As much as Americans love Thanksgiving now, it wasn’t always so. Each year, families get together to visit and stuff themselves silly with a meal high in carbs and butter. What could be more glorious? Between the nostalgia over Pilgrims and Indians coming together and the pumpkin pie, there isn’t a whole lot of room for interpretation. At least, based off of the story you learn in grade school.
Unfortunately, the real Thanksgiving story might not be all that simple.
Here are five myths that might not be exactly correct when you look at the basic historical accounts of the first Thanksgiving:
Myth No. 1: Pilgrims and Native Americans were friendly
The official story grade-school children learn includes some basic dates and a watered-down version of what really happened. It’s true the Mayflower landed in a small bay north of Cape Cod in 1620, but what followed after was probably not very friendly. In fact, the Native Americans and Pilgrims were likely very frightened of each other, and relations were often strained.
It’s true that the Wampanoag played a leading role in helping the Pilgrims survive their first winter, but many dispute that the favors given to the British Pilgrims were ever returned. According to The United American Indians of New England, Pilgrims stole from Indian grain stores and even were known to rob sacred gravesites.
This alleged behavior combined with the 90 percent death rate in New England years later caused by smallpox spreading from British slave ships is enough alone to leave some very bad feelings, indeed. But who’s to say how both sides felt that first winter? What is known is that the two parties did meet for a harvest celebration of sorts.
Myth No. 2: Thanksgiving was a feast of turkey, potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, etc.
Only two firsthand accounts provide the source for what we know about that first Thanksgiving; that of William Bradford’s journal and Edward Winslow’s brief account of some harvest festivities. Winslow includes a simple comment about food, and the only specific foods mentioned are fowl and venison.
In reality, the meal probably included seafood oft-mentioned in accounts such as lobster and mussels. Fruit of the fields were likely included since it was a harvest celebration, so corn was also a sure bet.
Myth No. 3: Thanksgiving has always been celebrated ever since
It’s really thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of a popular women’s magazine and a publisher of many cookbooks, who created the annual meal that Americans eat today. Hale petitioned several U.S. presidents to make Thanksgiving a national holiday and succeeded with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
Although many American households had observed some sort of Thanksgiving before that time, it wasn’t made an official holiday until Lincoln’s proclamation and later Franklin D. Roosevelt’s marking the third Thursday in November. In her cookbooks, she created a certain colonial nostalgia and began the idea of what a Thanksgiving feast should include: “roast turkey with sage, creamed onions and mashed turnips…or potatoes”. So thanks, Sarah.
Myth No. 4: The Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag
There is no specific invitation mentioned in the two brief firsthand accounts of the first Thanksgiving celebration, however, it is stated that Wampanoag joined in on some later festivities. At first, historians assumed that the local tribe must have been invited, but some have later discerned that the Wampanoag came of their own accord. As some historians later speculate, the Wampanoag only joined to see what the commotion was all about.
Myth No. 5: Thanksgiving began as a show of goodwill to Native Americans
Sadly, according to many Native American accounts, the beginning of colonial days was the beginning of the end. Disease, genocide and problems abounded for years. It’s been difficult to overcome the ugliness of the past, especially when a popular holiday perpetuates harmful myths.
Americans can’t change the past, but they can hope for a brighter future. By avoiding stereotypes in the retelling of the first Thanksgiving and offering a more honest view to children, it can become more clear in the future.
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