Native American History
History of the United States

What is true, half true, or a complete fabrication we tell students about the first Thanksgiving?

The history of Thanksgiving touches on just about everything—from fresh venison and questionable bathing habits to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” And it’s probably a lot more complicated than you think.

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Todd L Ross
2019-08-29 18:08:03
2019-08-29 18:08:03

We all know by now—or at least we should—that what our history textbooks told us in school is not exactly the gospel truth.

Time and centuries’ worth of oral and written tradition tend to distort and reshape the facts to the sensibilities of modern audiences, so one person’s intrepid discoverer of the Americas becomes another person’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, calls them “Separatists.” Because that’s what they called themselves.

“They had religious freedom in Holland. They were going to Massachusetts to make a buck,” Loewen says. “They were not doing that economically well in Holland, plus their children were learning to speak Dutch. That’s going to happen to people who grow up in Holland. They wanted to learn to be more English, and they wanted to make money.”

In his book, Loewen writes that only about 35 of the 102 inhabitants of the Mayflower were even Pilgrims…or Separatists. The rest were just “ordinary folk seeking their fortunes in the new Virginia colony.” Only they ended up in Massachusetts. The way in which that occurred is still open to interpretation: Some say poor weather blew them off course, but according to historian George Willison, the Pilgrims planned all along to end up in Massachusetts.

At any rate, the Pilgrims kept the colonists together through the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of the Plymouth Colony and an impressive piece of political maneuvering in its own right. After a brutal winter spent on the ship, which wiped out nearly half of the colonists, they emerged ready to tame the New England wilderness.

Except it was pretty much tamed already. Plymouth had been a Wampanoag settlement before disease decimated its population shortly before the Pilgrims’ arrival.

“The Pilgrims wander into this situation where there are all these cleared fields and a nice spring,” Loewen says. “It’s ready to be a town because it was a town.”

The Wampanoag

The Kernel of Truth: Once the Pilgrims disembarked, the area’s current inhabitants, the Wampanoag, sent an English-speaking Patuxet envoy named Squanto to help the settlers acclimate to their new surroundings. In his “Of Plymouth Plantation” account, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford called Squanto “a special instrument sent of God” because of his aid in teaching the Pilgrims how to plant corn, catch fish, and, basically, survive in the New World. He also helped broker a peace between the Pilgrims and Wampanoags that lasted more than 50 years.

The Rest of the Story: The relationship between the two sides was less a friendship and more a survival transaction. The Pilgrims got the Wampanoag’s agricultural know-how. The Wampanoag got an ally in case their real enemy, the Narragansett, got any ideas about attacking and clearing them out.

The Wampanoag were at a severely disadvantageous position militarily, with their population reduced drastically by the aforementioned bout with disease brought over by the Europeans, for which the natives had no immunity.

“They were hospitable, but they weren’t inexplicably hospitable, the way we portray them,” Loewen says. “They were, shall we say, explicably hospitable. And the explication was the plague. They were very healthy, and therefore, they were prime suspects when a disease came around.”

By the time King Philip’s War rolled around in 1675, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag were, let’s say, at odds.

Squanto is a bit of a complicated figure as well. Loewen points out that most history textbooks just say Squanto learned English from fishermen he happened upon during his life. The truth is more thorny: He was kidnapped as a child by a British captain and taken to England. He arranged passage back to America but was then taken again and sold into slavery in Spain. He escaped from slavery and made it back to his homeland…only to find that disease had extinguished his village.

As we have discussed before.

My daughter is learning about the Pilgrims and Squanto. Eventually we'll tell her about the small pox blankets, but not yet.

— (((Groove With It))) (@groove_with_it) November 9, 2010

Loewen says relegating Squanto to a supporting character is part of the problematic ethnocentrism in Thanksgiving lore.

Plus, here’s a fun fact from Feenie Ziner’s 1989 biography of Squanto: He tried to teach the Pilgrims to bathe regularly. He failed at that, though. They believed it unhealthy.

The First Thanksgiving

The Kernel of Truth: More than 100 combined Pilgrims and Wampanoag gathered for two or three days sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, 1621, said James Baker, the Plimoth Plantation vice president, in a 1996 interview with the Boston Globe. Kathleen Wall, a culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, told Time magazine that the festivities also included exhibitions such as foot races and shooting at targets. It was, indeed, meant as a celebration of the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest in the New World.

The Rest of the Story: Okay, let’s take it word by word. First, “Thanksgiving.” It probably wasn’t called that back in 1621. The Pilgrims, in fact, used that term to denote a period of fasting and prayer—not stuffing their gobs with pumpkin pie. A Boston publisher named Alexander Young printed a book in 1841 containing a contemporary account of the event from Edward Winslow, who never described it as “Thanksgiving.” Young did in a footnote, though, and the rest is history.

