Thanksgiving: Fact or Fiction

“The reason that we have so many myths associated with Thanksgiving is that it is an invented tradition. It is based on the New England puritan Thanksgiving, which is a religious Thanksgiving, and the traditional harvest celebrations of England and New England and maybe other ideas like commemorating the pilgrims. All of these have been gathered together and transformed into something different from the original parts.”–James W. Baker, Senior Historian at Plimoth Plantation

1. Fact or Fiction: Thanksgiving is held on the final Thursday of November each year.

Fiction. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving. However, in 1939, after a request from the National Retail Dry Goods Association, President Franklin Roosevelt decreed that the holiday should always be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month(and never the occasional fifth, as occurred in 1939) in order to extend the holiday shopping season by a week. The decision sparked great controversy, and was still unresolved two years later, when the House of Representatives passed a resolution making the last Thursday in November a legal national holiday. The Senate amended the resolution, setting the date as the fourth Thursday, and the House eventually agreed.

2. Fact or Fiction: One of America’s Founding Fathers thought the turkey should be the national bird of the United States.

Fact. In a letter to his daughter sent in 1784, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the wild turkey would be a more appropriate national symbol for the newly independent United States than the bald eagle (which had earlier been chosen by the Continental Congress). He argued that the turkey was “a much more respectable Bird,” “a true original Native of America,” and “though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage.”

3. Fact or Fiction: In 1863, Abraham Lincoln became the first American president to proclaim a national day of thanksgiving.

Fiction.George Washington, John Adams and James Madison all issued proclamations urging Americans to observe days of thanksgiving, both for general good fortune and for particularly momentous events (the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, in Washington’s case; the end of the War of 1812, in Madison’s).

4. Fact or Fiction: Macy’s was the first American department store to sponsor a parade in celebration of Thanksgiving.

Fiction. The Philadelphia department store Gimbel’s had sponsored a parade in 1920, but the Macy’s parade, launched four years later, soon became a Thanksgiving tradition and the standard kickoff to the holiday shopping season. The parade became ever more well-known after it featured prominently in the hit film Miracle on 34th Street (1947), which shows actual footage of the 1946 parade. In addition to its famous giant balloons and floats, the Macy’s parade features live music and other performances, including by the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes and cast members of well-known Broadway shows.

5. Fact or Fiction: Turkeys are slow-moving birds that lack the ability to fly.

Fiction (kind of). Domesticated turkeys (the type eaten on Thanksgiving) cannot fly, and their pace is limited to a slow walk. Female domestic turkeys, which are typically smaller and lighter than males, can move somewhat faster. Wild turkeys, on the other hand, are much smaller and more agile. They can reach speeds of up to 20-25 miles per hour on the ground and fly for short distances at speeds approaching 55 miles per hour. They also have better eyesight and hearing than their domestic counterparts.

6. Fact or Fiction: Native Americans used cranberries, now a staple of many Thanksgiving dinners, for cooking as well as medicinal purposes.

Fact. According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, one of the country’s oldest farmers’ organizations, Native Americans used cranberries in a variety of foods, including “pemmican” (a nourishing, high-protein combination of crushed berries, dried deer meat and melted fat). They also used it as a medicine to treat arrow punctures and other wounds and as a dye for fabric. The Pilgrims adopted these uses for the fruit and gave it a name—”craneberry”—because its drooping pink blossoms in the spring reminded them of a crane.

7. Fact or Fiction: The movement of the turkey inspired a ballroom dance.

Fact. The turkey trot, modeled on that bird’s characteristic short, jerky steps, was one of a number of popular dance styles that emerged during the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States. The two-step, a simple dance that required little to no instruction, was quickly followed by such dances as the one-step, the turkey trot, the fox trot and the bunny hug, which could all be performed to the ragtime and jazz music popular at the time. The popularity of such dances spread like wildfire, helped along by the teachings and performances of exhibition dancers like the famous husband-and-wife team Vernon and Irene Castle.

8. Fact or Fiction: On Thanksgiving Day in 2007, two turkeys earned a trip to Disney World.

Fact. On November 20, 2007, President George W. Bush granted a “pardon” to two turkeys, named May and Flower, at the 60th annual National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation, held in the Rose Garden at the White House. The two turkeys were flown to Orlando, Florida, where they served as honorary grand marshals for the Disney World Thanksgiving Parade. The current tradition of presidential turkey pardons began in 1947, under Harry Truman, but the practice is said to have informally begun with Abraham Lincoln, who granted a pardon to his son Tad’s pet turkey.

9. Fact or Fiction: Turkey contains an amino acid that makes you sleepy.

Fact. Turkey does contain the essential amino acid tryptophan, which is a natural sedative, but so do a lot of other foods, including chicken, beef, pork, beans and cheese. Though many people believe turkey’s tryptophan content is what makes many people feel sleepy after a big Thanksgiving meal, it is more likely the combination of fats and carbohydrates most people eat with the turkey, as well as the large amount of food (not to mention alcohol, in some cases) consumed, that makes most people feel like following their meal up with a nap.

10. Fact or Fiction: The tradition of playing or watching football on Thanksgiving started with the first National Football League game on the holiday in 1934.

Fiction. The American tradition of college football on Thanksgiving is pretty much as old as the sport itself. The newly formed American Intercollegiate Football Association held its first championship game on Thanksgiving Day in 1876. At the time, the sport resembled something between rugby and what we think of as football today. By the 1890s, more than 5,000 club, college and high school football games were taking place on Thanksgiving, and championship match-ups between schools like Princeton and Yale could draw up to 40,000 fans. The NFL took up the tradition in 1934, when the Detroit Lions (recently arrived in the city and renamed) played the Chicago Bears at the University of Detroit stadium in front of 26,000 fans. Since then, the Lions game on Thanksgiving has become an annual event, taking place every year except during the World War II years (1939–1944).

Get the history behind the holiday. Access hundreds of hours of commercial-free series and specials with HISTORY Vault.

