What is it about the story of “The First Thanksgiving” that makes it essential to be taught in virtually every grade from preschool through high school? What is it about the story that is so seductive? Why has it become an annual elementary school tradition to hold Thanksgiving pageants, with young children dressing up in paper-bag costumes and feather-duster headdresses and marching around the schoolyard? Why is it seen as necessary for fake “pilgrims” and fake “Indians” (portrayed by real children, many of whom are Indian) to sit down every year to a fake feast, acting out fake scenarios and reciting fake dialogue about friendship? And why do teachers all over the country continue (for the most part, unknowingly) to perpetuate this myth year after year after year?
Is it because as Americans we have a deep need to believe that the soil we live on and the country on which it is based was founded on integrity and cooperation? This belief would help contradict any feelings of guilt that could haunt us when we look at our role in more recent history in dealing with other indigenous peoples in other countries. If we dare to give up the “myth” we may have to take responsibility for our actions both concerning indigenous peoples of this land as well as those brought to this land in violation of everything that makes us human. The realization of these truths untold might crumble the foundation of what many believe is a true democracy. As good people, can we be strong enough to learn the truths of our collective past? Can we learn from our mistakes? This would be our hope.
We offer these myths and facts to assist students, parents and teachers in thinking critically about this holiday, and deconstructing what we have been taught about the history of this continent and the world. (Note: We have based our “fact” sections in large part on the research, both published and unpublished, that Abenaki scholar Margaret M. Bruchac developed in collaboration with the Wampanoag Indian Program at Plimoth Plantation. We thank Marge for her generosity. We thank Doris Seale and Lakota Harden for their support.)
MYTH #1: “The First Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621.
“Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday. Its traditions began in the New World with a feast shared by the Pilgrims and Native Americans….The Pilgrims decided to have a three-day celebration feast to give thanks for a good harvest. Thus began the first Thanksgiving.”– Judith Stamper, Thanksgiving Fun Activity Book
“In New England the first traditional Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Plymouth colonists.”– Kathy Ross, Crafts for Thanksgiving
“During the fall of 1621, he declared that there would be a feast to celebrate their first bountiful harvest…. Today, we think of that wonderful harvest feast…as the first American Thanksgiving. (Although for them Native Americans, it was actually their fifth thanksgiving feast of the year!)”– Deborah Fink, It’s a Family Thanksgiving!
“The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of the Pilgrims’ very first harvest….[The cornucopia reminds] us of the first Thanksgiving when Pilgrims gave thanks for their first rich harvest in the New World.”– Janice Kinnealy, Let’s Celebrate Thanksgiving, A Book of Drawing Fun
“The feast at Plymouth in 1621 is often called The First Thanksgiving.”– Robert Merrill Bartlett, The Story of Thanksgiving
“The pilgrims wanted to give thanks for all the good food. That was the first Thanksgiving.”– Karen Gray Ruelle, The Thanksgiving Beast Feast
Fact: No one knows when the “first” thanksgiving occurred. People have been giving thanks for as long as people have existed. Indigenous nations all over the world have celebrations of the harvest that come from very old traditions; for Native peoples, thanksgiving comes not once a year, but every day, for all the gifts of life. To refer to the harvest feast of 1621 as “The First Thanksgiving” disappears Indian peoples in the eyes of non-Native children.
MYTH #2: The people who came across the ocean on the Mayflower were called Pilgrims.
