Thanksgiving's Dark History You Never Knew
We all learned the story of Thanksgiving as kids. We were taught that the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 and were helped by friendly Native Americans to navigate their new home.
Together, they celebrated their new friendship with a Thanksgiving Day feast much like the one we hold today. While some of that story is true, there are many parts that are exaggerated, incorrect or completely false.
These are the biggest myths and actual facts that shed light on Thanksgiving's dark history.
1. Europeans and North American History
Myth: History in North America begins with the arrival of the Europeans and in particular, the Pilgrims.
The Truth About Europeans and North American History
Fact: North America’s history began well before any Europeans arrived on its shores. Native American tribes had existed for at least 12,000 years and likely even longer.
Visitors to the continent arrived far earlier than the Pilgrims or even Columbus. Legend has it that Saint Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk, sailed to North America in a wood boat covered in animal skins.
More factual is the account of the 10th-century Vikings' journey to the Americas, which has been well-documented. Viking explorer Leif Erikson sailed to what he called "Vinland," now Newfoundland, Canada.
Erikson and his crew didn’t settle there, however. They returned to Greenland and described Native Americans as "hostile."
2. The First European Settlers
Myth: Mayflower Pilgrims were the first Europeans to settle in North America.
The Truth About the First European Settlers
Fact: The English were not the first permanent settlers in North America, and the first settlement was not in the northeast.
St. Augustine, Florida, was established by the Spanish in 1565 and is the oldest continuously occupied city in the country.
The English established a colony in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1585 and another in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. The Pilgrims didn't land in North America until 1620.
3. The Mayflower 'Pilgrims'
Myth: The Mayflower passengers were always called "Pilgrims."
The Truth About the Mayflower 'Pilgrims'
Fact: The Pilgrims were actually known as Separatists, or "Saints" as they called themselves.
A pilgrim is defined as an individual who travels on a long journey with a moral or religious purpose. Governor William Bradford (himself a Separatist) dubbed the new arrivals to North America "pilgrims" when documenting their trip: "They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country; and quieted their spirits."
The term didn’t really take off for the group until the early 1800s.
4. Why the Pilgrims Came to North America
Myth: The Pilgrims left England for religious freedom.
The Truth About Why the Pilgrims Came to North America
Fact: The Separatists did seek religious freedom from the Church of England, but they initially found it by moving to the Netherlands where they lived for about 12 years before pulling up stakes.
In that decade, they did well working in the cloth trade. After the crash of the wool market, they thought it best to leave Europe entirely.
5. The Mayflower Landing
Myth: The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.
The Truth About the Mayflower Landing
Fact: While the Pilgrims did eventually land at Plymouth (Massachusetts), that wasn’t their first stop in North America.
Five weeks before their landing at "New Plymouth," the Pilgrims dropped anchor in Provincetown Harbor, 26 miles away. In fact, they signed the Mayflower Compact while still on the ship.
They spent about five weeks in the Provincetown area and would have settled there had they not gotten into a skirmish with the Nauset tribe. It was then they decided to set sail for another location.
6. A First-Time Meeting
Myth: This was the first time the Europeans and Wampanoag met.
The Truth About a First-Time Meeting
Fact: The Wampanoag were familiar with Europeans and were already wary of them.
A few years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, illnesses brought by the Europeans wiped out about 70 percent of Wampanoag's population.
The significantly weakened tribe was reluctant to aid the Pilgrims but did so to survive hostile encounters with other tribes.
7. Native American Offerings
Myth: All the Wampanoag wanted to help the Pilgrims.
The Truth About Native American Offerings
Fact: Not everyone in the Wampanoag tribe was on board with helping the Pilgrims. Many were reluctant to do so. Their years of interactions with Europeans and the deadly illnesses they brought to North America had made them reluctant, but they agreed to help.
Chief Massasoit, also known as Ousamequin, decided that helping the Pilgrims navigate the landscape would help the tribe survive the oncoming colonization.
That didn’t happen. Plymouth and the other New England colonies eventually conquered the Wampanoags, as they feared. Some died, and some were sold as slaves.
8. The Lesson of Thanksgiving
Myth: The Pilgrims taught Native Americans about Thanksgiving.
The Truth About the Lesson of Thanksgiving
Fact: The Pilgrims did not teach Native Americans about Thanksgiving. The tradition we know as Thanksgiving today didn’t start until the late 19th century.
Furthermore, Native American tribes, including the Wampanoag, had their own harvest celebrations for centuries before the Europeans arrived.
9. Enlisting Squanto’s Help
Myth: Tisquantum, more commonly known as Squanto, helped the Pilgrims navigate their new home and was handsomely rewarded.
The Truth About Enlisting Squanto’s Help
Fact: Squanto did help the Pilgrims learn trade. He also taught them how to grow crops and helped them with translating their needs to the local tribes.
Some historians say he was power hungry and manipulated the fears of both sides to become sachem, or leader of the tribe.
He claimed that Massasoit was plotting an attack against the Pilgrims, which turned out not to be true. According to the tribe's agreement with the Pilgrims, he should have been turned over to the Wampanoag for this offense.
They refused to do so, and the Wampanoag shunned him. He died of fever just two years after the Pilgrims' arrival.
10. The 'First' Thanksgiving
Myth: The Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in North America.
The Truth About the 'First' Thanksgiving
Fact: The Pilgrims, thankful for their first harvest, did have a multiday celebration in Plymouth. It included shooting guns and cannons. The noise from this gunfire brought the Wampanoag to the settlement to investigate. That is how they were present at the first Thanksgiving.
This was not a "Thanksgiving," however. Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims was usually marked as a solemn day of prayer.
The colonies that came before the Pilgrims also celebrated Thanksgiving, including the Spanish settlers in St. Augustine in 1565.
11. The Thanksgiving Feast
Myth: The Pilgrims ate turkey and all the usual Thanksgiving sides.
The Truth About the Thanksgiving Feast
Fact: We don’t know for sure if the Pilgrims ate turkey. We do know deer and wildfowl were on the menu.
They didn’t yet have corn, potatoes, or even cranberries.
Also, the celebration lasted three days.
12. A Peaceful Coexistence
Myth: The English and Wampanoag continued to live in harmony with one another.
The Truth About a Peaceful Coexistence
Fact: It was peaceful for a few years after the first celebration between the Europeans and Native Americans of Plymouth, but that peace grew increasingly strained as more and more colonists came, and more tribes were squeezed out of their land.
Alliances between Native Americans and Europeans also grew strained as colonists attempted to convert Native Americans to Christianity.
Violence between the two factions reached critical mass during King Philip’s War of 1675, which ended with the head of a Wampanoag leader impaled on a pike. The remaining tribespeople were sold into slavery.
13. Selling the Thanksgiving Story
Myth: The Pilgrims were the first Americans.
The Truth About Selling the Thanksgiving Story
Fact: The Pilgrims, as we know, were not the first Americans. In 1769, their descendants felt like the Pilgrims were being lost to history.
They wanted to boost tourism in New England and planted the seed that the Pilgrims were the first true Americans. The belief has stuck ever since.
14. A National Holiday
Myth: Thanksgiving was a national holiday from 1621 on.
The Truth About a National Holiday
Fact: Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday in the United States until 1863.
President Abraham Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving holiday in an attempt to unify the country during the Civil War.
15. The Fate of the Wampanoag
Myth: The Wampanoag are now extinct.
The Truth About the Fate of the Wampanoag
Fact: Despite the centuries of disease, war and starvation they endured, and the Wampanoag tribe has survived.
There currently are about 2,600 citizens living in Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island.