The Truth About Thanksgiving Is that the Debunkers Are Wrong

Setting people straight about Thanksgiving myths has become as much a part of the annual holiday as turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. But should historians bother? Jane Kamensky, a professor of history at Brandeis, asks on the website Common-Place (in 2001) whether it’s worth while “to plumb the bottom of it all – to determine, for example, . whether Plymouth’s ‘Pilgrims’ were indeed the grave-robbing hypocrites that UAINE [United American Indians of New England] describes. . Was the ‘first Thanksgiving’ merely a pretext for bloodshed, enslavement, and displacement that would follow in later decades?’ . “To ask whether this is true is to ask the wrong question. It’s true to its purposes. … And that’s all it needs to be. For these holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now.”

“And that’s all it needs to be”? I disagree. I think that a historian approaching the question of Thanksgiving Day in the “ever changing Now” will need to ask “the wrong question” – what of all this is true?

Surveying more than two hundred websites that “correct” our assumptions about Thanksgiving, it’s possible to sort them into groups and themes, especially since Internet sites often parrot each other. Very few present anything like the myths that most claim to combat. Almost all the corrections are themselves incorrect or banal. With heavy self-importance and pathetic political posturing, they demonstrate quite unsurprisingly that what was once taught in grade school lacked scope, subtlety, and minority insight.

Commonly the first point scored is that lots of people gave thanks before the Pilgrims did it in 1621. Local boosters in Virginia, Florida, and Texas promote their own colonists, who (like many people getting off a boat) gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Several sites claim that Indians had six thanksgivings every year at least one says that every day, every act, every thought was carried out with thanksgiving by pre-contact Indians. (My thanksgiving is bigger than your thanksgiving?)

Many sites point out that only Edward Winslow’s brief account records Plymouth Colony’s 1621 harvest festivities, beyond which we have just William Bradford’s seasonal comment that the Pilgrims ate turkey among other things. See, for example, Pilgrim Hall Museum’s website.

Archaeologist James Deetz made much of the fact that Winslow did not name the turkeys Bradford mentioned. This startling revelation (that in this case one should ignore Bradford’s general comments and suppose that Winslow was providing a complete menu listing) recurs in various websites, such as the 2002 article posted by the Christian Science Monitor.

More frequently repeated is Deetz’s emphatic reminder that Winslow did not use the word “thanksgiving” -- drawing the conclusion that therefore the 1621 event was not a thanksgiving but some sort of traditional English harvest festival he characterized as “secular.”

I’ve discussed this oversimplification previously in an article. Deetz’s assertion that there was no thanksgiving in 1621 is repeated at numerous websites. Often authors explain that what took place was so unlike later Puritan thanksgivings that it couldn’t have been a true thanksgiving, usually citing, for the definition of what that would have been, William DeLoss Love, The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England (Boston, New York: Houghton and Mifflin, 1895), a book whose title alone seems to have inspired the common web article notion that in New England people fasted as an expression of thanksgiving.

In “Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving,” Rick Shenkman, editor of HNN, announces that Thanksgiving was not about religion. Had it been, he says, “the Pilgrims never would have invited the Indians to join them. Besides, the Pilgrims would never have tolerated festivities at a true religious event. Indeed, what we think of as Thanksgiving was really a harvest festival. Actual ‘Thanksgivings’ were religious affairs everybody spent the day praying. Incidentally, these Pilgrim Thanksgivings occurred at different times of the year, not just in November.”

Responding to this in reverse order:

(1) that Thanksgivings were not limited to November does not mean that the first one held by the colonists in Plymouth (presumably in September or early October) was not a thanksgiving.

(2) The modern idea that in a religious thanksgiving “everyone spent the day praying” is inconsistent with the only description of the specific activities of a definitely identified thanksgiving day in early Plymouth Colony -- the thanksgiving held in Scituate in 1636 when a religious service was followed by feasting. (See my book The Seventeenth-Century Town Records of Scituate, Massachusetts (Boston: NEHGS, 2001), vol. 3, p. 513.)

(3) That “what we think of as Thanksgiving was really a harvest festival” (as if that meant it could not have been a thanksgiving) repeats Deetz’s incorrect opinion that an English harvest festival was non-religious or even irreligious.

(4) That the Pilgrims “would never have tolerated festivities at a true religious event” presumes a narrow definition of what a true religious event was before arriving through circular argument at a denial that what the Pilgrims did was such an event, because it differed from the axiomatic definition. (Ever been to a midwestern church picnic? Did tossing horseshoes and playing softball make it non-religious?)

(5) The Pilgrims attempted to pattern their religious activities according to biblical precedent. The precedent for a harvest festival was the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkoth (Deut. 16: 13-14), lasting seven days. The biblical injunction to include the "stranger" probably accounts for the Pilgrims' inviting their Native neighbors to rejoice with them. Besides Sukkoth, the Pilgrims’ experience of a Reformed Protestant thanksgiving every year in Leiden probably contributed to what they considered appropriate. The October 3 festivities commemorated the lifting of the Siege of Leiden in 1574, when half the town had died (an obvious parallel with the experience of the Pilgrims in the winter of 1620-21). Leiden’s ten-day festivity began with a religious service of thanksgiving and prayer, followed by meals, military exercises, games, and a free fair. The common assumption that the Pilgrims’ 1621 event should be judged against the forms taken by later Puritan thanksgivings - whether or not those are even correctly understood - overlooks the circumstance that the Pilgrims did not have those precedents when they attempted something new, intentionally based not on old English tradition but on biblical and Reformed example.

The History Channel website states that, “the colonists didn’t even call the day Thanksgiving. To them, a thanksgiving was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle. On such a religious day, the types of recreational activities that the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians participated in during the 1621 harvest feast – dancing, singing secular songs, playing games – wouldn’t have been allowed. The feast was a secular celebration, so it never would have been considered a thanksgiving in the pilgrims minds.”

Winslow, our sole source, says nothing about “dancing, singing secular songs, [or] playing games.” Those might be intended among Winslow’s general term “recreations,” but one cannot imagine, specify, and cite them as proof that the Pilgrims’ day was “a secular celebration.”