“The Pilgrims lived in England.”– Robert Merrill Bartlett, The Story of Thanksgiving
“The first group of newcomers was called the Pilgrims.”– David F. Marx, Thanksgiving
“Once upon a time in the land of England, there lived a small group of people called Pilgrims. The Pilgrims were unhappy, because…”– Katherine Ross, The Story of the Pilgrims
“Many, many years ago some people who called themselves Pilgrims left England to find a new home.”– Lou Rogers, The First Thanksgiving
“The people were called Pilgrims.”– Ann McGovern, The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving
“The Pilgrims sailed on a ship called the Mayflower.”– Judy Donnelly, The Pilgrims and Me
“Many years ago, the Pilgrims came to America.”– Pat Whitehead, Best Thanksgiving Book, ABC Adventures
“These are the Pilgrims, who farmed the new land,…”– Rhonda Gowler Greene, The Very First Thanksgiving Day
“Thanksgiving reminds people of the Pilgrims many years ago.”– Gail Gibbons, Thanksgiving Day
“The Pilgrims!’ said Squanto. ‘Pilgrims?’ said Ocomo.”– Clyde Robert Bulla, Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims
“1 little, 2 little, 3 little Pilgrims, 4 little, 5 little, 6 little Pilgrims,…– B.G. Hennessy, One Little, Two Little, Three Little Pilgrims
Fact: The Plimoth settlers did not refer to themselves as “Pilgrims.” Pilgrims are people who travel for religious reasons, such as Muslims who make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Most of those who arrived here from England were religious dissidents who had broken away from the Church of England. They called themselves “Saints”; others called them “Separatists.” Some of the settlers were “Puritans,” dissidents but not separatists who wanted to “purify” the Church. It wasn’t until around the time of the American Revolution that the name “Pilgrims” came to be associated with the Plimoth settlers, and the “Pilgrims” became the symbol of American morality and Christian faith, fortitude, and family. (1)
MYTH #3: The colonists came seeking freedom of religion in a new land.
“The Pilgrims wanted their own religion….So the Pilgrims decided to leave England.”– Linda Hayward, The First Thanksgiving
“The Pilgrims had left England because King James did not want them to practice their own religion. They were in search of a new home.”– Garnet Jackson, The First Thanksgiving
“They left their old country because they could not pray the way they wanted.”– Ann McGovern, The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving
“The Pilgrims wanted to worship God in their own way…”– Gail Gibbons, Thanksgiving Day
“‘They are people who want to have their own church and be free,’ said Squanto. ‘I heard of them in London.'”– Clyde Robert Bulla, Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims
Fact: The colonists were not just innocent refugees from religious persecution. By 1620, hundreds of Native people had already been to England and back, most as captives; so the Plimoth colonists knew full well that the land they were settling on was inhabited. Nevertheless, their belief system taught them that any land that was “unimproved” was “wild” and theirs for the taking; that the people who lived there were roving heathens with no right to the land. Both the Separatists and Puritans were rigid fundamentalists who came here fully intending to take the land away from its Native inhabitants and establish a new nation, their “Holy Kingdom.” The Plimoth colonists were never concerned with “freedom of religion” for anyone but themselves. (2)
MYTH #4: When the “Pilgrims” landed, they first stepped foot on “Plymouth Rock.”
“The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.”– Kathy Ross, Crafts for Thanksgiving
“On December 11, 1620, the Pilgrim men landed on Plymouth Harbor beach, jumped into the icy waves and, fighting the sea and wind, secured the shallop to Plymouth Harbour’s glacial rock.”– Jean Craighead George, The First Thanksgiving
“The old story says that when the Pilgrims first came ashore, they stepped on a big rock – Plymouth Rock.”– Judy Donnelly, The Pilgrims and Me
“Sarah told how all the Pilgrims were thankful when they finally reached land. They named a big rock Plymouth Rock, after the place they came from in England.”– Anne Rockwell, Thanksgiving Day
“Here a brook flows into the harbor. A big rock marks the landing. They will call this place New Plymouth.”– Linda Hayward, The First Thanksgiving
“This is the harbor, marked by a huge stone where first steps were taken to chart the unknown,…”– Rhonda Gowler Greene, The Very First Thanksgiving Day
“The Pilgrims came/To Plymouth Rock/One snowy, cold December…”– Nan Roloff, The First American Thanksgiving
“On top of the gravel the glacier deposited huge boulders it had carried from distant places. One settled in Plymouth Harbor….A wandering pilgrim, it left its home in Africa two hundred million years ago….Eons later, battered by glaciers, all 200 tons of it came to rest in lonely splendor, on a sandy beach in a cove. This boulder is Plymouth Rock….Yet to Americans, Plymouth Rock is a symbol. It is larger than the mountains, wider than the prairies and stronger than all our rivers. It is the rock on which our nation began.”– Jean Craighead George, The First Thanksgiving
“Whether the Pilgrims really stepped ashore onto this particular rock is open to question. But perhaps that is unimportant. Plymouth Rock is a symbol – a symbol of faith and hope and of something to be relied on. As such, it might be called a symbol of the Pilgrims themselves, the brave men, women, and children who worked together to found Plymouth.”– Edna Barth, Turkeys, Pilgrims, and Indian Corn: A Story of the Thanksgiving Symbols
Fact: When the colonists landed, they sought out a sandy inlet in which to beach the little shallop that carried them from the Mayflower to the mainland. This shallop would have been smashed to smithereens had they docked at a rock, especially a Rock. Although the Plimoth settlers built their homes just up the hill from the Rock, William Bradford in Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, does not even mention the Rock; writing only that they “unshipped our shallop and drew her on land.” (3) The actual “rock” is a slab of Dedham granodiorite placed there by a receding glacier some 20,000 years ago. It was first referred to in a town surveying record in 1715, almost 100 years after the landing. Since then, the Rock has been moved, cracked in two, pasted together, carved up, chipped apart by tourists, cracked again, and now rests as a memorial to something that never happened. (4)
It’s quite possible that the myth about the “Pilgrims” landing on a “Rock” originated as a reference to the New Testament of the Christian bible, in which Jesus says to Peter, “And I say also unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) The appeal to these scriptures gives credence to the sanctity of colonization and the divine destiny of the dominant culture. Although the colonists were not dominant then, they behaved as though they were.
