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Fact and Fiction about the Origins of Thanksgiving

What You Thought You Knew about Thanksgiving is Probably Wrong

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Fact and Fiction about the Origins of Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving as imagined by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris in the early 20th century. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Updated November 28, 2012

Among the origin stories of the United States, few are more mythologized than the Columbus discovery story and the Thanksgiving story. The Thanksgiving story as we know it today is a fanciful tale shrouded by myth and omissions of important facts.

Setting the Stage

When the Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on December 16, 1620 they were well-armed with information about the region, thanks to the mapping and knowledge of their predecessors like Samuel de Champlain. He and untold numbers of other Europeans who had by then been journeying to the continent for well over 100 years already had well established European enclaves along the eastern seaboard (Jamestown, Virginia, was already 14 years old and the Spanish had settled in Florida in the mid-1500’s), so the Pilgrims were far from the first Europeans to set up a community in the new land. During that century the exposure to European diseases had resulted in pandemics of illness among the natives from Florida to New England that reduced Indian populations (aided as well by the Indian slave trade) by 75% and in many cases more—a fact well known and exploited by the Pilgrims.

Plymouth Rock was actually the village of Patuxet, the ancestral land of the Wampanoag, which for untold generations had been a well managed landscape cleared and maintained for corn fields and other crops, contrary to the popular understanding of it as a “wilderness.” It was also the home of Squanto. Squanto, who is famous for having taught the Pilgrims how to farm and fish, saving them from certain starvation, had been kidnapped as a child, sold into slavery and sent to England where he learned how to speak English (making him so useful to the Pilgrims). Having escaped under extraordinary circumstances, he found passage back to his village in 1619 only to find the majority of his community wiped out only 2 years before by a plague. But a few remained and the day after the Pilgrims’ arrival while foraging for food they happened upon some households whose occupants were gone for the day.

One of the colonists’ journal entries tells of their robbery of the houses, having taken “things” for which they “intended” to pay the Indians for at some future time. Other journal entries describe the raiding of corn fields and of “finding” other food buried in the ground, and the robbing of graves of “the prettiest things which we carried away with us, and covered the body back up.” For these findings the Pilgrims thanked God for his help "for how else could we have done it without meeting some Indians who might trouble us." Thus, the Pilgrims’ survival that first winter can be attributed to Indians both alive and dead, both witting and unwitting.

The First Thanksgiving

Having survived the first winter, the following spring Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to harvest berries and other wild foods and plant crops the Indians had been living on for millennia, and they entered into a treaty of mutual protection with the Wampanoag under the leadership of Ousamequin (known to the English as Massasoit). Everything we know about the first Thanksgiving is drawn from only two written records: Edward Winslow’s “Mourt’s Relation” and William Bradford's "Of Plimouth Plantation." Neither of the accounts is very detailed and certainly not enough to conjecture the modern tale of Pilgrims having a Thanksgiving meal to thank the Indians for their help that we are so familiar with. Harvest celebrations had been practiced for eons in Europe as thanksgiving ceremonials had been for Native Americans, so it's clear that the concept of Thanksgiving was not new to either group.

Only Winslow's account, written two months after it happened (which was likely sometime between September 22 and November 11), mentions the Indians’ participation. In the exuberance of the colonists’ celebration guns were fired and the Wampanoags, wondering if there was trouble, entered the English village with around 90 men. After showing up well-intended but uninvited they were invited to stay. But there wasn't enough food to go around so the Indians went out and caught some deer which they ceremonially gave to the English. Both accounts talk about a bountiful harvest of crops and wild game including fowl (most historians believe this refers to waterfowl, most likely geese and duck). Only Bradford's account mentions turkeys. Winslow wrote that the feasting carried on for three days, but nowhere in any of the accounts is the word “thanksgiving” used.

Subsequent Thanksgivings

Records indicate that although there was a drought the following year there was a day of religious thanks giving, to which Indians weren't invited. There are other accounts of Thanksgiving proclamations in other colonies throughout the rest of the century and into the 1700’s. There is a particularly troubling one in 1673 at the end of King Phillip's war in which an official thanksgiving celebration was proclaimed by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony after a massacre of several hundred Pequot Indians. Some scholars argue that Thanksgiving proclamations were announced more often for the celebration of mass murder of Indians than for harvest celebrations.

The modern Thanksgiving holiday America celebrates is thus derived from bits and pieces of traditional European harvest celebrations, Native American spiritual traditions of thanks giving, and spotty documentation (and the omission of other documentation). The result is the rendering of an historical event that is more fiction than truth. Thanksgiving was made an official national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, thanks to the work of Sarah J. Hale, an editor of a popular ladies magazine of the time. Interestingly, nowhere in the text of President Lincoln’s proclamation is any mention of Pilgrims and Indians.

For more information, see “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James Loewen.

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