holidays — November 27, 2013

Not So Fast With the Pilgrim Costume

by Bob Williams

the myth of the first Thanksgiving

Who doesn’t remember taking part in the obligatory Thanksgiving story play in elementary school? Paper pilgrim costumes, some guy with blond hair dressed as an Indian, and paper leaves stuck to everything. Me, I was always picked to play the turkey.

And so for the rest of our lives, that was pretty much how we viewed the true story of Thanksgiving – a bunch of English guys standing around shaking hands with the natives and everybody sitting down to turkey and dressing with cranberry sauce and all the trimmings. And it’s been that way ever since, right?

Not so fast, Kimosabe. History – real nuts-and-bolts history – tells us that we’ve constructed a really nice little tale around quite a few misconceptions, stretched truths and outright fibs. While we definitely should continue to celebrate Thanksgiving just the way we do now, the story of how it all began is a little less romantic than we were told back in grade school.

Back in the Day

Let’s start with what we do know. Some parts of the Thanksgiving story are true. We know, for example, that in 1620, a group of English settlers – the Pilgrims – landed at Plymouth Rock in Cape Cod Harbor. And here’s the first missed fact: The Pilgrims were actually trying to land at the mouth of the Hudson River – what's now New York – but the weather forced them in at Plymouth.

The settlers are portrayed as austere, grim folk, wearing black and white clothing with big buckles and stovepipe hats. Yes – and no. The colonists did wear black – but mainly on Sunday and formal occasions. Most other times, they had clothing of more muted solid colors – green, brown, beige and so forth. The women got to wear some red, blue and violet as well. And buckles didn’t show up as a fashion statement on clothing until the 1700s (but they still look good onstage in the second grade play).

The story goes that a year after they landed, the colonists and a group of Wampanoag Indians decided to put on a big feed in celebration of a successful harvest. The Wampanoag had gotten chummy with the Pilgrims and picked up half the tab for the event – in relative terms of course. The colonists wrote that the Indians killed five deer for the feast, while the settlers chipped in wild game birds they shot (we suspect turkey was in there somewhere). Historians say it’s likely they also had fish, lobster, clams, squash, carrots and pumpkins.

With 50 colonists and some 90 Wampanoag taking part, they would have had more than enough folks for a good game of touch football after lunch.

While there was indeed a “first” Thanksgiving, it really wasn’t the new event we were led to believe centuries later. The English and the Wampanoag had long celebrated successful harvests with feasts that ran for days at a time; the Plymouth soirée pretty much fell into that category. By all reports of the day, it really wasn’t intended as an annual event.

According to the folks at National Geographic, a lot of what we consider standard fare for Thanksgiving would not have been at that first feast. Potatoes, they say, weren’t yet part of the English diet at the time. And sugar was very pricey. Since it was considered a delicacy, cranberry sauce would have been out of the question. No pumpkin pie either; the Pilgrims didn’t have the makings of the crust. They’d have to make do with stewed pumpkin or Wampanoag succotash. But even with these shortages, it was still an epic epicurean event.  

Thanksgiving Goes Viral

Apparently that first feast was described in a 1621 letter by Edward Winslow, who was the leader of the settlement at Plymouth. Lost for some two centuries, Winslow’s letter resurfaced in the 1800s and was printed in 1841 by Boston publisher Alexander Young. And while the letter makes it clear that their feast was a one-time harvest celebration, Young called it the “First Thanksgiving.”

And that’s when Thanksgiving caught fire. President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving Day to be a national holiday. And in 1941, Franklin Roosevelt fixed the date on the fourth Thursday of November (the original feast was sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11 and lasted for three days).

And we couldn’t wrap up our little discussion about Thanksgiving without talking turkey; presidential poultry, actually. You see, every Thanksgiving two live turkeys (and one that’s ready-to-eat) are delivered to the White House for the president and vice president, courtesy of the National Turkey Federation. It’s a tradition dating back to 1947.

While the president always pardons the birds, we always thought they would just wind up in someone else’s broiler (off-camera, of course). But not so. The birds are taken to George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon to live in unmolested peace.

Well pilgrim, that’s our look at the twisted history of Thanksgiving. Does it make any difference in how we celebrate the holiday today? Not really. If anything, we believe it should make us all more thankful that a handful of English colonists made friends with a tribe of Native Americans and together, they ensured everyone’s survival.

Unless you’re a turkey, of course.


Thanks to National Geographic and The History Channel for their historical guidance. And thanks to my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Schmidt, for her patience with one timid turkey.

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