MYTH #5: The Pilgrims found corn.
“During their first hard year in America, the Pilgrims found corn buried in the sand of Cape Cod. The corn had been stored there by Native Americans. This important find gave the Pilgrims seeds to plant – and these became the seeds for survival.”– Judith Stamper, Thanksgiving Fun Activity Book
“On their way back they found Indian graves and some Indian corn.”– Edna Barth, Turkeys, Pilgrims, and Indian Corn: The Story of the Thanksgiving Symbols
“The men dug down into [a hill of sand] and – there was a little old basket filled with corn! Now they had corn to plant. They found other baskets. These were big baskets, and it took two men to carry one. They filled their pockets with corn.– Alice Dalgliesh, The Thanksgiving Story
“The men keep exploring. They find wonderful things – corn, baskets, a spring.”– Linda Hayward, The First Thanksgiving
“Governor Carver meted out five kernels of Indian corn to each person once a day. The scouts had found the corn stored in reed baskets in the sand of Cape Cod.”– Jean Craighead George, The First Thanksgiving
“The Pilgrims showed Massasoit some fine baskets they had found in the village. The baskets were full of seed corn.”– Kate Jassem, Squanto: The Pilgrim Adventure, Troll Communications (1979)
Fact: Just a few days after landing, a party of about 16 settlers led by Captain Myles Standish followed a Nauset trail and came upon an iron kettle and a cache of Indian corn buried in the sand. They made off with the corn and returned a few days later with reinforcements. This larger group “found” a larger store of corn, about ten bushels, and took it. They also “found” several graves, and, according to Mourt’s Relation, “brought sundry of the prettiest things away” from a child’s grave and then covered up the corpse. They also “found” two Indian dwellings and “some of the best things we took away with us.” (5) There is no record that restitution was ever made for the stolen corn, and the Wampanoag did not soon forget the colonists’ ransacking of Indian graves. (6)
MYTH #6: Samoset appeared out of nowhere, and along with Squanto became friends with the Pilgrims. Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive and joined them at “The First Thanksgiving.”
“When Spring came, two men named Squanto and Samoset appeared and made friends with the surviving Pilgrims.”– Robert Merrill Bartlett, The Story of Thanksgiving
“One day, three Native Americans came to visit. One named Squanto stayed to help the Pilgrims.”– Nancy J. Skarmeas, The Story of Thanksgiving
“Squanto liked the Pilgrims. He could see that they needed help. He helped the Pilgrims make friends with the other Indians.”– Teresa Celsi, Squanto and the First Thanksgiving
“A tall Indian was walking into Plymouth. ‘Welcome, Englishmen,’ he said. …He carried a bow and two arrows. His black hair hung long in back. The Indian called himself Samoset….He was eager to talk to the Pilgrims….The Pilgrims were glad to have Samoset as a friend.”– Judith Bauer Stamper, New Friends in a New Land
“Squanto was the Pilgrims’ teacher and friend. He helped save their lives and made sure their little settlement survived in the rocky New England soil. By saving the Pilgrims, Squanto became one of our first American heroes.”– Deborah Fink, It’s a Family Thanksgiving!
