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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 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.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid