Let’s begin with a holiday that’s all American, wholesome, family-oriented, and brings out the best in us. Or, conversely, a stressful, be grudgingly multiethnic, polyglot, emotionally charged day that get us longing for tomorrow.
Super Bowl Sunday.
Sorry, as a Giants fan, it is wishful thinking. Of course I mean Thanksgiving, the annual late November ritual where we give thanks to God/Yahweh/G*d/Allah/the Force/etc. for all the good blessings of the year.
This is, obviously, followed by gorging on his divine good bounty until we get the coronary that will ultimately send us to our maker. God has a funny way of accepting gratitude.
He also has a sense of humor in concocting the myths behind this celebration. As children, we have all been drilled in the mantra of the Pilgrims. Let’s recap for those unfamiliar:
In 1620, 102 God-fearing English souls—dressed as if from a Rembrandt canvas—set sail on that grandiose vessel the Mayflower to seek a land where they can worship God in their own way (as long as nobody else says otherwise). They land on Plymouth Rock (which must’ve done wonders for the ship’s undercarriage) and began the hard existence of life. The first winter was brutal and cold, and it was not until they met the kindly “Indian” Squanto, who showed them the wonders of maize and hunting, that the little colony was spared. In 1621, to give thanks for their good fortune, the Pilgrims invite the Wampanoag, led by the kind Massasoit, to enjoy a bountiful meal, complete with turkeys raised with pop-up timers. They lived together as friends (cue the smallpox blankets) and we have celebrated ever since.
Please wipe your feet to avoid tracking the bullshit on the carpet.
Okay, so like so many things, Thanksgiving is a lie teachers told you. Not entirely, but it is the case here. Let’s take this myth and break it apart piece by piece.
Myth # 1—The Pilgrims came to seek religious freedom.
In the 17th Century, there was no such thing—not in Europe, America, or anywhere else. Even swinging Holland, known for its tolerance, had an official Calvinist religion; one which viewed outsiders as an irritant best avoided.
The Pilgrims were no exception: they were so radical even Puritans avoided them—that’s fucking radical.
The Pilgrims practiced Separatism, which meant they wanted to completely separate from the Church of England and establish their own theocratic hell in the land of their choosing. This differed from the Puritans, who wanted the Church of England to be “purified” into their theocratic hell, which was better than the Anglican theocratic hell, which was better than the Lutheran theocratic hell, which was light years better than the idolatrous Catholic theocratic hell and the (God Forbid) Muslim theocratic hell.
They can all go to hell, for all I care.
Anyway, the Pilgrims were getting persecuted, that’s true. To avoid English rule, they did establish themselves in Leiden, the Netherlands—also true. Yet here’s the second part of the story: The Pilgrims ultimately left for America for two reasons. First, to establish a hell as described above. Second, to make sure their kids don’t grow up Dutch: speaking a phlegm-based language looking like a Vermeer portrait and being all tolerant and such.
Myth # 2—everybody on the Mayflower were Pilgrims who wanted religious freedom.
There were, in fact, non-Separatists on the voyage, along with the captain and crew of the ship. Only 27 of the 70 adults on the voyage were Separatists. The rest were in no mood for Jesus. On the contrary, their mood was for a quick buck. Some came to establish a homestead in the New World. Others came to find the gold that the bozos in Virginia seemed to miss. All these people would chafe at the Pilgrims’ “religious freedom”—which would actually cause resentment and exits from the colony.
Myth # 3—the Pilgrims were heading to Virginia, but were blown off course.
This is kind of true. The Mayflower was blown off course, but the course was not present-day Virginia. The Virginia Company claimed the land north of Jamestown including the mouth of the Hudson River. The ultimate destination of the Pilgrims would be present-day New York.
In a weird twist of irony, in 1619 the Dutch West India Company offered to settle the Pilgrims in New Netherland, their colony in North America located on the exact same spot of their supposed landing. The Pilgrim leaders declined, wishing to not further the “corruption” of their youth with Dutch influences. Delft tiles, prim black clothing and actually making money doing business is a scary thing, I suppose.
Myth # 3—the Natives welcomed the Pilgrims with open arms.
