Do you know the true story of Thanksgiving?

true story of the first Thanksgiving
Written by Paul Steinbrueck

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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.”

Read more about the 1623 Day of Thanksgiving.

As Paul Harvey would say, “Now you know… the rest of the story.”

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    About the author

    Paul Steinbrueck

    Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck.


    • In Canada Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October. Unlike the American tradition of remembering Pilgrims and settling in the New World, Canadians give thanks for a successful harvest. The harvest season falls earlier in Canada compared to the United States due to the simple fact that Canada is further north.

      The history of Thanksgiving in Canada goes back to an English explorer, Martin Frobisher, who had been trying to find a northern passage to the Orient. He did not succeed but he did establish a settlement in Northern America. In the year 1578, he held a formal ceremony, in what is now called Newfoundland, to give thanks for surviving the long journey. This is considered the first Canadian Thanksgiving. Other settlers arrived and continued these ceremonies. He was later knighted and had an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean in northern Canada named after him – Frobisher Bay.

      At the same time, French settlers, having crossed the ocean and arrived in Canada with explorer Samuel de Champlain, also held huge feasts of thanks. They even formed ‘The Order of Good Cheer’ and gladly shared their food with their Indian neighbours.

    • Ha! So God showed a sign that He preferred the capitalist system over a socialist one.
      What a load of propaganda! Thats the myth Americans (esp. American christians)have been trying to propigate ever since. The problem is, it doesn’t relate to the lives of the early Christians or the way Jesus told us to live our lives. SelfLESSly.

    • Jonathan, I disagree with your statement that it doesn’t relate to the the lives of the early Christians or the way Jesus told us to live our lives…

      “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” — Acts 4:34-35

      That passage makes it clear that individual Christians owned property, and they were very generous in helping those in need. They were not required to give all their earnings to the community, but they gave of their own free will.

    • Exodus 23:16 The Feast of Ingathering, although not Christian, is the true first Thanksgiving after harvest. It is commanded by GOD of the Israelites for all males to meet. In my opinion this where Thanksgiving originates and is carried on by Christians. Many early Christians still adhered to the feasts that their fore fathers held. Even JESUS took part in these feasts. The true fact, therefore, is what we call Thanksgiving and took place annually thousands of years before this ” new world” was discovered. Deuteronomy 17: 13-15 here it sounds to me the GOD is saying to share your feast with others in yourfamily, your servants, strangers and those less fortunate. (widows) The thing about this Thanksgiving feast is it is recorded in the bible.

      Everday should be Thanksgiving. We should always be thankful for what we have and what GOD provides for us everyday. This is not always the case and I am as guilty as the next, but GOD loves us anyways.

    • Disclaimer: The following is written from my perspective as a cultural anthropologist. I am not discounting religious interpretation, just adding another view to the mix.

      The first myth is that “tradition” is in stasis or static. This is not true – every tradition whether within a family or within a culture is in transition. The object of social events is to strengthen familial or cultural ties – such is the famed “Thanksgiving Dinner”. What one eats or where it originates from is not as important as forming and sustaining the bond.

      Second, cultural myths are always being developed and refined. Over the course of time Americans have collectively incorporated symbols that help identify an observance and have discarded those that no longer speak to the event. So creation/origin stories will emerge, it’s okay that we have 3 or 5 or more stories about Thanksgiving. Some stories are better than others and those get retold; some are a bit scary and those get forgotten – especially when they do not strengthen national identity or nationalism.

      In the US for example, everyone has a Thanksgiving Dinner. Even shelters and homeless missions offer one. The point is that this meal is a collective “communion” of American ideals in which we “remember” our founding fathers, their hopes and aspirations as colonists/missionaries/intellectuals/searchers for religious freedom/etc.

      It is a collective communion because it is celebrated by everyone – otherwise, why would Asian-Americans or Hispanics celebrate a holiday that is outside their experience? If it were merely a commemoration of the first colonists then this would only be something observed in the New England States and only by the descendants of those pilgrims. The people of Hawaii and the people of the Southwest have a completely different founding experience (Hawaii with origins in Japan; some Hispanics with origins in Spain).

      Thanksgiving, while couched in religious language, isn’t really a religious observance, it is a civil observance. It gives all Americans (and Canadians, respectively) a day in which a Nation’s people can bond and celebrate their common ideals. Now if they choose to celebrate that in a Jewish or Christian interpretation that’s fine, if they choose to celebrate that in an Islamic interpretation that’s fine, etc. The religious prespective, as a component part, is not as important as the social-cultural one when contemplating national identity. For this reason even atheists and agnostics celebrate the day.

      That said:
      Thanks be to God whose love is everlasting!
      May you and yours have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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