Debunking The Top Thanksgiving Myths

During research for the The Myths of Innovation I read many history books, particularly ones exploring popular falsehoods about the past. Books like Don’t Know Much About History, provided guidance on how to tell true stories in the face of popular falsehoods.

With the big U.S. Holiday of Thanksgiving coming, here’s some fodder for fun dinner conversation, as when pleasant myths collide with the real history surprises are sure to happen:

  • The success of the Mayflower settlement depended more on smallpox than the Pilgrims. Years before the Mayflower landed, Europeans had already brought smallpox to America, killing most of the indigenous population (An event the Pilgrims called “an act of god”). This made the early settlements far easier to construct (reusing areas already developed), and forced the remaining natives (most notably Squanto) to consider cooperation with settlers, teaching them many survival skills. The Pilgrims stole corn and other supplies from natives during their first year. They were desperate and struggling.
  • From the Native American perspective, Pilgrims were invaders. They say history is written by the victors, but no matter who writes it, it’s always a matter of perspective and often important ones are ignored when it’s convenient. The heart of the Thanksgiving Myth imagines an existing civilization kindly inviting a new nation of white people to come and “settle lands” they already occupied. And the story is detached from the century long genocide that would follow as  America continually broke treaties and willfully took land.
  • Half of the Pilgrims died in the first 5 months. They were untrained, unprepared, did not know how to farm or hunt in America, and chose a difficult location for their first settlement (they wandered off course crossing the Atlantic). By the time of the first thanksgiving those still alive were happy not to be dead – the fact that they had food to eat was more than worthy of celebration.
  • The Pilgrims did not eat turkey, mashed potatoes or pecan pie. Thanksgiving was not an official U.S. holiday until the 1860s, and we are celebrating the eating habits of people from the 1860s, not the 1600s. It’d be more accurate to eat venison than turkey. It’s not documented what was eaten on the first Thanksgiving, though it’s pretty certain they ate their meal with their hands. It’s likely only cranberries that were native food at the time.
  • Thanksgiving is an ancient native concept, not Pilgrim or American. As you’d imagine, the folks who actually knew how to work with the land, the natives, had their own set of customs for giving thanks back to nature: some tribes had 6 festivals every year dedicated to giving thanks, only one of which we know as Thanksgiving. The spirit of today’s holiday is wonderful: be thankful. But we forget how much of holiday, and the fate of the Pilgrims, depends on previous cultures and customs.
  • The Pilgrims were not Puritans. Both groups were radicals who wanted to escape persecution in England. But the Pilgrims were more egalitarian and tolerant – they had non-believers on the Mayflower, and even more in their settlement (they came over later). The Puritans wanted reform, but wanted the Church to change to reflect their views (whereas the Pilgrims abandoned the Church entirely). The Pilgrims were on the Mayflower, but the Puritans didn’t arrive in America until several decades later.
  • The Indians and Pilgrims did not get along very well. Around the time of the first thanksgiving, The Plymouth settlement was converted into a fort, hardly an act of thanks, nor giving. As you’d imagine, the relationship between these two groups was complex, with different skirmishes and crimes by factions on both sides. While there were times of peace, tension grew over the years and led to King Phillip’s war, the end of any pretense of peace, a few decades later.

There certainly are some things to celebrate in the true story: the leadership and struggles of the settlement, some of the motivations of the Pilgrims themselves, and the acts of peace by parties on both sides, but these aren’t in the mythologized version most American’s know.


[Minor updates: 11/26/2020]

12 Responses to “Debunking The Top Thanksgiving Myths”

  1. chickenrecipes

    Very interesting article, it’s always funny to see all these myths that have been carried over generations. I loved the part where you say they ate their meal with their hands.
    No turkey, no pecan pie, no mashed potatoes, ohhh what they missed :)

  2. Christian Sauer

    You have “The Puritans wanted reform, but wanted the Church to change to reflect their views (whereas the Puritans abandoned the Church entirely).” I think the 2nd Puritans should be Pilgrims.

  3. Scott (admin)

    Good catch Christian – my mistake is further proof of how confusing this can be.

  4. Jason Crawford

    Maybe the biggest myth is that the Pilgrims were the ones who held the first Thanksgiving. Actually, it was held on the Berkeley Plantation in VA, on Dec 4, 1919–over a year before the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock. (Berkeley was just upstream from Jamestown–the first permanent English settlement in America, having been established in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims.)

