15 Thanksgiving “Facts” That Are Not True
You’re about to have some serious misgivings about what you think you know about Thanksgiving.
There are a few popular Thanksgiving misconceptions
It’s one of American history’s most familiar scenes: A small group of Pilgrims prepares a huge November feast to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and show their appreciation to the Indians who helped them survive their first winter. Together, the Pilgrims and Indians solemnly sit down to a meal of turkey, pumpkin pie, and cranberries. But just how accurate is this image of America’s first Thanksgiving? Not very, it turns out. Here are some common misconceptions about the origin of one of our favorite holidays. That the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock is one of 51 “facts” that are actually wrong.
The first Thanksgiving was actually “Thanksgiving”
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When we talk about the “first” Thanksgiving, we’re usually referring to the festive meal held in the autumn of 1621 in the Plymouth settlement, where the European settlers mingled with members of the native Wampanoag tribe. But that festive meal wasn’t what the settlers thought of as “Thanksgiving.” To the settlers, Thanksgiving was a completely separate, solemnly religious holiday during which people gathered together to pray.
The Native Americans were invited guests
Notice how we said that the Wampanoag “mingled” with the European settlers at this 1621 feast? That’s because we can’t really say for sure that the settlers actually invited any Native Americans. Rather, there’s reason to believe party-crashing was involved. “Some accounts suggest that about 90 Wampanoag heard the settlers firing guns and came to see the cause of the stir or even ready to enter battle,” according to Fortune magazine.
Thanksgiving is “Turkey Day”
While wild turkey was available in abundance in Plymouth, as were ducks and geese, the real headliner for the autumnal feast of 1621 was venison. In fact, it was the Native Americans who made that possible. According to Edward Winslow, who wrote one of the only two first-hand accounts of the autumnal feast of 1621 that we’ve come to think of as the “first Thanksgiving”), the Wampanoags brought five slaughtered deer with them when they turned up for dinner. Pardoning the turkey is strictly a modern-day tradition.
The “first Thanksgiving” was a joyous celebration
While the feast that occurred in the fall of 1621 celebrated the harvest, it was not a joyous occasion. In the fall of 1620, around 100 Europeans set sail on the Mayflower, intending to land at the mouth of the Hudson River. They landed instead in Cape Cod Harbor in December of that same year. By the fall of 1621, half were dead, mostly as a result of illness and poor nutrition. With half their number having recently died, the “first Thanksgiving” was probably more of a “wake” (think: drinking, socializing, and remembering the dearly departed) than a celebration.
Thanksgiving was always a family-oriented celebration
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The settlers who died on the Mayflower voyage were primarily women; at the time of the autumnal feast of 1621, there were only four women left in Plymouth. They were Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna White (who later became Susanna Winslow after she was widowed and married Edward Winslow). They must have proliferated, though, as one in ten Americans could be a blood relative of the original Pilgrims.
The “first Thanksgiving” was the beginning of an American tradition
What we think of as the “first Thanksgiving” was actually a one-time thing. The people who held that “first Thanksgiving” didn’t hold another autumnal feast for at least another decade. And what we think of as “Thanksgiving” today (the holiday that falls on the fourth Thursday of every November) didn’t exist as an annual American holiday until 1863 after a proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. Find out the surprising presidential first Lincoln has the honor of holding.
Thanksgiving was celebrated by the “Pilgrims”
You might be noticing by now that we have yet to call the settlers who celebrated that first autumnal feast of 1621, “Pilgrims.” That’s because they didn’t even call themselves “Pilgrims.” The people we think of as the “Pilgrims” were actually referred to themselves as the “Saints.”
Thanksgiving originated in New England
Thanksgiving, as we know it today, actually originated in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On October 3, 1863, during President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, he announced, basically, that from now on, the nation will celebrate an official “Thanksgiving holiday” on the fourth Thursday of November each year.
Thanksgiving began in 1621
While we associate the origins of the Thanksgiving feast with 1621, Texans claim they celebrated the first “Thanksgiving” in a community near present day El Paso in 1598. The occasion was the arrival Spanish explorer, Juan de Onate with hundreds of Spanish settlers after a grueling 350-mile trek across the Mexican dessert. Virginians claim they celebrated the first “Thanksgiving” in 1619 to mark the arrival of 38 English settlers on a ship called “The Margaret.”