“An Indian named Squanto turned out to be a special friend. He taught the Pilgrims many things…”– Katherine Ross, The Story of the Pilgrims
“Then one day an Indian walks right into the settlement. The children are terrified. But the Indian smiles and says, ‘Welcome.’ His name is Samoset. He speaks English! He learned it from sea captains….Samoset comes back with an Indan named Squanto. Squanto speaks even better English! He likes the Pilgrims and he decides to live with them. He shows them how to survive in the wilderness…”– Linda Hayward, The First Thanksgiving
“I must have been quite a shock one March day when all of a sudden a Native American walked right into the Pilgrims’ little village. The Pilgrims must have been even more amazed when he started speaking English! His name was Samoset and he was a member of the Wampanoag tribe.”– Deborah Fink, It’s a Family Thanksgiving!
“Squanto spoke really good English. He had even been to England. Squanto had no family, so he acted as though the Pilgrims were his family. He liked them so much he came to live at Plymouth.”– Judith Donnelly, The Pilgrims and Me
“Squanto had been to England with some sailors. He could talk English. Squanto lived with the Pilgrims. Squanto was a good friend. He showed the Pilgrims…”– Lou Rogers, The First Thanksgiving
“One Indian decided to stay with the Pilgrims. He spoke English. His name was Squanto….The Pilgrims praised God for sending Squanto to them.”– Elaine Raphael and Don Bolognese, The Story of the First Thanksgiving
“Squanto decided to stay in Plymouth and help the Pilgrims. He became their guide and translator, and he showed them how to catch fish and find food. The Pilgrims called their new friend ‘a special instrument sent of God.'”– Anne Kamma, If you Were At… The First Thanksgiving
“One day, a kind Indian came to the Pilgrims’ village. He like the Pilgrims and wanted to help them. Soon, more Indians came. They were nice and showed the Pilgrims how to….”– Pat Whitehead, Best Thanksgiving Book: ABC Adventures
“The Pilgrims made a good friend who helped them. His name was Squanto. Squanto was one of the people who had lived near Plymouth years before the white men came. He taught the Pilgrims everything about the land he knew so well.”– Ann McGovern, The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving
“One day an Indian walked right into town and said, ‘Welcome.’…This Indian was friendly and he spoke English! The Pilgrims gave him presents, and he came back with more Indians. One was named Squanto.”– Judy Donnelly, The Pilgrims and Me
“Later [Samoset] brought another Indian named Squanto, who spoke better English, because he had been taken to England on a ship.”– Alice Dalgliesh, The Thanksgiving Story
“The sole survivor of the Pawtuxet tribe of the Plymouth area, Squanto had spent several years in England and could speak the language.”– Edna Barth, Turkeys, Pilgrims, and Indian Corn: The Story of the Thanksgiving Symbols
“Squanto was their special friend. He taught the Pilgrims many useful things, like…”– Janice Kinnealy, Let’s Celebrate Thanksgiving: A Book of Drawing Fun
Fact: Samoset, an eastern Abenaki chief, was the first to contact the Plimoth colonists. He was investigating the settlement to gather information and report to Massasoit, the head sachem in the Wampanoag territory. In his hand, Samoset carried two arrows: one blunt and one pointed. The question to the settlers was: are you friend or foe? Samoset brought Tisquantum (Squanto), one of the few survivors of the original Wampanoag village of Pawtuxet, to meet the English and keep an eye on them. Tisquantum had been taken captive by English captains several years earlier, and both he and Samoset spoke English. Tisquantum agreed to live among the colonists and serve as a translator. Massasoit also sent Hobbamock and his family to live near the colony to keep an eye on the settlement and also to watch Tisquantum, whom Massasoit did not trust. The Wampanoag oral tradition says that Massasoit ordered Tisquantum killed after he tried to stir up the English against the Wampanoag. Massasoit himself lost face after his years of dealing with the English only led to warfare and land grabs. Tisquantum is viewed by Wampanoag people as a traitor, for his scheming against other Native people for his own gain. Massasoit is viewed as a wise and generous leader whose affection for the English may have led him to be too tolerant of their ways. (7)
MYTH #7: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to celebrate the First Thanksgiving.