Thanksgiving seems to commemorate a heritage of false memory. The Internet myths of Thanksgiving range from Fundamentalists’ invention of a fake 1623 Thanksgiving Proclamation -- to prove that God was being thanked (not the Indians) -- through Libertarians’ use of the same fake to claim that “the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.”

If Thanksgiving was not about the discovery of private property’s profitability, not about help offered to the colonists by the Wampanoag Indians, not about God’s providence -- what was it?

William Loren Katz, author of Black Indians, A Hidden Heritage, writes that, “In 1637 Governor Bradford, who saw his colonists locked in mortal combat with dangerous Native Americans, ordered his militia to conduct a night attack on the sleeping men women and children of a Pequot Indian village. To Bradford, a devout Christian, the massacre was imbued with religious meaning.”

Clearly we should realize that these people were not nice, but just exactly how bad? “Not even Charles Manson and Jim Jones combined could compare with that murderous Doomsday cult – the Pilgrims,” says a website article called “The Pilgrims, Children of the Devil: Puritan Doomsday Cult Plunders Paradise." The site calls itself the Common Sense Almanac, Progressive Pages (and claims to be a project of the Center for Media and Democracy) and says: “According to William B. Newell, a Penobscot Indian and former chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, the first official Thanksgiving Day commemorated the massacre of 700 Indian men, women and children during one of their religious ceremonies.”

Newell, who is described in one site as having degrees from two universities (wow! Fancy that!), was convinced about the solidity of his research: “"My research is authentic because it is documentary," Newell said. "You can't get anything more accurate than that because it is first hand. It is not hearsay."

What’s not authentic is the claim that William Newell was head of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, whose faculty cannot recall him at all. When the department was founded in 1971, Newell was 79 years old. See the letter by department chair Jocelyn Linnekin here.

And what is completely untrue is the idea that the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony participated in the 1637 Pequot massacre. Although asked to send military assistance, the Plymouth court did not respond until two weeks after the slaughter had been carried out. See my book, Pilgrim Edward Winslow: New England’s First International Diplomat (Boston: NEHGS, 2004), pp. 164-168.

Is this important? Or is the lie “true to its purposes”?

The purposes can best be understood as fitting in with the description of the Pilgrims that animates the so-called National Day of Mourning sponsored by the United American Indians of New England. “The pilgrims . introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod … was to rob Wampanoag graves.”

Or as one of the founders of the National Day of Mourning, AIM’s Russell Means, claims, “After a colonial militia had returned from murdering the men, women, and children of an Indian village, the governor proclaimed a holiday and feast to give thanks for the massacre. He also encouraged other colonies to do likewise -- in other words, every autumn after the crops are in, go kill Indians and celebrate your murders with a feast.”

Did the Pilgrims rob Indian graves? Not really. As Winslow said, “ because we deemed them graves, we put in the bow again and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransack their sepulchres.” There’s more to the story.

One could go on. Someone should go on. To respond to all the assorted internet nonsense about Thanksgiving it is necessary to go on and on. I have, here.

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.

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

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.

Pilgrims took pity on Indigenous people and fed them.

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.”

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

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.

The Indigenous people who interacted with Pilgrims are extinct.

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.

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

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.

The Wampanoag are also seeking the return of the wampum belt of Metacom, one of their 17th-century chiefs. When he was killed in the 1670s, his belt was sent to King Charles II as a spoil of war. To the Wampanoag, the wampum belt is comparable to the crown jewels. Wampum is comprised of purple and white shells from whelks and quahog and plays a crucial role in the Tribe’s culture. According to the Washington Post, the whereabouts of Metacom’s belt is currently not known.

While colonization was an ugly chapter in American history, it’s over now.

Tribes in the United States are still dealing with the fallout of colonization, including the same Indigenous groups that helped the people survive.

As Malcolm X said of the Black experience in the United States, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.”

On Thanksgiving Day 1970, the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower landing, Natives took back Plymouth Rock. Frank James (Wamsutta), Wampanoag, gave a speech that discussed the suffering his people had endured after the arrival of the Pilgrims, and said that while many consider it a day of celebration, to this country’s Indigenous, it was a day of mourning. He then led a protest on Cole’s Hill near Plymouth Rock, close to a replica of the Mayflower and a statue of the Wampanoag leader Massasoit. American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Russell Means also spoke, and other AIM members boarded a replica of the Mayflower and later buried Plymouth Rock in dirt and refuse. That night, another AIM leader, John Trudell, returned and painted it red.

Since then, Natives and their allies continue to gather on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth on Thanksgiving Day to commemorate a National Day of Mourning. To many Natives in the United States, Thanksgiving is a reminder of the genocide of millions of the Indigenous ancestors and the theft of our lands because of colonialism. It’s become a way to honor our dead as well as protest the continuing racism and tyranny that we are being subjected to even now. There are still Natives who host family meals during this season, but that is because we’ve always held harvest feasts, long before the Pilgrims’ arrival.

Tribes are still under attack today. Natives live with historical trauma, crushing poverty on Reservations, a lack of adequate health care, racism, police brutality, voter suppression, little representation, an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and toxic pipelines being forced through our lands, among other pressing issues. We are still fighting for our Treaties to be honored, for our human rights, and for our survival.

Perhaps the holiday, like this country, can be salvaged. We shouldn’t celebrate genocide, but we can honor those who were killed, elevate Native voices, and embrace that spirit of generosity that Indigenous people shared with the Pilgrims. We can feed the hungry and shelter the houseless, and fund and advocate for Native causes and organizations. We can use this day to teach history, rather than hide it. Instead of forcing schoolchildren to partake in embarrassing Thanksgiving plays based on ugly stereotypes and colonial fiction, Native speakers and historians can come and educate them about Native culture. We can make this world what we want it to be. Create a more perfect union.

What is the real history behind Thanksgiving?

Long before any Europeans came to the New World, Native Americans had many feasts and celebrations of thanks.

Although the Pilgrims were searching for some religious freedom from the British Crown, they were really nothing more than English Colonists. They came for many other reasons also but regardless of what those reasons may have been, they were still loyal subjects to the British Crown.