  5. jmstettner

    Most of what’s noted in what is obviously just another attack on American values while true to an extent is by and large trivialization and politicization of history rather than “correcting the record.”

    “Europeans had already brought smallpox to America, killing most of the indigenous population (An event the Pilgrims called “an act of god”).” The introduction of smallpox, in fact only one of the maladies that the indigenous people suffered, was accidental, not intentional. The first intentional use of smallpox as a biological attack came later in the drive to the west. Outbreaks of any disease, especially those that ravaged whole populations, were always called, and believed by many to be, acts of God [note the quote diminishes God with a small g].

    It is unclear and historically debatable whether the Pilgrims “wandered off course,” were intentionally dumped at the wrong location, or were simply the victims of bad luck. They left port too late into the season and thus arrived far too late to safely set up an encampment. The voyage across was made with one ship less than originally intended which led to being under-supplied and over-crowded which in turn led to people in weakened health and physical condition. That any survived at all is in fact a miracle. The settlers were “untrained [and] unprepared,” but that is more a function of who they were and why they were there.

    “The pilgrims did not eat turkey…It’s not documented what was eaten…though it’s pretty certain they ate their meal with their hands.” Again, the intention here seems to be to tear down and ridicule rather than to present history. The pilgrims most likely did eat turkey as it was a common game animal in Massachusetts Bay. What they ate on that first Thanksgiving MAY not be documented, but what they ate was recorded in William Bradford’s history of the colony, an original document from someone who was there. That the Pilgrims ate with their hands isn’t really surprising (what do you eat with? your feet?), the majority of people at the time used few utensils at table.

    “Thanksgiving is an ancient native concept, not Pilgrim or American.” What’s the point? Serious historians do not say otherwise and how does that fact diminish the celebration of the Pilgrims or our celebrations today? This point is egregiously revisionist and derogatory and suggests the true intent of the poster and his sources.

    “the Pilgrims abandoned the Church entirely” This statement is highly debatable. It is more accurate to say that the Church abandoned the Pilgrims. Religion in Europe has always been tumultuous and in the centuries leading up to the Pilgrims had suffered several serious reformations and schisms. The Pilgrims were persecuted for their particular brand of worship and for not obeying King James. The simplification of this issue by the OP serves his agenda whereas the expanded explanation would expose it.

    “The Indians and Pilgrims did not get along very well. Around the time of the first thanksgiving, The Plymouth settlement was converted into a fort, hardly an act of thanks or giving.” Here the political and historical revisionism goes full throttle. It is a historical fact that the Pilgrims got on rather well with the local natives, despite the clashes one would expect from two cultures coming together. The settlers who followed after the Pilgrims were the fuse that lit Metacom’s fire and led to King Phillip’s War.

    The movement to revise and politicize history, especially the history of this country, as epitomized by Howard Zinn, is shameful. The fact that most Americans are so woefully ignorant of their history and academically untrained is the only thing that allows this to happen. The rise of apologism and permissivism in our culture fosters the atmosphere that allows social activists to perpetrate such shams.

    Don’t take the original poster’s comments as fact, or mine, or Howard Zinn’s. Go look it up yourself! Take some time to be a citizen rather than a sponge. Just because it’s in print doesn’t mean it’s true, even if it sounds plausible, perhaps especially when it sounds plausible.

    What the Pilgrims did and survived was heroic and worthy of memorialization and celebration. The Mayflower Compact stands as a document and an idea that rivals Magna Carta and The Declaration of Independence. Learn history so you can’t be fooled by hucksters and charlatans.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I appreciate the thoughtful post as clearly you have knowledge of American history.

      What I don’t understand is what American value I’m attacking in this post.

      You wrote: “Don’t take the original poster’s comments as fact, or mine, or Howard Zinn’s. Go look it up yourself! Take some time to be a citizen rather than a sponge.”

      I agree. I’m thrilled to have any reader offer evidence and facts based on history and discuss them, even if my interpretation of things is completely wrong. Discourse, debate and free speech are definitely things I consider American values.

      In this case I think we’re both right. The fact that they survived at all is noble and heroic, but that doesn’t discount the facts I emphasized in my post.

  6. Aiden Farrell

    Never really thought about it but I just thought about how many turkey are killed on thanksgiving… weird.



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