“A company of men had been sent to the Indian village with the invitation to the feast.”– Cheryl Harness, Three Young Pilgrims
“The Pilgrims invited Native Americans to the first Thanksgiving.”– David F. Marx, Thanksgiving
“The Pilgrims invited their Native American friends to a great feast.”– Nancy J. Skarmeas, The Story of Thanksgiving
“The new governor, William Bradford, asked Squanto to invite Massasoit and a few friends to a feast.”– Jean Craighead George, The First Thanksgiving
“There was a lot to be thankful for, so they decided to have a big feast and invite Massasoit. They asked him to bring some friends.”– Judy Donnelly, The Pilgrims and Me
“‘Join us,’ they said to the Indians. Join us in a big feast of Thanksgiving. It will be a very special holiday.'”– Pat Whitehead, Best Thanksgiving Book, ABC Adventures
“The harvest was/So plentiful/The Pilgrims were delighted – /They prepared to have/A giant feast,/And the Indians were invited.”– Nan Roloff, The First American Thanksgiving
“The Pilgrims especially wanted to thank the Indians for the help they had given them. So they asked them to come to their Thanksgiving celebration.”– Margot Parker, What Is Thanksgiving Day?
“The people said,… “We will have a feast and invite our Indian friends.”– Lou Rogers, The First Thanksgiving
“The Pilgrims decided to have…a party. They invited the Wampanoag to join them.”– Mir Tamim Ansary, Thanksgiving Day
“To celebrate, the Pilgrims decided to have a big party – a harvest festival. And they invited their new Indian friends to join them.”– Anne Kamma, If You Were At…The First Thanksgiving
“They decided to have a Thanksgiving feast. The Pilgrims invited their Indian friends.”– Gail Gibbons, Thanksgiving Day
“We invited the Indians to a Thanksgiving feast.”– William Accorsi, Friendship’s First Thanksgiving
Fact: According to oral accounts from the Wampanoag people, when the Native people nearby first heard the gunshots of the hunting colonists, they thought that the colonists were preparing for war and that Massasoit needed to be informed. When Massasoit showed up with 90 men and no women or children, it can be assumed that he was being cautious. When he saw there was a party going on, his men then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. (8)
In addition, both the Wampanoag and the English settlers were long familiar with harvest celebrations. Long before the Europeans set foot on these shores, Native peoples gave thanks every day for all the gifts of life, and held thanksgiving celebrations and giveaways at certain times of the year. The Europeans also had days of thanksgiving, marked by religious services. So the coming together of two peoples to share food and company was not entirely a foreign thing for either. But the visit that by all accounts lasted three days was most likely one of a series of political meetings to discuss and secure a military alliance. Neither side totally trusted the other: The Europeans considered the Wampanoag soulless heathens and instruments of the devil, and the Wampanoag had seen the Europeans steal their seed corn and rob their graves. In any event, neither the Wampanoag nor the Europeans referred to this feast/meeting as “Thanksgiving.” (9)
MYTH #8: The Pilgrims provided the food for their Indian friends.
“The Wampanoag smoked their pipes, tasted English cooking, and presented a dance to the Pilgrims.”– Judith Stamper, Thanksgiving Fun Activity Book
“The pilgrims hunted wild turkeys. They picked fruits and berries. When there was enough food, they all had a feast.”– Karen Gray Ruelle, The Thanksgiving Beast Feast
“They knew they could never have survived without the Indians, so the Pilgrims invited the Indians to join them in a feast.”– Katherine Ross, The Story of the Pilgrims
“The twelve women of New Plymouth began great preparations. From the kitchens came the savory smell of roasting geese and turkey. An abundance of corn bread and hasty pudding was being prepared. Stewed eels, boiled lobsters, and juicy clam stews simmered over the fires. Before the feast, Squanto was sent with an invitation to Massasoit and his chiefs….The Indians were in no hurry to go home as long as the food held out, and the holiday-making carried on for three days.”– James Daugherty, The Landing of the Pilgrims
Fact: It is known that when Massasoit showed up with 90 men and saw there was a party going on, they then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. Though the details of this event have become clouded in secular mythology, judging by the inability of the settlers to provide for themselves at this time and Edward Winslow’s letter of 1622 (10), it is most likely that Massasoit and his people provided most of the food for this “historic” meal. (11)
MYTH #9: The Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn.