In 1620 an English ship called the Mayflower set sail for the Americas. The ship was charted by a religious sect known as the Puritans. They were headed for what was called the Virginias.

Unfortunately, the Puritans ran out of beer and needed to make land as quickly as possible. Beer was used more often than water on the high seas since water on a ship could not be kept drinking safe. Thus they landed in December of 1620 on the shores of what is now Massachusetts.

They did not establish a settlement right away as often thought and taught in schools. They were not able to settle at the original landing.

These so called Pilgrims were not the first Europeans to the shores of the New England coast. In 1605 a British expedition led by Captain George Weymouth had landed on this particular coastline. When they left in 1614 they took 24 Natives as slaves and left smallpox, syphilis, and gonorrhea in their wake.

One of the Natives taken back to Europe was named Tisquantum (called Squanto by the white man).

The 102 Puritans landed and built their colony called The Plymouth Plantation on the ruins of the Native village of Pawtuxet. Pawtuxet had been destroyed by the Weymouth expedition. The Puritans survived by stealing the food stores of neighboring Native Summer Villages as well as eating corn that was still growing wild from abandoned cornfields near the ruined village.

Strangely enough, Tisquantum, who had survived his trips to Europe, happened to come upon these Puritans while hunting with another Native named Samoset. They observed the newcomers and finally one day Tisquantum send Samoset over to greet the Puritans with the word “Welcome.”

Tisquantum soon joined and the Puritans were surprised to find two “savages” that spoke their language. The Puritans were terrible at survival, but with the help of Tisquantum they were able to harvest some late corn and learned to catch some game. Tisquantum also helped the colonists negotiate a treaty with the Wampanoag People near by who were led by Massasoit.

Still many of the Puritans quickly succumbed to pneumonia and consumption. It was a hard winter and some 46 of the original 102 Mayflower people died.

18 Thanksgiving Facts You'll Want to Tell Everyone You Know

Thanksgiving Day is mainly composed of three activities: spending time with family, watching football, and eating a hearty meal of turkey. While football season may look a bit different this year and you might see less friends and family than you'd like, you&rsquoll want to do more than scroll through Instagram while commercials play and you wait for the food to be done. What better way to keep the conversation going than with Thanksgiving Day facts?

To be fair, however, Thanksgiving is itself a blend of facts and myths: Some so-called origins of our traditions lack evidence, while many parts of the holiday have become purely commercialized. Here's what we do know about Thanksgiving, from its origin to how we celebrate it today.

1. Historians have no record of turkey being eaten at the first Thanksgiving.

The first Thanksgiving Day feast happened in 1621 with three whole days dedicated to the celebration. Although turkey was plentiful in the region and a common food source, it's likely that it wasn&rsquot actually the star of the festivities and other "fowling" was served for the occasion. Instead, "ducks, geese, and swans" are believed to have been served to the English settlers and Native Americans.

2. Benjamin Franklin wished the turkey was the national bird.

In a letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin wrote, "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird." And although Franklin didn&rsquot have his wish granted, his letter inspired a song performed in 1776, the Tony-winning musical about the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

3. The first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade had Central Park Zoo animals.

The Macy&rsquos Thanksgiving Day Parade was originally called the "Macy's Christmas Parade" to kick off the holiday shopping season. Held in 1924, the first parade included monkeys, bears, camels, and elephants borrowed from the Central Park Zoo instead of the traditional character balloons we know today.

4. Snoopy has made the most appearances in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Forty-four years after the first Macy&rsquos Thanksgiving Day Parade, Snoopy made his debut as a balloon in 1968. Throughout the years, the beagle has had a total of seven balloons, making 39 appearances "on and off through 2015" before he was replaced with Charlie Brown in 2016. He returned as an astronaut for the 2019 parade, bringing his balloon total to eight.

5. Sarah Josepha Hale was actually the "Mother of Thanksgiving."

Famously known for writing "Mary Had a Little Lamb," Sarah Josepha Hale was a 19th-century writer and editor who was nicknamed the Mother (or Godmother) of Thanksgiving. The name seemed fitting after she wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward in 1863 calling for the declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

6. The first professional Thanksgiving Day football game was played 1920.

A century ago, Thanksgiving Day fell on November 25 and there were six football games played, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Non-league teams like Elyria Athletics went up against league teams counted in standings. Football fans, whip these stats out from the results of that year's games and you will WIN at table talk:

  • Akron Pros (7) vs. Canton Bulldogs (0)
  • Decatur Staleys (6) vs. Chicago Tigers (0)
  • Elyria (OH) Athletics (0) vs. Columbus Panhandles (0)
  • Dayton Triangles (28) vs. Detroit Heralds (0)
  • Chicago Boosters (27) vs. Hammond Pros (0)
  • All-Tonawanda (NY) (14) vs. Rochester Jeffersons (3)

7. Thanksgiving was once celebrated on the third Thursday in November.

Decades after President Lincoln officially declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, President Roosevelt wanted to mix things up by moving it up to the third Thursday in November instead of the fourth. By doing this, seven shopping days were added to the holiday season in 1939, but the change upset football coaches whose weekend Thanksgiving games were switched to regular weekday games. Plus, calendars were printed with incorrect dates.

8. "Jingle Bells" was originally a Thanksgiving Day song.

Before becoming a Christmas anthem, "Jingle Bells" was an 1857 song titled "One Horse Open Sleigh," and its composer, James Pierpont, intended it to be a Thanksgiving Day song. But it became so popular around December 25 that in 1859 the title was changed to "Jingle Bells" and the rest is history!

9. Butterball has had a Turkey Talk-Line open for nearly 40 years.

If you find yourself with a million questions about cooking your turkey and Google is too overwhelming, reach for the phone, because the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is real and there to help you. Open to U.S. and Canadian homes every November and December, the unique hotline, which first opened in 1981, is also available to take questions through online chat and email. Plus, there are Spanish-speaking experts! Each year, more than 100,000 people reach out for help.

