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

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

Video Secret Service Chief Under Fire for White House Security Breach

Julia Pierson faces tough questions from lawmakers after recent intrusion at White House, says: 'It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly' More

Frustrated, Liberian Students Want Ebola Fight Role

Thousands have volunteered to go to counties, rural villages to talk to people in their language about deadly virus 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.
Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihadi
X
Mahi Ramakrishnan
September 30, 2014 2:16 PM
Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid