This Thursday, November 22, Americans will get together with family and friends to celebrate a national holiday, Thanksgiving. It’s a day associated with a feast of roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Oh yes, and televised football games. American schoolchildren will learn about the Pilgrims: religious dissenters from England who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and who shared a table with friendly, benevolent Native Americans.
Thanksgiving is many Americans’ favorite holiday, because it’s all 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.
Below is my feeble attempt to “set the record straight.” My sources are the book “The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony” by James and Patricia Deetz; and a 1621 letter written by Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow to a friend in England. His letter is the only contemporary eyewitness description of what took place that first Thanksgiving:
- Although the colonists originally came from England, most had been living in religiously tolerant Leiden, Holland for 12 years before arriving in eventual Plymouth Colony on the Mayflower.
- The Mayflower landed first on the northern tip of Cape Cod, in November 1620. The passengers didn’t transfer to the mainland (Plymouth) until a month later.
- The original feast took place over three days, and probably occurred during harvest time, which would have been September or early October at the latest.
- Over 90 Wampanoag Indians and about 50 Pilgrims attended the feast, including Chief Massasoit and Governor William Bradford.
- 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 Indians.
- 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.”
- Thanksgiving as a holiday wasn’t established until 1863, when President Lincoln designated the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. In 1941 Congress changed this to the last Thursday of the month.
- The Plymouth colonists were not the first English to settle in the New World. That would be the Jamestown settlers of 1607, who were driven by mercantilism rather than religion.
- The Plymouth colonists 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.
Oh, and one other thing: the colonists did not watch American football on television on the 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!