10. Each year, about 46 million turkeys are cooked.

Thanksgiving Day and turkey go hand-in-hand, so this number shouldn&rsquot be too much of a surprise. Although not all Americans celebrate the holiday, there are still millions of families gathering around the table to eat one of the most special meals of the year&mdashand for those who aren&rsquot satisfied with only one day of it, Christmas is also a popular occasion to cook another turkey.

11. The turkey's tryptophan doesn't actually make you tired.

On Thanksgiving Day, you probably expect you&rsquoll be tired after eating turkey, thanks to claims made about the amino acid tryptophan. But the holiday bird isn&rsquot actually to blame&mdashthe reason you can&rsquot imagine doing anything else but watching football on the couch is just because you over-ate. "After you've had a big meal your body goes into basically shutdown mode and sleep gets promoted," Dr. Daniel Barone explained to Business Insider, saying that the phenomenon is called "postprandial fatigue."

12. The majority of Americans secretly dislike classic Thanksgiving dishes but will eat them anyway.

A whopping 68% of Americans dislike Thanksgiving dishes like canned cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and even turkey itself, according to a 2019 Instacart survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted online by The Harris Poll&mdashbut they'll still eat them in honor of tradition. Times are changing, however: 30% of Thanksgiving dinner hosts have served something other than turkey as their main course (pork is the second most popular option).

13. Many people enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers more than the meal itself.

The atmosphere on Thanksgiving Day is unlike any other: the kitchen bustling with last-minute cooking, the dining table set with the best china, and a football game playing on the TV. But according to a 2015 poll by the Harris Poll, people actually enjoy leftovers more than the actual meal. So confidently eat your leftover stuffing and mashed potatoes, because you won&rsquot be the only one doing so.

14. TV dinners are a Thanksgiving-leftover invention.

Well, sort of. In 1953, an overzealous Swanson employee overestimated the number of frozen turkeys the company should order for Thanksgiving&mdashand the company was left with 260 tons of excess turkey after the holiday. But rather than eat the loss (financially, we mean), salesman Gerry Thomas came up with the brilliant idea to create pre-made turkey dinners served re-heatable individual trays, just like airline meals. By the end of 1954, Swanson had sold 10 million frozen turkey meals, and the TV dinner industry was born.

15. President George H. W. Bush was the first to pardon a turkey.

In 1989, the 41st president pardoned the first turkey&mdashthat is, assured he would never become somebody's dinner&mdashever after noticing the 50-pound bird looked a little antsy at his official Thanksgiving proclamation. Since then, every president has upheld the tradition and a few of the turkeys have gone on to serve a different purpose. In 2005 and 2009, the birds went to Disneyland and Disney World parks to participate in the annual Thanksgiving parades.

16. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is known as "Drinksgiving."

The holiday season is a time of celebration, which means toasts upon toasts are made. Before the annual feast even begins, there's the night before Thanksgiving&mdashwhich has come to be known as one of the booziest days of the year. It's even come to be known as &ldquoBlack Wednesday&rdquo in some places. Bars aren&rsquot the only businesses experiencing a boom this night Uber has even offered free rides on the night over the past few years.

17. Black Friday, aka the day after Thanksgiving, is the busiest day for plumbers.

Sure, it's a big day for shoppers&mdashbut also drainage professionals. Plumbing and drainage companies don't really get the Friday after Thanksgiving off, since it's one of their busiest days of the year. (Why, you can only imagine.) In fact, the day is so busy for these services that Roto-Rooter Plumbing and Water Cleaning company actually calls it "Brown Friday."

18. The turkey bird is actually linked to the country Turkey.

If you've ever wondered which came first, the bird or the egg country, we have a definitive answer: The turkey bird got its name from the country due to a case of mistaken identity! During the Ottoman Empire, guinea fowl were exported from East Africa via Turkey to Europe, and Europeans started calling the birds turkey-cocks or turkey-hens due to the trade route. So when Europeans first sailed to North America and discovered birds that looked similar to guinea fowl, they called them "turkeys."

More Comments:

Michelle lee fortin - 11/21/2007

Aaawwww, kinda ruined the mood!!
I liked believing those myths!! :)

Mich Librarian - 11/14/2007

The first North American Thanksgiving was held in what is now Newfoundland (Canada) in 1578 by the English explorer martin Frobisher.

John H. Kimbol - 11/14/2007

"sex as a God-given responsibility"
hahahah. you Christians and your silly notions of shame.

Philip Taterczynski - 11/29/2004

Actually, witches who were executed by hanging, not burning. Historically, worldwide, far more people were executed for heresy, not witchcraft, but many people fail to make this distinction.

John H. Lederer - 11/25/2004

"thus tending to support the claims of authors such as Randolph Roth that guns were accurate enough to hit targets."

From the large quantity of birds I rather suspect that the firearms used were either "fowlers" or "punt guns". These are very large bore smoothbores that shoot a large amount of shot in the direction of a flock of birds (usually waterfowl) that are not flying. Typically one might kill a dozen or two birds in a shot. They are usually shot from a rest (forked limb, oarlock, etc.)

Not good proof of accuracy <g>

Though this percussion fowler is much later in date, I suspect that it is a conversion from a flintlock. Similar dimensions, less graceful lines, and a clubbier butt to the stock would probably be similar to a fowler

At the time period the ignition system was probably a mathlock, though early flintlocks would have been starting to take over.

In practice the inherent accuracy of an early firearm is not very meaningful. In use, they are inaccurate. It is very difficult to hit a bird on the fly with a matchlock, and quite difficult with a flintlock. The problem is the erratic time to ignition from trigger pull and amount of commotion before the shot itself. The shooter has to have the discipline to continue swinging the firearm on the moving target while, quite close to his face, a heavy hammer falls, and a blast of heat and white smoke comes out near his face.

The problem becomes much simpler with a percussion firearm.

Lloyd G Drako - 11/25/2004

So, all the Pilgrims were Puritans, but not all Puritans were Pilgrims. There, that settles it.

Val Jobson - 11/24/2004

In 1578 Martin Frobisher's expedition celebrated Thanksgiving while exploring in the eastern Arctic.