The Native tribes were suspicious of these newcomers, and with good reason. Between 1617 and 1619 English fishermen in the area exposed the local people to smallpox, which devastated the numbers of Narragansett, Pawtuxet and Wampanoag populations. Furthermore, the Pilgrims stole corn stores from villages that were deserted due to the disease, which couldn’t have made the locals pleased.
In fact, the Wampanoag were actually looking for a strategic advantage in befriending the newcomers. They still outnumbered the new settlers, which meant that any false move and they could quickly dispatch them, as they weren’t much of a threat. The settlers’ weakened condition after the winter of 1620-1621 further tipped the cards in Massasoit’s favor. Also, Massasoit knew that these people could be a powerful ally in their constant battles with neighboring tribes such as the Narragansett, the Pequot and the Mohegan—who obviously had not yet learned the pacifying power of all-night gambling.
Over the years after 1621, and especially after Massasoit died, the Plymouth colony would take advantage of the Wampanoag to gain more land for the ever-increasing numbers of settlers that were arriving from England. By the time Massasoit’s son Metacomet, or King Philip, took over the tribe in 1662, enough was enough. The subsequent war, King Philip’s War, would ravage New England between 1675 and 1676, and would be among the bloodiest of native conflicts in North America.
Massasoit should’ve gotten that drumstick, after all.
Myth # 4—the first Thanksgiving was a mutual celebration between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag to celebrate their mutual good fortune.
For this, we’ll turn to two primary sources. The following is an account from a 1621 book entitled Mourt’s Relation, or A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England. It was primarily written by Edward Winslow, a Separatist who did much of the communication between the colony and the Wampanoag. This is his account:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” – Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation (1621)
According to Winslow, the whole celebration happened by accident. The Pilgrims went out hunting for their harvest celebration, found the Wampanoag wandering in their midst, and basically made an impromptu invitation to dine with them. The three-day event was full of entertaining, feasting, and hunting—apparently the Wampanoag brought five deer to the event.
Here’s another, probably better known account. The following comes from the now-legendary 1647 work Of Plimoth Plantation, written by acclaimed Pilgrim leader William Bradford. Edward Winslow was Bradford’s assistant in communicating with the native tribes. This is Bradford’s account:
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.” – William Bradford. Of Plimoth Plantation (1647)
Bradford writes of abundance and good fortune, yet no mention of a celebration. This good fortune may even be contrived—this was published some 26 years after the fact, so Bradford’s eye may be a bit more glassed over.
The point is the celebratory feast we envision as the first “Thanksgiving” may have simply been an English harvest feast that was crashed by the Wampanoag. Or it may have never really happened at all. Nonetheless, whatever happened, it bore almost no relation to the modern holiday, which leads to the last myth.
Myth # 5—America has been celebrating Thanksgiving ever since the Pilgrims.
To honor the real founder of the holiday, kids should be wearing beards and tall hats instead of feathers and buckled shoes.
Although individual Presidents have proclaimed days of Thanksgiving from time to time, and some states even creating their own Thanksgiving holiday, it wasn’t until the Civil War that a national holiday was created. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November as a day of prayer and Thanksgiving. Given the national mood of the time, it was sorely needed.
Yet it didn’t stop future leaders from monkeying with the date.
Franklin Roosevelt, in an attempt to stimulate the Depression-era economy, proposed moving Thanksgiving a week earlier in 1939. Republicans would have none of it, resisting Democratic moves to sully old Abe’s Thanksgiving in the name of economic recovery. For a number of years, there were two Thanksgivings, depending on your political party. The mix-up was straightened out by the time we entered World War II in 1941.
You may be asking yourself, “Mr. D, how do we know the information you’re giving us isn’t bullshit?”
Good question. Here’s some links to back up my bullshit, with more information:
Plimoth Plantation is one of the few historical re-enactments that cut through the crap pretty well. Their work is thoroughly researched and documented, and actively strives to provide a balanced look at life in the early colony. Look at their Education sublink for their online education center which features their “You are the Historian” section, which kids will love.
The Plymouth Colony entry in Research Starters from Scholastic provides a great overview of the topic, followed by links to articles and to other websites for further study.
The Plymouth Colony Archives Project was a historical archaeology project started at the University of Virginia, but now housed at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. It is a magnificent repository of primary records about the colony and its settlers.