The First Thanksgiving: Separating Myth From Fact


Here in the United States, we’ve all heard the legendary tale of the first Thanksgiving, when Pilgrims dined with Natives in celebration of a bountiful harvest.

It all started in November 1620, when a group of 102 English religious separatists known as Pilgrims, joined by unaffiliated commercial entrepreneurs, arrived on the shores of North America in a ship called the Mayflower, at present-day Cape Cod. They’d planned to settle in Virginia but were blown 500 miles off course.

Unfortunately, like much of U.S. history, the narrative surrounding the landing of the Mayflower, and what happened to the English settlers on board, has been whitewashed, diluted, or just plain fabricated.

On the 400th anniversary of that fabled landing at Plymouth Rock, let’s delve into the reality of this famous event by sorting myth from fact.

Myth

When the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock, the landscape was devoid of human civilization.

Fact

William Bradford, leader of the voyage, declared they discovered the era “unpeopled,” but when the Pilgrims landed, Darius Coombs, codirector of the Plimouth Plantation, says there were some 70 Wampanoag communities in the area and an estimated 100,000 Tribal members whose ancestors had been living there for at least 12,000 years. European trade ships had already been visiting the region for 100 years before the Mayflower sailed, but the Pilgrims were the first who attempted to stay. In truth, upon disembarking, the Pilgrims were met with cleared fields and fresh water. The Wampanoag had moved to winter camp, but the Pilgrims were aware of ongoing Indigenous occupation because they dug up and used some of the Wampanoag’s food stores.

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Myth

Pilgrims took pity on Indigenous people and fed them.

Fact

The Pilgrims had no idea how to survive in the new land. They would have starved to death during the severe 1620–21 winter if it weren’t for the Wampanoag. They shared their provisions with the colonists and taught them how to hunt, fish, farm, and preserve food in their new environment.

As Wampanoag Nanepashemet said, “We have lived with this land for thousands of generations — fishing in the waters, planting, and harvesting crops, hunting the four-legged and winged beings and giving respect and thanks for each and everything taken for our use. We were originally taught to use many resources, remembering to use them with care, respect, and with a mind towards preserving some for the seven generations of unborn, and not to waste anything.”

Myth

Thanksgiving was the name of the harvest feast Pilgrims and Indigenous people shared.

Fact

While Pilgrims did share a meal with the Wampanoag people, it wouldn’t have been possible without their Native teachers, and it wasn’t called Thanksgiving, either. Harvest feasts were a tradition that Natives had observed for time immemorial, so it is Native generosity that is the basis for the Americanized idea of Turkey Day. The origins of the holiday’s modern name are actually quite grisly. Pilgrims and other European invaders warred with the Wampanoag and other local Tribes after they settled in. An official “day of Thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequots” was proclaimed by Massachusetts Bay governor William Bradford in 1637, and it was meant to memorialize the slaughter of about 700 Pequot men, women, and children.

Myth

The Indigenous people who interacted with Pilgrims are extinct.

Fact

The Mashpee Wampanoag people who first encountered the Pilgrims were subjected to centuries of disease, starvation, and war, but they survived. They still inhabit Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island, are a federally recognized Tribe, and have about 2,600 citizens.

Myth

The Indigenous people who helped the Pilgrims aren’t being oppressed anymore.

Fact

In spring 2020, just as the Mashpee Wampanoag were getting hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration moved to disestablish their Reservation, threatening their very existence. A federal judge found the Trump administration’s decision “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered them to reconsider. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 7608. It is an appropriations bill, but it includes an amendment that would stop the Interior Department from taking the Mashpee Wampanoag’s land. The legislation now awaits a Senate vote.



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