Ernesto Paris - 12/1/2003

I think this celebration is BEUTIFUL

Tim Hamilton - 12/1/2003

I just had to comment. One the Pilgrims didn't invite the locals. It was the other way around because the Pilgrims were starving, the locals felt had pity on them and brought them food during their Thanksgiving ceremony.
The Native Americans have a completely, and more believable story behind the feast.
Also after a year or two of being fed by a local village, the Europeans went to the village and slaughtered most of the people, to steal their food.

History of the Occupation vs. History of the Oppressed.

AJ - 11/28/2003

And the puritans who stayed in England were NOT fun either - Oliver Cromwell banned make-up, theatre and Christmas as well as slaughtering thousands of Irish Catholics.

Sccatalyst - 11/28/2003

Good on the Puritans. Imagine that, people actually telling other people that their view is not necessarily affirmed, is harmful to the society. You'd better reference your propaganda though about forced labor and mutilation and I'm not talking about someone's home spun website.

Maybe we should be flexing like they did in this country today.

Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans rock.

Night Owl - 11/27/2003

"The Sabbatarian, antiliquor, and antisex attitudes usually attributed to the Puritans are a nineteenth-century addition to the much more moderate and wholesome view of life's evils held by the early settlers of New England."

Was the desire to burn witches part of this 'moderate and wholesome view of life's evils'? Or was it all just good, clean fun?

David - 11/27/2003

"I don't know who or what they were giving thanks to! Maybe each other for helping each other survive.

A typical and expected multi-culti look back at the origins and traditions of our country and culture.

I'm sorry if you felt belittled. It wasn't my intention to make you feel less "worthy" on thanksgiving than anybody else. If you don't believe in God, your thanks will be directed elsewhere, perhaps towards people, as you say. Each to his own.

But I just wanted to make sure that, as we relentlessly rewrite the past, some simple realities will survive unscathed from this butchers cleaver.

No, my friend. The puritans were giving thanks to God, attempts to rewrite history, and "dispel myths", notwithstanding.

Allen Burnsworth - 11/27/2003

I don't know who or what they were giving thanks to! Maybe each other for helping each other survive. Maybe to what their perception of God was at that time. Which I doubt since I'm pretty certain that the indian's there at the time weren't Monotheistic. I think we all get it Dave. We know your a religious fundamentalist zealot. O.K., O.K.! We're not as good as you! We get it!

But you know what. I'm still thankful for my family, my friends, opportunities, great sex, great rap music, great classical music, great art, all of these things that make me laugh, cry, and enjoy life with all of it's foibles and faux pas' as well as the excitement and exhilaration of just living. And no I don't need a god to tell me that. I don't know if there is a god. But I'm pretty certain that if there is He/She/It would be more concerned that we enjoy life, than whether or not we can belittle someone into thinking our way. If the purpose of life is not to enjoy it, then I don't know what it could be.

It's your planet. Do what you love!,

Jahfrey - 11/26/2003

David - 11/26/2003

Although you may feel free to discuss the demoninational nuances between 'puritans', 'pilgrims', 'separatists', etc., the fact still remains that they were a christian religious sect that arrived in America for religious reasons. And they didn't give thanks to Indians, nor turkeys, nor did they give thanks at the Temple of No Particular Deity in the underground city of Zion. They gave thanks to GOD, the God of the Bible.

Beth Quitslund - 11/26/2003

Yes, the Mass Bay colony was very rigid about religous conformity and particularly nasty to the indigenous people. One of the major disagreements between the Plymouth group and the Mass one, in fact, was the treatment of native peoples: the Plymouth plantation was far more inclined to negotiate with the local tribes, and viewed the Mass Bay Colony's unremitting hostility to the indigenous people as imprudent.

David - 11/25/2003

Who were they giving thanks to? The indians? The turkeys?

Take a wild guess my God-hating atheistic friends.

Wesley Smart - 11/24/2003

Can the editor of HNN answer for everyone whether it is the policy of HNN to extend their editing to the content of particular posts? I posted material in a thread in the Prescott Bush article the other day, and reread it several times when checking to see if Ralph Luker had replied to it.

I check it today and find that much of it had been removed. Not the entire comment, mind you, just enough of it that Ralph Luker was unable to reply to my argument.

Dave Livingston - 11/22/2003

Rick may or may not have succumbed to El Paso's C of C hype. Nonetheless it is true, Rick is correct, that thanksgiving was celebrated by Christians in America long before Plymouth Rock. For instance, it is said that there is a church in Santa Fe in which the Mass has been celebrarted daily, without fail, for a hundred years before Plymouth Rock. Indeed, a few years ago in Curenevaca I went to Mass in a cathedral the foundation stone of which is said to have been laid by a fellow by the name of Cortes. Perhaps the secular mind cannot grasp the concept, every Mass celebrated is a celebration of thanksgiving.

For us European Americans whatever harvest celebrations the Stone Age Indian celebrated prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims is beside the point that the Thanksgiving celebrated in most American homes is a Protestant religious celebration firsdt and foremost. To whom do we give trhanks? God. Without acknowledging Him the vcelevration is meaningless.

Clearly, today's secular mind has difficulty in grasping (resents?)how pervasive was the Christian mindset in European mand in the Middle Ages & in the early modern period.

It is amusing how vexing it may be to the secular mind, hating religion, America's traditional immersion in Christianity, that our two most important holidays in this secular society are religious: the Protestant Thanksgiving & the Catholic Christmas (Christ's Mass).

