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.
- Top 10 Thanksgiving Myths
- How teachers are debunking Thanksgiving myths
- Mayflower at 400
- The Myth of Thanksgiving
- The Mayflower: Courage, Community and War, Nathaniel Philbrick
- A People’s history of the United States, by Howard Zinn
- Don’t know much about history, By Kenneth C. Davis
- 5 Myths About The Pilgrims, Tracy McKenzie
[Minor updates: 11/26/2020]