Next, “first.” It was not the first feast of its kind between natives and colonists in America. The Spanish and members of the Timucua tribe gathered for a celebratory dinner in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. In 1619, just two years prior to “The First Thanksgiving,” a group of English settlers reached their destination in Virginia and proclaimed “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

“The” is fine. Let’s leave that one alone.

Our current Thanksgiving tradition doesn’t even stretch back to 1621, but to the thick of the Civil War, in the fall of 1863. It was then, to commemorate Union victories in Vicksburg and Gettysburg, that President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

“Of course, Lincoln is not going to emphasize the settlement of the United States at Jamestown, Virginia, because we were at war with the state of Virginia. Naturally, he’s going to emphasize Massachusetts,” Loewen says. “That doesn’t mean the celebration that fall had anything significant to do with the Pilgrims. For that matter, they weren’t even called Pilgrims until at least the 1870s.”

The push to make Thanksgiving a national holiday was aided immeasurably by the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale. And who is Sarah Josepha Hale, you might ask? Oh, just the woman who penned “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”

Mind blown yet? I know mine is.

And we don’t really know how the Indians happened to be at this celebratory feast in 1621. Some historians maintain that they didn’t exactly send in RSVPs.

“I think what happened is that natives happened by, and they invited them on the spur of the moment,” Loewen says. “That’s fine, too. Let’s not make a big deal out of it. We’re having a block party on my street around the time of Halloween, and we’re making sure that everybody on the block gets invited. If we miss somebody, well, we’ll invite them when they come out to complain about the noise.”

The Menu

The Kernel of Truth: It was a fall feast, complete with all the fowl and vegetation the cultivated New England wilderness had to offer.

The Rest of the Story: It’s interesting that Plimoth Plantation, the historical learning attraction that tries to recreate the everyday life of Plymouth Colony, has two separate Thanksgiving feast options for its guests.

The first one is the one you’re used to: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, cornbread, apple cider, and pumpkin pie.

The second is the one that follows more closely with what historians know about that feast in 1621. It has some of the old favorites such as turkey and stuffing. It also has lobster bisque, green beans, fruits and nuts and Indian pudding, which is a combination of English pudding and cornmeal.

Historians who study contemporary accounts of the meal’s menu say that it was probably a lot heavier on seafood than we would suspect given our current traditions. Think eels, clams, and mussels. It was probably also a lot nuttier—chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts, to be specific. Wall, the Plimoth Plantation culinarian, also says that goose or duck was probably more plentiful than turkey for the hungry participants that first year.

And the Indians brought five freshly slain deer with them to the party. So that’s fun.

An article on states that there probably weren’t mashed potatoes, as white potatoes and sweet potatoes had not yet made their way to North America from South America and the Caribbean yet. And Wall told Smithsonian that there probably wasn’t any pie, as the Pilgrims did not have the butter and flour necessary to make crust.

So where did our current Thanksgiving menu come from? That points back to Hale and the magazine she edited, Godey’s Lady’s Book. During her campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in the 19th century, Hale would print recipes of dishes such as turkeys, stuffing and pumpkin pie, so that the country’s women would be ready to get cooking once official word came down.

Discussion of the menu, too, has historically led to problematic ethnocentrism, according to Loewen. He includes an example in his book from Native American novelist Michael Dorris, whose son brought home an informational Thanksgiving handout from his elementary school adorned with pictures and captions such as “They served pumpkins and turkeys and corn and squash. The Indians had never seen such a feast!”

The problem, as Loewen and Dorris point out, is that the Indians, in fact, had seen such a feast. They’re the ones who introduced the Pilgrims to this food in the first place.

“Think about that. Every single one of those foods is an Indian food,” Loewen says. “The Pilgrims are the ones who had never seen such a feast. But here the history books have us providing nice stuff to the native people.”

In conclusion…it’s complicated.

The spirit of Thanksgiving, as we celebrate it today and distilled down to its most uncomplicated reading, can be as simple as the desire to gather with family and loved ones and share a hearty meal to give thanks for everything in our lives for which we’re grateful.

When you start to get into the history of why we do the things we do on Thanksgiving, it has more to do with a sense of 19th century nationalism and morality—along with a creeping 20th century commercialism with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade starting in 1924—than it does with The First Thanksgiving story we’re taught about in elementary school.

And it’s a story that largely ignores the people on the other side of the table. The United American Indians of New England have been holding a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving since 1970, complete with fasting, marches, and political demonstrations to bring back to the forefront the toll that European colonization had on the Native American population.

Plimoth Plantation, for its part, is dedicated to telling the story of the Pilgrims and Indians from both sides, with the hope “that by listening to the voices from both the colonial and the indigenous perspective, we will inspire not only a deeper understanding of our nation's past but also modern contemplation on today’s multicultural America and the contributions of our ancestors—indigenous and immigrant.”

“It turns out that the very place that sparked this myth has now sparked some truth-telling to set it straight,” Loewen says.


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The first actual thanksgiving was called the "First Thanksgiving". :-]

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