early as 1619. But the Washingtonian reported that the meal was likely little more than some oysters and ham tossed together.
Decades earlier, in Florida in 1565, Spanish settlers and members of the Seloy tribe broke bread with salted pork, chickpeas, and a mass, according to the National Parks Service.
Our modern definition of Thanksgiving revolves around eating turkey, but this has been more of a religious observance for centuries past. According to the History of Massachusetts Blog, pilgrims would most likely consider their sober day of prayer in 1623 to be the first proper Thanksgiving.
Others credit the year 1637 as the true origin of Thanksgiving, as Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop declared a day to celebrate Colonial soldiers who were feeding hundreds of Pequot men, women, and children in present-day Mystic, Connecticut , had slaughtered.
Regardless, the popular narrative of the first Thanksgiving lived on thanks to Abraham Lincoln.
The enduring holiday has also almost erased from our collective memory what happened between the Wampanoag and the English just a generation later.
"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," painted by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe.Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
The Thanksgiving 'peace' didn't last
Massasoit, the chief chief of the Wampanoag, allied with the English settlers after the founding of Plymouth and fought with the newcomers against the French and other local tribes. But the alliance grew strained over time.
As thousands more English colonists moved to Plymouth and conquered more land, authorities claimed control of "most aspects of Wampanoag life," according to the book "Historic Contact: Indian People and Colonists in Today's Northeastern United States."
A study published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews estimates that by 1620 the disease had already reduced the indigenous population of New England by 90%. The Wampanoag continued to die from what the colonists called "Native American fever," an unknown disease introduced by early European settlers.
A drawing by H.L. Stevens of Massasoit meeting Governor John Carver in front of other North American men. Drawn by H.L. Stevens/Inked by Augustus Robin/Corbis/Getty Images
By the time Massasoit's son Metacomet – known to the English as 'King Philip' – took over, relations had frayed. His men were executed for the murder of Punkapoag interpreter and Christian convert John Sassamon, sparking the King Philip's War.
Wampanoag warriors responded with raids, and the New England Confederation of Colonies declared war in 1675. The war was bloody and devastating.
In an article published in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Montclair State University professor Robert E. Cray Jr. said the death toll could have been as much as 30% of the English population and half of New England's Native Americans.
The colonial attack on Fort Narragansett in the Great Swamp Fight, December 1675. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Metacomet was decapitated and dismembered, according to It Happened in Rhode Island, and the colonists impaled his head on a spike for display for 25 years.
The war was just one of a series of brutal but little-remembered early conflicts between Native Americans and colonists in New England, New York, and Virginia.
The holiday's dark past makes some people think of Thanksgiving
The focus on racial justice in the US has some people saying that a reappraisal of the meaning and celebration of Thanksgiving is long overdue.
Teachers, professors and Native Americans told The New York Times in 2020 that they are rethinking the holiday that has sidelined US violence and cruelty to Native Americans, giving it names like "Takesgiving" and "The Thanksgiving Massacre." to have.
And thinking about Thanksgiving isn't new. According to the New York Post, the United American Indians of New England have publicly mourned Thanksgiving for decades.
Frank James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag activist who helped establish a national day of mourning in 1970, called the Wampanoag's welcoming of English settlers "perhaps our biggest mistake," reported the Washington Post.
On National Day of Mourning, Native Americans gather in Plymouth, Massachusetts for a day to commemorate the millions of Native Americans killed by European colonists. Prayers and speeches are accompanied by drumbeats before participants march through Plymouth's historic district.
"Participants in the National Day of Mourning honor Indigenous people and the struggles of Indigenous people for survival today," reads part of the plaque at Cole's Hill in Plymouth. "It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest against the racism and oppression that Native Americans continue to experience."
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Wompanoag sachem

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