“… [T]he corn and sweet berries, the wild turkey dressed….”– Rhonda Gowler Greene, The Very First Thanksgiving Day
“Pilgrim women also invented many ways to sweeten the bitter berries for food. The most popular recipe passed down from them is cranberry sauce.”– Judith Stamper, Thanksgiving Fun Activity Book
“[Squanto] even showed [the Pilgrims] how to make [corn] pop for a tasty treat called ‘popcorn.’…There were all kinds of wonderful foods to eat: turkey, squash, corn, clams, pumpkin, and more.”– Janice Kinnealy, Let’s Celebrate Thanksgiving, A Book of Drawing Fun
“We do know the meal included deer, oysters, boiled pumpkin, corn, and cranberries.”– David F. Marx, Thanksgiving
“There were meat pies, wheat breads, and corn puddings. There were berries, grapes, dried plums, and nuts.”– Garnet Jackson, The First Thanksgiving
“There was also cod and bass. Lobsters boiled in big iron pots. Oysters and clams roasted in the coals. The women made cornmeal cakes and biscuits of course wheat flour. There were salads of watercress and leeks. And there were squash, pumpkins and dried berries.”– Robert Merrill Bartlett, The Story of Thanksgiving
“The Pilgrims collected fish, lobsters, oysters, and clams from the shore. There were carrots, onions, beans, berries, and dried fruit.”– Robert Merrill Bartlett, The Story of Thanksgiving
“Many tables are filled with the same foods the Pilgrims and Indians shared. There is cranberry sauce and a big turkey stuffed with breadcrumbs, herbs, and nuts. Also there are sweet potatoes, beans, squash, and cornbread. Sometimes there is a tasty pumpkin pie for dessert.”– Gail Gibbons, Thanksgiving Day
“He sent men out to shoot turkeys and ducks. The women baked. … Massasoit arrived the day of the feast with five deer and many turkeys. With him were not just a few guests, as expected, but ninety. For a moment the cooks were shocked. Then they recovered and quickly went to work. More bread was baked, more vegetables were cooked, more turkeys were stuffed with bread and cranberries.”– Jean Craighead George, The First Thanksgiving
“They had prepared several kinds of meat and fish, corn and pumpkin dishes, cranberries, and more. Still, there was not going to be enough food for so many. When the chief saw that more food would be needed,,.he sent some of his men out. They returned with five deer, turkeys, corn, squash, beans and berries. It was a true potluck dinner!”– Deborah Fink, It’s a Family Thanksgiving!
“Everyone eats so much – turkey, lobster, goose, deer meat, onions, pumpkin, corn bread, berries.”– Linda Hayward, The First Thanksgiving
“Fat geese and wild turkeys roasted slowly over the fire. Pies and corn bread baked in the outdoor ovens.”– Elaine Raphael and Don Bolognese, The Story of the First Thanksgiving
“Turkey, cornbread, cranberry stuffing,/Pumpkin, cider, Indian pudding./Clams and oysters – tummies growling.”– B.G. Hennessy, One Little, Two Little, Three Little Pilgrims
“[American Indians] showed [the Pilgrims] how to make popcorn.”– Karen Gray Ruelle, The Thanksgiving Beast Feast
“From the gardens they gathered cucumbers, carrots and cabbages, turnips and radishes, onions and beets. Corn was cooked in many ways. There was popcorn, too! There were wild fruits for dessert. Thanksgiving was a time for eating and for sharing.”– Ann McGovern, The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving
“There was enough good food for everybody. They had deer, turkeys, geese, ducks, fish, and clams. They had corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, plums, grapes, nuts, cranberries, and corn cakes.”– Lou Rogers, The First Thanksgiving
“The Pilgrims baked and baked. They made good things to eat. The Pilgrims went to the lake for fish and to the hills for turkeys. They all made food for the big feast.”– Teresa Celsi, Squanto and the First Thanksgiving
“There was eel and cod and lobster and quahogs and mussels and wild turkey and cranberries and succotash and berry pies.”– Eric Metaxas, Squanto and the First Thanksgiving
“They ate stewed eels. They ate cod and sea bass, their favorite fish.”– Anne Kamma, If You Were At…The First Thanksgiving
Fact: Both written and oral evidence show that what was actually consumed at the harvest festival in 1621 included venison (since Massasoit and his people brought five deer), wild fowl, and quite possibly nasaump – dried corn pounded and boiled into a thick porridge, and pompion – cooked, mashed pumpkin. Among the other food that would have been available, fresh fruits such as plums, grapes, berries and melons would have been out of season. It would have been too cold to dig for clams or fish for eels or small fish. There were no boats to fish for lobsters in rough water that was about 60 fathoms deep. There was not enough of the barley crop to make a batch of beer, nor was there a wheat crop. Potatoes and sweet potatoes didn’t get from the south up to New England until the 18th century, nor did sweet corn. Cranberries would have been too tart to eat without sugar to sweeten them, and that’s probably why they wouldn’t have had pumpkin pie, either. Since the corn of the time could not be successfully popped, there was no popcorn. (12)
MYTH #10: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.
