(Note: I first published this back in 2012 not long after I began longitudes. Since I’m now feeling lethargic after too many piña coladas while visiting the Caribbean, and therefore don’t feel like writing, and it’s Thanksgiving once again, I’m re-posting this golden oldie with a few light dustings. I hope you enjoy and, as always, feel free to comment.)
This Thursday, Americans will get together with family and friends to celebrate a national holiday: Thanksgiving. (Certain other countries celebrate their own Thanksgiving at different times.) It’s a day associated with a feast of roast turkey, breaded stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and assorted other culinary delights. Some Americans indulge in televised football games. And American schoolchildren will learn about the Pilgrims: peace-loving religious dissenters from England who landed at “Plymouth Rock” in 1620 and who ate turkey with friendly, benevolent Indians.
Thanksgiving is many Americans’ favorite holiday, because it’s mainly about family, food, and football (not necessarily in that order). But there are not surprisingly a lot of myths about the Plymouth colonists and the original day of thanks, in 1621.
Unless it’s Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, longitudes strives for truth. So below is my feeble attempt to demolish a few long-held myths. My sources are the book “The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony” by James and Patricia Deetz; a smattering of well-sourced Wikipedia info; and a 1621 letter written by Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow to a friend in England, known as Mourt’s Relation. His letter is the only contemporary eyewitness description of what took place that first Thanksgiving. (Plymouth Governor William Bradford reflected on the colony many years later in Of Plymouth Plantation}:
- Although the colonists originally came from England, most had been living in religiously tolerant Leiden, Holland for twelve years before arriving in the New World on the Mayflower.
- The Mayflower first landed on the sandy northern tip of what is now Cape Cod in November 1620. The passengers didn’t transfer to the mainland (Plymouth) until a month later.
- There is no mention of a “Plymouth Rock” in Of Plymouth Plantation or Mourt’s Relation.
- The original feast took place over three days, probably during harvest time, which would have been September or early October at the latest.
- Over ninety Wampanoag Indians and about fifty English attended the feast, including Chief Massasoit, Winslow, and Bradford. (Most depictions of the feast show roughly a dozen colonists and half that many Indians.)
- Turkey was undoubtedly not the main course. It was more likely ducks or geese killed by the Pilgrims, and later on venison shared by the natives.
- There is no evidence in Winslow’s account that the Pilgrims offered a formal thanks. He merely mentions that “by the goodness of God” they were “far from want.” The feast was more likely continuation of an English custom of celebrating harvest time.
- The descriptor “pilgrim” for the colonists was first used in a sermon delivered in Plymouth in the 1790s. And until the early 20th century, the term was used in a generic sense and spelled with a lowercase “p.” The Plymouth settlers called themselves “Separatists” or “Saints” (religious dissenters), “Strangers” (those unmotivated by religion but seeking a new life), “Old Comers,” “Old Planters,” and “Planters.”
- Modern Thanksgiving as a holiday for all American states wasn’t established until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln designated the final Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress changed this to the fourth Thursday of the month.
- The Plymouth colonists, although they established the first English colony in what is now known as New England, were not the first English to permanently settle in the New World. That would be the Jamestown, Virginia settlers of 1607, who were driven here by mercantilism rather than religion.
- The Christians of Plymouth Colony were not immune to those vices quite familiar to modern-day Americans. Rape, incest, buggery, bigamy, domestic abuse, adultery, and murder are described in detail in original colonial records.
- Violence between English and Indian had occurred even before the feast. On August 14, 1621 military leader Myles Standish preemptively attacked the village (Nemasket) of a rival sachem of Massasoit’s. His brashness was a harbinger of King Philip’s War of 1675-1678, a conflict between English colonists and their Indian allies and Chief Massasoit’s son, Metacom. It remains the bloodiest per-capita conflict on American soil.
And speaking of violence, it’s important to note that the colonists did not watch American football on television during that first Thanksgiving. If they had, however, they would have certainly cheered for Detroit to win and Dallas to lose.
Have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!