The widely taught story of the first Thanksgiving, featuring the Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together for a feast with turkey, isn’t entirely accurate. Over the years, a mix of Thanksgiving facts and myths has intertwined, largely due to abridged, softened, or out-of-context details in school textbooks. Children’s books and animated specials have also contributed to simplifying the story into a more pleasant but inaccurate version.
High school textbooks, aiming to impart historical facts to memorize, often present information in absolute terms, even when details might be uncertain or misrepresented. This approach, criticized by experts like sociologist James W. Loewen, perpetuates inaccuracies in historical narratives, including the Thanksgiving story.
The traditional Thanksgiving narrative perpetuates several significant inaccuracies about Native American history. Firstly, it portrays the arrival of Europeans as the starting point of Native history, dismissing thousands of years of indigenous presence and culture in the Americas. This view negates the rich history and traditions that predate European colonization.
Secondly, the depiction of the Mayflower’s arrival as a first contact is misleading. Indigenous communities like the Wampanoags had extensive prior interactions with Europeans, often marked by violence, including slave raiding. Some Wampanoags spoke English, had traveled to Europe, and were familiar with the individuals behind the Pilgrims’ expedition.
Most importantly, the portrayal of a harmonious shared dinner as a symbol for colonialism is flawed. While Wampanoag leader Ousamequin did seek an alliance with the English, it wasn’t due to inherent friendliness. Rather, it was a strategic move stemming from the devastation caused by epidemic diseases among his people. This alliance eventually led to the deterioration of relations and the eruption of King Philip’s War, one of the most brutal colonial Indian conflicts. The myth of Thanksgiving overlooks this violent history and fails to acknowledge the resilience and adaptation of the Wampanoag people over centuries, ignoring their survival despite overwhelming odds.
The modern Thanksgiving holiday evolved from a deliberate effort to promote tourism and preserve cultural authority. Early English celebrations were more focused on fasting, prayer, and supplication to God, but in 1769, descendants of the Pilgrims in Plymouth aimed to elevate their cultural significance. They propagated the idea of the Pilgrims as the founding fathers of America.
The pivotal moment was the mention of a dinner in a publication by Rev. Alexander Young, claiming it as the first Thanksgiving. This notion gained widespread acceptance, further solidified when Abraham Lincoln declared it a holiday during the Civil War to foster unity.
In the late 19th century, amid immigration concerns and racial politics, the Pilgrim-Indian narrative became a national founding myth. It served to assert cultural authority over newcomers and reshape the perception of colonialism as a bloodless, peaceful event, conveniently disregarding the violence of the Indian Wars and the darker aspects of American history like slavery. This myth allowed Americans to embrace their colonial past without confronting its harsh realities.
Thanksgiving as a National Holiday
Thanksgiving in America evolved from early Pilgrim celebrations marked by days of fasting and thanksgiving to recognize bountiful harvests and national events like the end of the Revolutionary War. George Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, followed by similar declarations by Presidents John Adams and James Madison.
In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday, although different states celebrated on varying days, and the tradition had not reached the American South.
Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent editor and writer, campaigned for 36 years to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War in 1863, finally responded to her efforts. He proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving to ask for healing amidst the strife, setting it on the final Thursday in November.
This tradition continued until 1939 when Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to boost retail sales by moving Thanksgiving up a week, known as “Franksgiving.” However, this change faced strong opposition, leading to Roosevelt signing a bill in 1941 that officially set Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November, where it has remained ever since.
Modern Day Thanksgiving (Let’s Eat!)
The historical account of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 doesn’t definitively mention turkey or pie as part of the menu. Primary sources indicate wild turkey was abundant in the area, but there’s no direct evidence confirming its presence at the feast. The only explicitly mentioned food items were some form of wild fowl—possibly goose, duck, or turkey—alongside venison brought by the Wampanoag.
Likely foods at the feast included cornmeal, pumpkin, succotash, and cranberries, while sweet potatoes were not present in North America at that time.
Today, Thanksgiving has evolved into a holiday focused on gathering with loved ones and enjoying a lavish meal. Turkey, though possibly absent from the original feast, has become a symbolic centerpiece of the modern holiday, enjoyed by nearly 90% of Americans in various preparations according to the National Turkey Federation. Traditional dishes such as stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie remain popular elements of the meal. Additionally, volunteering and community support activities, like food drives and free dinners, reflect the spirit of gratitude and giving back during the holiday.