So, we all know the story behind the first Thanksgiving, right? Well, yeah, because we all learned it in elementary school. Now that I’m all grown up and want to teach my kids what really happened in history rather than the politically-correct and sanitized fluff they sell in public schools these days, I’m on a mission to uncover real, true history.
The First Thanksgiving Puff Story for the Masses
Seeking religious freedom, the pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock which is now modern day Massachusetts. It was cold and they didn’t know anything about farming or how to grow things and survive in the new world. Friendly Native Americans came to their rescue and taught them how to plant corn and saved their lives. During the first bountiful harvest, they all celebrated by inviting the Indians and having a great feast. And now we have…Thanksgiving. Right?
The Real Story
In 1608 a group of separatist dissenters left England to escape a volatile political environment. They first sailed to the more tolerant Holland to settle there for a time until they could get the funds and necessary permissions to sail to America.
Around 1620, they realized that the long truce in the religious war between Spain and Holland would end and they would be hunted down. Their particular brand of Protestantism wasn’t really welcome in Holland and there were few ways of making a living there. They finally arranged the journey with some English investors to establish a new colony in North America. They joined up with some other colonists on the Speedwell, but had to return two times because the ship was leaking. They finally boarded the Mayflower and left Southampton in July 1620.
About 100 Men, women and children along with all their belongings and some animals sailed for 66 days. One sailor died and one woman gave birth while sailing. There were two distinct groups aboard the Mayflower. One group was the English Separatists, members of a Puritan sect who had split from the Church of England and the other was a group of English who had remained part of the Church of England.
Shortly after making landfall, they realized that they were 300 miles north of their planned destination and also outside the bounds of governmental authority they had contracted with England. William Bradford, leader of the Puritans became alarmed seeing the disregard of the rules of his group by the other colonists. In his own words he stated that they wanted to use “their owne libertie”. The horror!
So, the Mayflower Compact was drawn up and was basically an agreement that everyone would abide by whatever government was formed in the settlement. Every adult male was required to sign before exiting the ship.
They arrived in November of 1620. According to William Bradford’s diary, they arrived to “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” A few weeks later they sailed up to Plymouth and began to build their colony in a Wampanoag village where most of the inhabitants had died from sickness.
By day, they built houses and then returned to the ship at night. They also saw an artificial mound in the dunes and discovered it was a native burial mound. Buried in the mound was corn which they took for fear of starving and to save to plant in the spring. They also came across abandoned Native American homes which contained some provisions such as beans and corn. They took it with the intent of returning it, which they did within 6 months.
It was December, it was cold and wet. Over half the group died during that first winter from what they described as general sickness, coughing and scurvy. In March of 1621, there were enough houses on land for everyone to live in.
Very early on, they heard loud cries at night near their encampment. In the morning, they were met by a group of native people who shot arrows at them. They reciprocated with gunfire and chased them into to the woods but found no one.
Relations were already bad between the natives and the English settlers because there had been several instances of abuse by the English. Men had arrived and abducted natives to sell as slaves as well as shot and killed many for apparently no reason. Squanto, a common fixture in elementary Thanksgiving history, was one of the abductees who escaped at some point to England, converted to Christianity and learned English. He later returned to America to find his entire village had died from the plague.
Squanto was an ally to the colonists and did indeed help them learn cultivation methods like using fish as fertilizer. But that’s about where the “friendly Indian assistance” ended.
The Pilgrims were Communist?
During the first year of the settlement, the pilgrims essentially lived as a commune. There was no personal property allowed and everyone was expected to work for the good of all. People were lazy, faked illness and stole in order to undermine the communist rule. People were starving and lacking because they were not doing what they were supposed to be doing. And why would they? Who wants to plant a crop, do the back-breaking work and only be allotted an amount deemed appropriate by the government of the colony?
The pilgrim’s failure to thrive wasn’t because they didn’t know how to farm or lacked the knowledge to make it in their new home. It was because there was no incentive to perform and work hard.
Personal Property Saved the Pilgrims
The following year, Governor William Bradford allotted a small parcel of land to each family to do with as they pleased, essentially creating a free market and more capitalist system. Low and behold, suddenly everyone was successfully farming and producing! All of the sudden there was an incentive to doing the work and being successful.
The harvest was so great that they began to celebrate. The governor sent a group of men “fowling” to get wild ducks, geese and turkey. They began to “exercise their arms” which is code for wildly shooting their guns because they were so happy.
A native chief and about 90 warriors showed up from a village over 40 miles away to see what the ruckus was about. As we’re taught in school, the pilgrims invited a few Indian friends to celebrate them saving their lives. A chief and 90 warriors from 40 miles away is not a “chance arrival”. To boot, there were only 53 pilgrims left, so they were in no position to offend the Indians or send them away.
Well, the ole’ pilgrims did what any good neighbor would do and invited them to stay for dinner. The natives brought 5 deer to add to the feast and they all entertained each other for three days at which time the Indians went home.
Where did Thanksgiving Really Come From?
All these years later, we celebrate our massively over-commercialized Thanksgiving holiday, tracing its origins back to these roots of this particular Day of Thanksgiving in 1621. Did you know that in all the written documentation that still exists (journals, pamphlets, etc.) this particular feast is only mentioned one time, in one paragraph of Edward Winslow’s diary? All the rest of the almost 400 years of speculation and stories about that first Thanksgiving is basically hearsay and artistic liberty.
These sort of “Thanksgivings” or Days of Prayer were a common occurrence amongst Europeans of the time. They would celebrate regularly for things such as a military victory or end of a drought. Thanksgiving services were routine in what was to become Virginia as early as 1607, with the first permanent settlement of Jamestown, Virginia holding a thanksgiving in 1610.
How did Thanksgiving become what it is today? Well, that’s a mystery shrouded with lots of conspiracy and debate. No one really knows, but our modern day Thanksgiving as a national holiday has been an annual tradition since 1863. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26. The day has since been moved and shifted, finally being settled permanently on the fourth Thursday of November.
So, this Thursday, when you’re busy shoveling down turkey and pumpkin pie, share a little of this with innocent bystanders and see what they say. It should make for some interesting Thanksgiving chatter!
What did you learn about Thanksgiving in school?
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Photo attributions: Wikipedia Commons