Thanksgiving is just around the corner. The holiday has always had particular significance for my family. Because we arrived to this country in late November, 1977, just days before Thanksgiving, it is the day that we celebrated not just the Pilgrims’ survival but our own immigration to the United States. Like many converts, we enthusiastically adopted all the traditions and trappings of the holiday: the turkey, the cranberry sauce, and, within a remarkably short time, even the Cowboys and Lions. Being Jewish, we obviously didn’t celebrate Christmas, and we never really got into the 4th of July, but on Thanksgiving, as tacky as it might sound, there was no family more proud to be American than mine.
To tell the truth, I still feel grateful to be here. I love traveling and living abroad, but I also love coming home. Moreover, though I sometimes get upset with this Iraq war or that Patriot Act, the fact is that I have never wanted to live anywhere else, and I still find a lot of meaning in celebrating Thanksgiving. But as I’ve become more socially conscious, the question that keeps gnawing at me is what should that celebration look like.
I admit that I’m still looking for a satisfactory answer to that question, but as I started to research the holiday, one thing became remarkably clear: Many of the stories we saw on television and learned in school about the first Thanksgiving and the events that led up to it are entirely inconsistent with what historians have actually uncovered over the years. The purpose of this article is to share some of these myths (and the corresponding evidence), not with the intention of dampening the holiday, but with the hope that, particularly in these trying times, we can celebrate it in a more honest way, acknowledging both the positive and the negative characteristics of the people who settled in the town they called New Plimouth. The information below comes from several different historical internet sites, as well as a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen.
Myth 1: The Mayflower was filled by Puritans, who wanted to purify the church of England and who were seeking religious freedom.
Historical Evidence: Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England, while Separatists took a more extreme approach: They wanted to separate from the Church of England entirely. Mayflower passengers (at least those passengers belonging to the Pilgrim's church in Leyden) are properly classified as Separatists and referred to themselves as such (the term "Pilgrim" was tacked on later by historians). Many were not merely seekers of religious freedom but rather strict fundamentalists who were intent on building their version of the "Kingdom of God," in the New World. Moreover, the Pilgrim Separatists only numbered 35 of the 102 settlers aboard the Mayflower. The rest were ordinary folk seeking their fortunes in the new colony.
Myth 2a: The Pilgrims discovered unoccupied wilderness, which with hard work, they cleared and settled
Myth 2b (this one is more recent): The Pilgrims stole the land for their Colony from the Indians, and mistreated them
Historical Evidence: Little or nothing appears in school texts about a monumental event that happened in New England from 1616-1619 when a "plague" (most likely Smallpox introduced by European visitors) killed 90% of the Indian population. When the "Plimouth Colonie" was founded in 1620/21, the Indians were decimated and could offer no resistance. However, the Pilgrims hardly started from scratch in the wilderness. Throughout New England, American Indians had burned the underbrush and cleared the fields, which they used to grow corn. The town of New Plimouth was actually none other than Squanto's village of Patuxet, which was almost entirely wiped out by the plague (Squanto survived because he was earlier kidnapped by European explorers and taken to Europe, where he learned English, prior to escaping and making his way back to his hometown). The colonists appropriated the cornfields. Moreover, they raided and robbed Indian houses (New England Indians did not live in teepees) and dug up Indian graves, from which they took bows, dishes, bowls, and other items. Incidentally, the Pilgrims were well aware of the plague. Indeed, King James and the Pilgrims gave thanks to the plague, which, to them, was proof that God was on their side. At the same time, it should be noted that Pilgrim-Indian relations mostly started on a positive note and remained that way throughout the first generation's lifetime (about 50 years). The Plymouth colonists usually paid the Indians for their land. Moreover, in some instances, they settled Indian towns because the Indians invited them to do so, as protection against another tribe. They did not cause the plague and were as baffled about its origins as the Indians, and like the Indians, suffered from diseases such as scurvy and pneumonia, so much so that half of them died within their first year.
Myth 3: The "first" Thanksgiving in 1621 was the first such celebration
Historical Evidence: Eastern Indians had observed Autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries. There were also harvest festivals and feasts in Europe for centuries. The first Thanksgiving in Plymouth was likely a combination of the two traditions. Moreover, since the first settled European colony was in Virginia in 1607 - not Massachusetts in 1620/1 - the Jamestown Colony might have well celebrated their survival with such a group feast.
Myth 4: The first Thanksgiving was called "Thanksgiving"
Historical Evidence: The word "Thanksgiving" was not applied to any feasts like the celebration that took place between the Pilgrims and the Indians. A 1636 law recorded in Plymouth County Records mentioned "..solemn days of humiliation by fastings, etc., and also for thanksgiving as occasion shall be offered." Stratton presents that a "thanksgiving" was a religious end to a fasting period, and refers to another book, W.D.D. Love's "Fast and Thanksgiving Days In New England" (1896) for other data.
Myth 5: The Mayflower passengers always wore black and white clothes, without any color, and had big buckles.
Historical Evidence: Wearing only colorless clothing was occasionally a Puritan extreme, but not one endorsed by Separatists.
When a Mayflower passenger died, an inventory of the person's estate was taken by the Court, for purposes of probate. These inventories show that John Howland had two red waistcoats. William Bradford had a green gown, violet cloak, lead colored suit with silver buttons, and a red waistcoat. And William Brewster had green drawers, a red cap, and a violet coat. Black, white, grey, and brown were by far the most common colors worn by the Pilgrims, but were definitely not the only colors. The Pilgrims did not have buckles on their clothing, shoes, or hats. Buckles did not come into fashion until the late 1600s--more appropriate for the Salem Witchcraft trials time period than for the Pilgrims time period. Despite the ample historical records, the clothes worn by the Pilgrims during the first Thanksgiving continue to be misrepresented, even by educational websites, like this one: click here Of course, some educational websites, like this Scholastic one, do get it right: click here
Myth 6: Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgims and their descendents every year thereafter, until the present day.
Historical evidence: The Pilgrims had the "first" Thanksgiving, but it was never made into an annual event. When William Bradford's History Of Plymouth Plantation was rediscovered in 1854, it brought a lot of interest and attention to the Pilgrims history. Encouraged by the lobbying of Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
For many, if not all, American Indians, Thanksgiving is not a time of celebration but a time of sadness and regret -- a yearly reminder of how European settlers changed their way of life. Many of them are, in the words of Frank James, "working toward a better America, a more Indian America, where people and nature once again are important.” I don’t want to romanticize Native culture, but this is a vision I want to embrace. Learning the real history seems like a reasonable first step. The rest of the journey? I’m still trying to figure that out.