Be your family's Thanksgiving expert by challenging Thanksgiving myths
Above photo: a map from Wikipedia Commons of southern Massachusetts showing the position of Plymouth on Massachusetts' east coast and the surrounding Native American tribes. To say the Pilgrims faced a delicate diplomatic situation is an understatement. 

I can remember arriving at Edith Brown Elementary School, now that abandoned straw-colored brick edifice on the days after Halloween and watching my teachers, after I finished my blue mimeographed sweet-smelling work sheets, as they changed the decorations in the room and on the bulletin boards from black cats, spider webs, skeletons and jack ‘o lanterns to red-orange leaves, cornucopias (this word I learned in third grade but could not spell until later), pictures of men in black hats with buckles and women in long dresses and hair swept back under white cloth. Taped to the window panes later would be turkeys we children would supply, which we’d create by tracing around our hands and crayoning their heads (our thumbs), bodies and wings (our palms) and five tail feathers (our fingers) into preposterous color combinations. 

We would be led through storybooks or filmstrips.  (These last items were run through a projector that cast brilliant pictures on a white screen as a record or tape played a grownup voice and high-pitched tones signaled the teacher to put up the next picture).  We would learn every year the story of the Pilgrims who arrived on Plymouth Rock, all smartly costumed in those black and white suits with buckles on their big black hats and suits and those long dresses, coming down to shore to an empty but lovely plot of land. One day they wanted to throw a feast, but for some reason there wasn’t quite enough for everybody. So they invited Indians who brought popcorn, berries and turkey.  They all sat together at a long table and toasted one another. And lived happily ever after.  In later tellings, Squanto helped the Pilgrims out. He was an Indian that taught the hows of growing food in the new country. That’s why we were all there in Edith Brown in the late 70s, warm, well-clothed and surrounded by multi-colored hand turkeys. 

This was the story and we liked it. But it kept growing. Our classes every year forward started adding to it. The Pilgrims’ reasons for coming here came into it. It was freedom for their religion they sought, having been hounded out of Europe for it. The Pilgrims were strict, no good at parties. They either were or became the Puritans later. Or maybe they weren’t.  It also took me time to get it straight when and why, witches were burned at the stake by those Puritans. The a novel The Scarlet Letter told of how strict they could be in Massachusetts in that era. At some point later, there were fights between white colonists and Indians. Connecting all this without recourse to a book or notes given in class was hard but the tests made us do it. 

Only as I took American History at Ouachita Baptist my second semester there, and read our textbook The American Pageant by David M. Kennedy did the version of the Thanksgiving story I’d grown up with acquire complicating details.  And then later in American Literature Survey, I’d read from the journal of William Bradford, the second governor of the Pilgrims’ colony and then writings by other Pilgrim leaders including another governor, Edward Winslow, and Bradford’s nephew and secretary Nathaniel Morton, about the Thanksgiving story and the life in the colony until it was absorbed into Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691 to form the province of Massachusetts Bay. I’d learn that the Thanksgiving story was really a glimpse of alternate history. It was a kind of filmstrip vision of a possible future of the relationship between Europeans and Native Americans that tragically would not become the historical norm. 

Myth 1: The Pilgrims created the first Thanksgiving in North America.  There were celebrations of Thanksgiving involving feasts in Europe and North America prior to the Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims. Spanish and French colonies are known to have had such celebrations in the 16th century in what is the present United States. Early in the 17th century, the English colonies already established south of where the Pilgrims would land would have such celebrations, too.  The Thanksgiving the Pilgrims and Native Americans that has been so prominent in the American imagination took place in 1621, the year after the Pilgrims landed. It was in thanks for a great harvest that fall. 

The previous year, one of plague and privation had reduced the population of Pilgrims by half, the nearby Wampanoag tribe had helped supply the Pilgrims with food. But finally with the end of the harvest in 1621, the 50 surviving Pilgrims could share a feast. The Wampanoags weren’t invited to it ahead of time, though. They heard the Pilgrims firing their blunderbusses in celebration and thought the Pilgrims were under attack by the Narragansets, a tribe that the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims formed a mutual defense alliance against on the Pilgrims’ first arriving. So about 90 Wampanoags came to their rescue only to encounter a celebration in progress which they were asked to join. But the Indians, who outnumbered the Pilgrims by about 40 and no doubt saw there would not be enough food for everyone, insisted on adding to the menu with deer, corn, fish and other items. 

Nearly two years after that meal of 1621, a drought was broken by a timely rain, resulting in another Thanksgiving celebration for a harvest in the summer of 1623 that might have been even bigger than the harvest of 1621, according to William Bradford’s journal. 