Editor of HNN - 12/4/2002

The Boston Herald
November 28, 2002 Thursday ALL EDITIONS
HEADLINE: Prof: Spanish colonists held first Thanksgiving
BYLINE: By Jules Crittenden
The Pilgrims' Thanksgiving wasn't the first in the New World, a Florida professor says, and it's about time Americans put a few more seats at the table to make room for other historical traditions.
Long before the 1621 meal the Pilgrims shared with the local Wampanoag, University of Florida Professor Michael V. Gannon said, a band of 800 Spanish colonists grateful to have fended off a French attack, sat down to pray and then eat with the local Seloy tribe in St. Augustine, Fla.
That Mass of Thanksgiving took place Sept. 8, 1565 - 55 years before the Mayflower dropped anchor off Cape Cod. "While the holiday that observes the events in Plymouth is an important one in our national culture, let's not forget it was preceded by a similar event 56 years earlier," Gannon said.
"I don't mind the Plymouth story at all. But it overlooks the fact that there were earlier settlements and earlier Thanksgivings. Let's enjoy all of them."
Explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his Spanish followers probably dined on cocido - a stew made from salted pork and garbanzo beans, laced with garlic seasoning - hard sea biscuits and red wine, said Gannon.
If the Seloy Indians contributed food, then the menu could have included wild turkey, venison, tortoise, fish, corn, beans and squash, he said.
"I recommend that for an authentic Thanksgiving dinner, that's what people have," Gannon said.
The first Thanksgiving is recounted by Gannon in "We Gather Together," an article published in this month's St. Augustine Catholic, the publication of the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine.
Gannon and Boston College historian Thomas O'Connor said the Pilgrim story won out in large part because it reflected the English and Protestant culture that dominated North America.
"It is also a homegrown celebration that's not imported from Europe. Behind the Spanish Thanksgiving is the Spanish church and the Spanish crown. Behind the Pilgrim Thanksgiving is the Mayflower Compact," O'Connor said, referring to the document that is seen as the first step toward democracy in the New World.
But O'Connor said he would not be surprised to see a Hispanic and Catholic Thanksgiving heritage become popular.
Carolyn Travers, a researcher at Plimoth Plantation, the Pilgrim re-enactment site in Plymouth, said the traditional New England Thanksgiving is also distinguished by having been celebrated every year since at least 1693.
But she said Plymouth doesn't have a monopoly on images and expressions of thankfulness.
"The more, the merrier," Travers said.

James Lindgren - 11/28/2002

The only original account of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth is Edward Winslow's in the first entry here:

Note that fowl was the main dish mentioned, though the 90 Native Americans went out and killed 5 deer, whether before they came or (more likely) after 3 days of feasting is unclear. Note also that for entertainment they exercised their arms and that four colonists shot in one day almost enough fowl for over 50 people feasting for nearly a week, thus tending to support the claims of authors such as Randolph Roth that guns were accurate enough to hit targets.

"Our Corne did proue well, & God be praysed, we had a good increase of Indian Corne, and our Barly indifferent good, but our Pease not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sowne, they came vp very well, and blossomed, but the Sunne parched them in the blossome our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a more speciall manner reioyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst vs, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed fiue Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed upon our Governour, and upon the Captaine, and others. And although it be not alwayes so plentifull, as it was at this time with vs, yet by the goodneses of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

Akinyele brandley - 7/31/2002

Not many writers who are of the European ancestory write about the truth plain and clear , its beautiful.

Michael Grace - 4/25/2002

It is a good bet that the Pilgrims brought the Thanksgiving celebration with them from England/Britain. Bearing in mind that these people were not Americans but expat English in effect, they would have no doubt wanted to retain old customs of home on the North American soil.

A thanksgiving celebration has been in existence in Britain since pre Christian times and is still know to this day as Harvest Festival but is also referred to as thanksgiving. So what does one mean by the first thanksgiving? Clearly thanksgiving predates Europeans reaching N. American soil.

Ronald Dale Karr - 11/23/2001

Even Gura's getting a bit dated. Especially in English scholarship, the term "Puritan" or "puritan" has been subject to a lot of questioning, with some arguing that the term is so difficult to define that it provides little historical meaning. (One conference I attended featured a paper by an English scholar that included the phrase, "It's Puritanism, Jim, but not as we know it!") Certainly the recent scholarship on the Family of Love throws into question a lot of what we thought we knew about English religious radicalism.

In the English context, separatists such as the Pilgrims fell clearly into the Puritan camp. Once here, the Mass Bay Puritans, despite their protestations to the contrary, quickly adopted a system of congregational churches that differed hardly at all from that of Plymouth (that is, whenever Plymouth actually had a minister!). The statement that the Pilgrims "wanted nothing to do with the non-separarting congregationalists of the Bay Colony" distorts the complex relationship between the two English colonies that ultimatlely led to the creation of the New England Confederation.

John P. Bloom - 11/22/2001

Historian Shenkman is doing a disservice to history in proposing: "To see what the first Thanksgiving was like you have to go to: Texas. " He has succumbed to an El Paso Chamber of Commerce hype. If capital-T Thanksgiving has any reality in the US, it has to be based (centuries back) on the harvest festivals held by many peoples, and/or on the various proclamations by US Presidents referring to events staged by early English colonists. The main element of Oñate's ceremony in April (sic) 1898 near present El Paso was to proclaim possession of the area for the Spanish crown. Sure, they were glad to have reached the Río Grande in their journey, but they gave similar thanks at other stages of their trip to colonize New Mexico, so El Paso can assert no uniqueness in that. They also held other ceremonies proclaiming possession for the crown as they went along. PLEASE!--don't spread a new myth abroad in looking for ways to poke fun at schoolchild myths! (Now, the Virginia claim is something else. ) Ref for instance David Weber, _The Spanish Frontier in North America_, pp. 77ff.

John Stahler - 11/21/2001

Regarding myths 9 & 10: The non-separating congregationalists living in the bay Colony during the mid-17th century were fruitful and multiplied, so they had to have sex at some point. However, if they enjoyed it, there was nothing communicated about it. Also, regarding #10, the Puritans were anything but nice people. They established an ecclesiastical oligarchy, and were very totalitarian in the way they governed. By the mid-1650s, they were engaging in a brutal suppression of all who disagreed with their point of view. This suppression included large fines, confiscation of both real property and chattel, forced hard labor, banishment, imprisonment, mutilation (having body parts removed or a hot poker stuck through your tongue) and execution. Unfortunately, these were not isolated instances of overzealous persecution, but regular and recurring actions by those in power. So many were banished to Rhode Island (which they referred to as the "sewer of New England"), that church membership actually declined. They were not a lot of fun to be around.

