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Everyone knows about the Pilgrims and the Indians, right? How the two groups gathered peacefully in Plymouth, Mass., to feast on juicy turkeys and colorful pumpkin pies. The trouble is, almost everything we’ve been taught about the first Thanksgiving is a myth. In fact the holiday has not just one history – not two – but three different histories.
One stems from the “creative musings of a magazine editor in the mid-1800s. A second history is based on a 1921 “shooting party.” A third history is based accounts from the governor’s diary, which was lost for almost 100 years.
Can you separate the Thanksgiving myths from the truth?
History #1: The Tradition
For the most part, the Thanksgiving traditions we celebrate are the ideas of 1850s magazine editor and New England socialite Sarah Josepha Hale. She was the editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book and filled her magazine with recipes and editorials about Thanksgiving. In 1858, Ms. Hale petitioned the president of the United States to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Five years later Abraham Lincoln established the national holiday we celebrate in the U.S. today.
Most of our Thanksgiving traditions, in particular the stories about the Pilgrims and Indians and the traditional foods of turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie are derived from Ms. Hale’s writings.
History #2: 1621
Quite a bit of investigation has been done since in an attempt to determine what really happened on the first Thanksgiving. Much of that research has focused on a 1621 event described in a letter by Edward Winslow:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time, among other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.”
Based on that account and other historical records concerning the European settlers, the native Wampanoag people, and the foods and tools available in New England at the time. Historians have determined the 1621 event was far different than the Thanksgiving we celebrate today. In fact, almost none of the traditional Thanksgiving foods were present on that occasion.
Several years ago the Christian Science Monitor published this article distinguishing Thanksgiving traditions from the 1621 event.
History #3: 1623
Just when you might think that would settle things and give us the true history of Thanksgiving, along came the diary of the Governor of the Colony of New Plymouth, William Bradford. Gov. Bradford’s chronicles were lost for nearly 100 years when the British looted the colony.
In his diary, Governor Bradford recounts the proclamation of November 29, 1623, as a Day of Thanksgiving. While there was in fact a big feast in the fall of 1621 it was never referred to as Thanksgiving. The events leading up to this first official Day of Thanksgiving are much different than those leading to the 1921 feast.
“the Pilgrims [had] set up a communist system in which they owned the land in common and would also share the harvests in common. By 1623, it became clear this system was not working out well. The men were not eager to work in the fields, since if they worked hard, they would have to share their produce with everyone else. The colonists faced another year of poor harvests. They held a meeting to decide what to do.”
“The Pilgrims changed their economic system from communism to geoism; the land was still owned in common and could not be sold or inherited, but each family was allotted a portion, and they could keep whatever they grew. The governor ‘assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end.’”
“Their new geoist economic system was a great success. It looked like they would have an abundant harvest this time. But then, during the summer, the rains stopped, threatening the crops. The Pilgrims held a “Day of Humiliation” and prayer. The rains came and the harvest was saved… Governor Bradford proclaimed November 29, 1623, as a Day of Thanksgiving.”
As Paul Harvey would say, “Now you know… the rest of the story.”