But the Pilgrims are credited with the first Thanksgiving celebration in New England while the English colonies in Virginia are credited with celebrating its first Thanksgiving 14 years earlier in 1607, holding another Thanksgiving in Jamestown in 1610 and holding another in 1619 for the safe landing of the ship Margaret at the Berkeley Hundred colony with 38 English colonists. Still earlier, French protestant colonists, upon arriving in Florida celebrated Thanksgiving in June of 1865. Spanish colonists had their own Thanksgiving celebration in the same state, which took place at the founding of St. Augustine in 1565. 

Myth 2: Thanksgiving continued to be celebrated every year after the Pilgrims started the tradition. Thanksgiving celebrations were sporadic, not regular, throughout most of the colonies after the Pilgrims celebrated it. The one exception was in a section of Virginia , where Thanksgiving would be celebrated annually after the 1619 landing of the Margaret at the Berkeley Hundred colony (later named the Berkely Plantation).  

Puritan Governor John Winthrop as well as Pilgrim Governor William Bradford would proclaim another Thanksgiving near the end of the Pequot War in 1637, which had pitted the Pilgrims, the Puritans, the Connecticut colony, the Narragansets and the Mohegans against the expansionist Pequots in a bloody two-year conflict that ended in the effective wiping out of the Pequot tribe and the claiming of much of its lands by the victors. 

Thanksgivings in the United States would be proclaimed first by President George Washington for February 19, 1795. His successor John Adams proclaimed Thanksgivings in 1798 and 99. Jefferson would not follow suit, but James Madison 1814 and 1815. Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving to take place on the last Thursday of November 1863 to celebrate the Union victories of that year. This prompted yearly celebrations throughout the U.S. with different traditions depending on region. 

It would remain for Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 to declare Thanksgiving to be on the fourth Thursday in November if there happened to be a fifth one (which is true this year). His reasoning? To provide merchants during the Great Depression with additional time to sell to Christmas shoppers. Two years later, Congress Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday a matter of law. 

Myth 3: The Pilgrims wore impressive costumes including dark suits for the men with tall hats that featured buckles, black shoes with buckles and long, dark or blue dresses for the women who also wore white-cloth hair-scarfs. Though this description does fit the art used in the 19th century to depict the Pilgrims, that art was based on what well-to-do English people wore in their portraits in the late 17th century, not what the Pilgrims really wore. Caleb Johnson’s Mayflower History website says Pilgrim clothing was much less formal-looking and practical for the outdoor work of colony building. There were no buckles anywhere. The men wore long, short-sleeved off-white shirts made of linen. If they needed it, they wore close-fitting jackets and occasionally long cloaks. Like most men of the era they wore breeches, but these were baggy and worn over wool stockings pulled to their knees with garters. On their feet they wore low-top leather shoes or boots. The women wore dresses divided into centrally buttoned-up bodices and ankle-length skirts, either dyed in the same or different solid colors, seldom solid black. They did wear their hair tied back under a coif and added lace or puffy accessories on special occasions. 

Myth 4: The Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving was the start of a long era of peace and good relations between European settlers and Native Americans. This depends on what you mean by long era. It is true that the Pilgrims enjoyed a period of peace with local Indian tribes and specifically an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe. But the Pequot War erupted in 1636 after a series of attacks and reprisals that escalated in violence.  The result was a victory for the Pilgrims and Puritans and the acquisition of more land. But the cost was the end of the Pequot status as an independent tribe as the survivors who were not enslaved found refuge with the Narragansets and Mohegans. 

Then, sadly for those of us attached to the Thanksgiving story of the Pilgrims dining with the Wampanoags and much more tragic for the actual humans involved, the Pilgrims and all the other colonies in Massachusetts and Connecticut clashed with their prior benefactors in what was named King Philip’s War. King Philip was the English name of Metacom, the new Wampanoag leader who led his people into conflict.  Metacom resorted to war over the continuing encroachments on tribal lands and numerous other violations by the rapidly growing English population of the treaty arranged by his father with early colonial leaders. The colonists assembled a thousand-man army plus 100 allied natives and attacked the Wampanoags and Narragansets who were allied this time. The result was a bloodbath for the native tribes, the death of King Philip, while one-tenth of the men of the colonies died and 12 of about 24 colonial towns were burned by the time the war ended in late 1676. 

It is tempting to think that had the English not violated their longstanding treaty with the Wampanoags, the peace between those groups might have held, making the Thanksgiving story an image of what could have been had a precedent been established for coexistence in the northeast.