News / USA

Thanksgiving Story is More Fiction than Fact

Conditions were crude for both Pilgrims and Indians

'The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth' (Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914) shows well-dressed, prayerful Pilgrims and Indians, a depiction experts say is far from accurate.
'The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth' (Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914) shows well-dressed, prayerful Pilgrims and Indians, a depiction experts say is far from accurate.
Ted Landphair

On Thursday, Nov. 24,  Americans mark our annual Thanksgiving holiday. It often revolves around a lavish dinner for family and friends that begins with a prayer of thanks for our blessings. The Thanksgiving tradition is modeled after harvest-home feasts - especially what’s been called the “First Thanksgiving” in colonial Massachusetts.

It’s the pleasant story of a cold, late-fall day in 1621, when about 50 pious English settlers called “Pilgrims,” who had barely survived their first year in the New World, shared a feast with their neighbors, the friendly Wampanoag Indians.

But according to curators at Plimoth Plantation - a living-history museum in the same settlement where the Pilgrims and Indians marked that harvest almost 400 years ago - the Thanksgiving story is more fable than fact.

Thanksgiving prayers

We associate solemn prayers of thanks to God with the holiday, and many American families that don’t usually say grace before meals pause to give thanks before eating on Thanksgiving.

But there wouldn’t have been many prayers at that crude festival 390 years ago. The pious Pilgrims would not have included people they considered pagan nonbelievers in solemn prayers, and the Indians likely would not have joined in praying to one all-powerful God.

If they did eat turkeys at the first Thanksgiving, they were probably not as plump as today's holiday birds.
If they did eat turkeys at the first Thanksgiving, they were probably not as plump as today's holiday birds.

Turkey time

Plump, domesticated turkeys are the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table today.

But while the skimpy records from 1621 mention fowl, these were likely geese and ducks in the oceanfront Plymouth community. If they were turkeys, they’d have been the scrawnier wild variety.

Pumpkin pie

Our holiday tables are virtual groaning boards, crowded with a variety of dishes. And most illustrations of the First Thanksgiving also show tables piled high with breads and pumpkin pies.

Although pumpkin pie is now a Thanksgiving tradition, it is unlikely the pilgrims ate it.
Although pumpkin pie is now a Thanksgiving tradition, it is unlikely the pilgrims ate it.

It’s an unlikely scenario.  

The Pilgrims had neither the sugar nor the wheat flour and ovens needed to make such baked goods.

Not-so-deep friendship

Sketches depicting the Plymouth Thanksgiving show a pleasant, if not outright joyful sharing between the Pilgrims and their good friends, the Indians.

It’s an unlikely historical rewrite.  

Things were suspicious and tense between them, and their alliance would devolve into fighting and bloodshed 50 years later.

Pilgrim fashion

Thanksgiving images are replete with Pilgrims in fine coats, shiny shoes, and tall hats with big buckles above their wide brims. And some show the Indians in colorful garb. Definite embellishments.

The struggling Pilgrims wore beaver hats and deerskin coats. After the rough first year they had endured, they were likely thankful to have any clothes, and to have lived to wear them.

The Wampanoags, too, wore simple deerskin and one or two feathers, not the colorful headdresses of the Plains tribes a century later.

Not even the first

OK, so we’ve polished the tradition a little. But at least the Pilgrims’ get-together with the Wampanoags in 1621 was the First Thanksgiving, right?  Not everyone agrees.  

Twenty-three years earlier, Spanish explorer Juan de Onate held a huge thanksgiving celebration on the banks of the Rio Grande River after leading settlers on an arduous, 563-kilometer trek across the Mexican desert.  

And in 1619, two years before the Pilgrims and Indians shared food together, a ship carrying 38 settlers landed at Virginia’s Berkeley Planation. These newcomers and existing settlers threw a party, and the London company that sent them ordered that the date be marked with an annual Thanksgiving celebration every year thereafter.

That earlier Thanksgiving is marked at the Berkeley Plantation each year.

Hardly rock solid

A big rock on the dock in Plymouth, Massachusetts, has been fenced in and labeled “Plymouth Rock.”  Now a famous tourist attraction, it’s said to be the place where the pilgrims first came ashore in the New World.  Wrong again.  

According “Saints and Sinners,” a trusted book published in 1945 by George Willison, who devoted his life to studying the Pilgrims, their ship, the Mayflower, didn’t dock first anywhere near there.  

They first set foot in North America to the north, at what is now Provincetown on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. And when William Bradford and his fellow Pilgrims did come ashore in what they would call Plimoth shortly thereafter in 1620, it was all along the beach, not on a particular rock. Over time, the town that grew up around it was Plymouth.

The whole episode, George Williston wrote, was a fabrication - a fable and public relations stunt. Plymouth Rock wasn’t even mentioned until an old man told the story 121 years after the so-called First Thanksgiving.

None of this, of course, prevents stores from selling Pilgrim outfits and dolls, cornucopia displays, and, of course, fat, butter-basted turkeys that Americans by the millions roast, carve, and enjoy on Thanksgiving Day.

You May Like

Ebola Death Toll Nears 5,000 as Virus Advances

West Africa bears heaviest burden; Mali toddler’s death raises new fears More

Jordan’s Role in Fighting IS Carries Domestic Risks

There are Western concerns Islamic State militants soon may unleash offensive in kingdom that could create upheaval - though nation has solid intel, grip on banking system More

Asian-Americans Enter Public Office in Record Numbers

A steady deepening engagement in local politics pays off for politicians like Chinese-American Judy Chu More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid