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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book 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.
Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festivali
X
April 24, 2015 4:09 AM
Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Keeping Washington Airspace Safe Is Tall Order

Being the home of all three branches of the U.S. federal government makes Washington, D.C. the prime target for those who want to make their messages and ideas heard. Unfortunately, many of them choose to deliver them in unorthodox ways, including from the air, as a recent incident clearly showed involving a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol’s West Lawn. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

VOA Blogs