“The Indians and Pilgrims agreed to live in Peace. Together they hunted quail and turkey.”– Pat Whitehead, Best Thanksgiving Book, ABC Adventures
“Then in friendship/And goodwill,/The braves and Pilgrims parted./And that’s how/The tradition/Of Thanksgiving Day got started!”– Nan Roloff, The First American Thanksgiving
“The Pilgrims lived in peace with their Indian neighbors.”– Janice Kinnealy, Let’s Celebrate Thanksgiving, A Book of Drawing Fun
“They had food and houses and warm fires. The Indians were their friends. They were free in this new land.”– Alice Dalgliesh, The Thanksgiving Story
“How thankful they are! They have food, and shelter, and new friends, the Indians. The Pilgrims decide to invite the Indians to a thanksgiving feast.”– Linda Hayward, The First Thanksgiving
“The Pilgrims knew it was time to give thanks to God and their Indian friends. They decided to have a harvest feast.”– Judith Bauer Stamper, New Friends in a New Land
“All of the Pilgrims took part. So did their Indian friends.”– Ann McGovern, The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving
“12 tables groaning/beneath a harvest spread – /Wampanoag and Pilgrim friends/together will break bread./Joined under one sky/with one prayer to say – /a prayer of thanks for all they have/this first Thanksgiving Day.”– Laura Krauss Melmed, This First Thanksgiving Day: A Counting Story
“Together the Pilgrims and Indians lived in peace and grew in friendship.”– Elaine Raphael and Don Bolognese, The Story of the First Thanksgiving
Fact: A mere generation later, the balance of power had shifted so enormously and the theft of land by the European settlers had become so egregious that the Wampanoag were forced into battle. In 1637, English soldiers massacred some 700 Pequot men, women and children at Mystic Fort, burning many of them alive in their homes and shooting those who fled. The colony of Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony observed a day of thanksgiving commemorating the massacre. By 1675, there were some 50,000 colonists in the place they had named “New England.” That year, Metacom, a son of Massasoit, one of the first whose generosity had saved the lives of the starving settlers, led a rebellion against them. By the end of the conflict known as “King Philip’s War,” most of the Indian peoples of the Northeast region had been either completely wiped out, sold into slavery, or had fled for safety into Canada. Shortly after Metacom’s death, Plimoth Colony declared a day of thanksgiving for the English victory over the Indians. (13)
MYTH #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time.
“Today, Thanksgiving is a happy time when families gather together.”– Robert Merrill Bartlett, The Story of Thanksgiving
“It’s a time to remember the Pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving.”– Janice Kinnealy, Let’s Celebrate Thanksgiving, A Book of Drawing Fun
“On Thanksgiving families are thankful for being together to share a special meal.”– Robert Merrill Bartlett, The Story of Thanksgiving
“Thanksgiving is a special day. It’s a time for friends, family and lots of fun. It’s also a time for giving thanks – just as the Indians and Pilgrims did long ago on the first Thanksgiving.”– Judith Conaway, Happy Thanksgiving! Things to Make and Do
“Thanksgiving has always been a holiday to share with those we love. We celebrate the joy of being together, and give thanks for our families and friends.”– Ronne Randall, Thanksgiving Fun: Fun Things to Make and Do
“Thanksgiving reminds us of the little band of people who founded the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. Each November it reopens a favorite chapter in our nation’s history.”– Edna Barth, Turkeys Pilgrims, and Indian Corn: The Story of the Thanksgiving Symbols
“Today, families and friends gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving….No matter how Thanksgiving is celebrated, it is a time for families to feast together and think about all of the reasons they have to give thanks.”– Robert Merrill Bartlett, The Story of Thanksgiving
“On Thanksgiving Day, we join our families and friends for prayer, feasting, and fun.”– Judith Bauer Stamper, New Friends in a New Land: A Thanksgiving Story
“All over the country, people gather their families together and have a feast. They thank God for the good things of the past year. They eat turkey. They remember the brave Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving Day.”– Lou Rogers, The First Thanksgiving
“Today Thanksgiving is celebrated by families and friends enjoying a big Thanksgiving meal….Many families set aside some time to give thanks just as the Pilgrims and Native Americans did so many years ago.”– Kathy Ross, Crafts for Thanksgiving
“Thanksgiving is about more than a big meal. It is a chance to think about what is good in our lives. These are the things we can be thankful for.”– David F. Marx, Thanksgiving
“That was the first Thanksgiving! It’s a story we’ll never forget. It’s something we celebrate every year.”– Anne Rockwell, Thanksgiving Day
Fact: For many Indian people, “Thanksgiving” is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, “Thanksgiving” is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship.
