Everything you know about Thanksgiving is wrong. Well, maybe not everything, but a hell of a lot.
Let us review the facts and fiction of Thanksgiving:
FACT: The Mayflower did bring the Pilgrims to North America from Plymouth, England, in 1620, and they disembarked at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they set up a colony. In 1621, they celebrated a successful harvest with a three-day gathering that was attended by members of the Wampanoag tribe. It’s from this that we derive Thanksgiving as we know it. However…
FICTION: The feast wasn’t actually the first Thanksgiving. It wasn’t until the 1830s that this event was even called the first Thanksgiving by New Englanders who looked back and thought it would be a good idea. Heck, the holiday wasn’t made official until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it as a kind of thank you for the Civil War victories in Vicksburg and Gettysburg.
In any event, claiming it was the “first Thanksgiving” isn’t quite right as both Native American and European societies had been holding festivals to celebrate successful harvests for centuries. Maybe first for the English in the New World, but that’s about it.
FICTION: The town of Plymouth was created by Pilgrims clearing land and starting a village from scratch. Plymouth was already a village with clear fields and a spring when the Pilgrims found it. Why was it available? Because every single native person who had been living there had been wiped out by a plague, namely smallpox.
FICTION: The pilgrims came to America seeking religious freedom. The Pilgrims already had religious freedom in Holland, where they first arrived in the early 17th century. Like those who settled Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the Pilgrims came to North America to make money. Shocking, but not really.
FICTION: Pilgrims called themselves Pilgrims. False. They called themselves Separatists. In fact, the term Pilgrims didn’t surface until around 1880.
FICTION: Everyone dined at a long table with a white tablecloth. The partiers most likely sat in small groups around fires, eating geese or duck. Also, it seems weird but forks hadn’t been invented yet. Folks ate with their fingers.
FICTION: The Puritan Pilgrims didn’t drink alcohol. Pilgrims loved a good beer. No doubt ale was plentiful thanks to a recently harvested barley crop.
FICTION: The Indians thought highly of Pilgrim intelligence since the English citizens brought with them advanced technology. Nope. The Pilgrims may have had durable shoes, woven clothes and powerful muskets, but their lack of survival skills earned them little respect among the Native Americans. Massasoit considered the Pilgrims “as a little child.”
FICTION: The first Thanksgiving took place in November. The exact date isn’t known, but the feast we celebrate on the fourth Thursday in November likely occurred in late September or early October, shortly after the harvest of such fall crops as corn, beans, squash and barley.
FACT: It is true that the celebration was an exceptional and unusual cross-cultural moment with food, games and prayer. Native Americans had been growing food for the colony nearby for awhile, so they more than likely ambled over for some chow. In fact, they probably outnumbered the English two to one.
FACT: Squanto did in fact help the English. His people, the Patuxet, had lived on the site where the Pilgrims settled. When they arrived, he became a translator for them with other native people and showed them the most effective method for planting corn and the best locations to fish.
FICTION: Squanto’s story is a happy one. In fact, he was captured by the English in 1614 and sold into slavery in Spain. He spent several years in England, where he learned English. He returned to New England in 1619, only to find his entire Patuxet tribe dead from smallpox. He met the Pilgrims in March 1621.
FICTION: Turkey and pie was served at the “First Thanksgiving”. The truth is that there was no mention of turkey being there, and there was no pie either. Settlers lacked butter and wheat flour for a crust, and they had no oven for baking. What is known is that the Pilgrims harvested crops and that the Wampanoag brought five deer. There were plenty of turkey around, but settlers preferred duck or goose.
Oh, and there’s one more truth that was ignored for hundreds of years, and that is the fact that entire races of Native Americans were wiped out by Europeans due to disease and outright murder.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Dave Shoemaker is a retired teacher, athletic director and basketball coach with most of his professional years spent at Paint Valley. He also served as the national basketball coach for the island country of Montserrat in the British West Indies. He lives in Southern Ohio with his best friends and companions, his dogs Sweet Lilly and Hank. He can be reached at https://shoeuntied.wordpress.com/.