- Correspondence with Abenaki scholar Margaret M. Bruchac. See also Plimoth Plantation, “A Key to Historical and Museum Terms,” “Who Were the Pilgrims?”
- See Note 1.
- See William Bradford’s Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, p. 19.
- Conversation with Douglas Frink, Archaeology Consulting Team, Inc. See also Plimoth Plantation, “The Adventures of Plimoth Rock.”
- See William Bradford’s Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, p. 28.
- See “The Saints Come Sailing In,” in Dorothy W. Davids and Ruth A. Gudinas, “Thanksgiving: A New Perspective (and its Implications in the Classroom)” in Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective, pp. 70-71.
- Correspondence with Margaret M. Bruchac about the relationship Samoset, Tisquantum, Hobbamock, and Massasoit. See also Margaret M. Bruchac and Catherine O’Neill Grace, 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving.
- See Margaret M. Bruchac and Catherine O’Neill Grace, ibid.
- For a description of how the European settlers regarded the Wampanoag, as well as evidence of their theft of seed corn and funerary objects, see Mourt’s Relation. See also Margaret M. Bruchac and Catherine O’Neill Grace, ibid.
- See Edward Winslow, Good Newes from New England: A True Relation of Things Very Remarkable at the Plantation of Plimoth in New England.
- See Duane Champagne, Native America: Portrait of the Peoples. Detroit: Visible Ink (1994), pp. 81-82; and Chuck Larsen, op. cit., p. 51.
- See Plimoth Plantation, “No Popcorn!,” and “A First Thanksgiving Dinner for Today,” See also Margaret M. Bruchac and Catherine O’Neill Grace, op. cit.
- See “King Philip Cries Out for Revenge,” pp. 43-45; and “There Are Many Thanksgiving Stories to Tell,” pp. 49-52, in Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective. See also Margaret M. Bruchac and Catherine O’Neill Grace, op. cit.
- Bruchac, Margaret M. (Abenaki), and Catherine Grace O’Neill, 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2001, grades 4-up.
- Hunter, Sally M. (Ojibwe), Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1997, grades 4-6.
- Peters, Russell M. (Wampanoag), Clambake: A Wampanoag Tradition. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1992, grades 4-6.
- Regguinti, Gordon (Ojibwe), The Sacred Harvest: Ojibway Wild Rice Gathering. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1992, grades 4-6.
- Seale, Doris (Santee/Cree), Beverly Slapin, and Carolyn Silverman (Cherokee), eds., Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective. Berkeley: Oyate, 1998, teacher resource.
- Swamp, Jake (Mohawk), Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message. New York: Lee & Low, 1995, all grades.
- Wittstock, Laura Waterman (Seneca), Ininatig’s Gift of Sugar: Traditional Native Sugarmaking. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1993, grades 4-6.
References/Primary Sources from a Colonialist Perspective:
- Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, originally published in 1856 under the title History of Plymouth Plantation. Introduction by Francis Murphy. New York: Random House, 1981.
- Bradford, William, Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, first published in 1622. Introduction by Dwight B. Heath. Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 1963.
- Council on Interracial Books for Children, Chronicles of American Indian Protest. New York: CIBC, 1971.
- Winslow, Edward, Good Newes from New England: A True Relation of Things Very Remarkable at the Plantation of Plimoth in New England, first published in 1624. Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, n.d.