John Stahler - 11/21/2001

The "Pilgrims" were NOT Puritans, but Leydon separatists, and wanted nothing to do with the non-separarting congregationalists of the Bay Colony. As for the work of Perry Miller, a much more accurate and comprehensive view of the Puritan society during the mid-17th century can be enjoyed in "A Glimpse of Sion's Glory", 1982, Wesleyan University Press, by Philip F. Gura. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard, and researched much of his fascinating book at Harvard and other Boston area archives utilizing many original documents. The views of Miller, et al, while not discredited, warrant serious revision based upon Dr. Gura's work.

CG - 11/21/2001

The statement that the "Pilgrims" were not Puritans is untrue. They were simply a different set of Puritans who came to North America via the mainland of Europe, where they'd lived for some years before 1620. A good discussion of the distinction between Plymouth Puritans ("Separating Separatists") and Massachusetts Bay Puritans ("Non-Separating Separatists") can be found in Perry Miller's _Orthodoxy in Massachusetts_.

Glenna - 11/21/2001

Though the points are well taken about shooting down Thanksgiving myths, I believe that it is misplaced to attribute our current Thanksgiving menus only to the Victorian era. When I first read the first American cookbook, Amelia Simmons' "American Cookery," which appeared in 1796, I was struck by the fact that it codified recipes for many dishes that we eat on Thanksgiving, including roast turkey and puumpkin pie.

The Story Of Thanksgiving Is A Science-Fiction Story

It has come to my attention that people are woefully uninformed about certain episodes in the Thanksgiving narrative. For example, almost no one mentions the part where Squanto threatens to release a bioweapon buried under Plymouth Rock that will bring about the apocalypse.

I learned about this and other similarly neglected episodes from the Smithsonian Magazine’s Thanksgiving article, and I can’t believe I spent seven years of primary school cutting out little belt-buckle hats and feather headdresses while everyone avoided telling me the interesting stuff.

I think the problem is the story of Thanksgiving doesn’t really fit in the fables beloved of primary school teachers and moralists. The article above has convinced me that the proper genre for Thanksgiving is science-fiction.

Mr. S, an ordinary American, is minding his own business outside his East Coast home when he is suddenly abducted by short, large-headed creatures from another world. They bring him to their ship and voyage across unimaginable distances to an alien empire both grander and more horrible than he could imagine. The aliens have godlike technologies, but their society is dystopian and hivelike. Enslaved at first, then displayed as a curiosity, he finally wins his freedom through pluck and intelligence. Despite the luxuries he enjoys in his new life, he longs for his homeworld. He befriends a local noble who tells him that the aliens in fact send ships to his world on a regular basis, quietly scouting and seeking resources while the inhabitants remain blissfully unaware of these incursions. He gets passage on such an expedition.

Before his ship gets far, he is abducted and sold into slavery again, only to be rescued by a sect of alien priests who believe he may hold the key to saving his entire race. They are kind to him and ask him to stay, but when he refuses they reluctantly arrange him passage home.

Yet when he returns, Mr. S finds a postapocalyptic wasteland utterly unlike the world he left. America is empty, its great cities gone, a few survivors fighting for scraps among the ruins. 95% of the population is dead, slain by a supervirus unlike any doctors have ever seen. The few rumors from afar say Mexico, Canada, and lands further abroad have suffered the same or worse. He finds the site where his hometown once stood. There is nothing. Wandering in despair, he is captured by a gang of roving bandits and awaits execution or slavery.

Instead, the bandit leader reveals he is the state governor, reduced to his current station by the devastation that destroyed his capital and entire government. An alien ship has landed, and a handful of colonists have set up a little settlement. The governor’s scouts have been watching them from afar and noticed their strange powers. With their help, he could defeat his rivals and re-establish control over the state, restore his old position. “You have been to these creatures’ homeworld,” he says. “You know their ways, you can speak their language. Negotiate an alliance with them, and I will let you live.”

Mr. S is split. The aliens have shown themselves capable of terrible cruelty. They might kill him or enslave him. But they have also shown themselves capable of something resembling kindness. In the end he decides they are neither fully good nor fully evil – just alien. And his own people now seem as alien to him as his former abductors.

So Mr. S heads to the alien settlement, where once again he finds dystopian squalor and shocking ignorance combined with fantastic technology. The aliens are unfamiliar with even the basics of agriculture and desperate for aid. He quickly makes himself indispensable, and although he successfully gets the ex-governor his treaty, he starts forming grander plans. What if he could use these aliens as a tool to unite the warring bands of survivors? Break the ex-governor’s stranglehold on the region? Start rebuilding civilization? What if he could make something completely new, a merger of American ingenuity and alien technology?

Gradually establishing a base for himself in the alien colony, he starts sending out feelers to the local warlords and bands of survivors, speaking of the aliens’ power, implying but never stating outright that such power could be theirs. At first it seems to be working. The warlords treat him as an equal, start to listen to his ideas. They just need one little push. He decides to try an insane bluff.

The apocalypse, he reveals, was no plague but a bioengineered alien superweapon, an attack unleashed by their warships in retaliation for some offense real or imagined. The aliens have brought caches of this weapon from their homeworld and buried it underneath their colony. If they are crossed, they will unleash a second cataclysm, killing even the scattered survivors who made it through the first. And the one who manipulates the aliens, who can unleash their wrath upon a target of his choosing and who is thus unstoppable? This guy.

Just as he seems on the verge of some success, Mr. S takes a step too far. He tries to free himself from his old nemesis the ex-governor by “warning” the aliens of his plot to kill them the alien leader discovers the subterfuge and the strike against the ex-governor never takes place. When the surviving Americans learn of this betrayal, they accuse Mr. S of going native and turn against him en masse. He dies a few months later of what is suspected to be poison, perhaps planted by one of the governor’s men. The aliens seem to take it in stride.

And then a few generations later, they kill nearly everyone. Mercilessly. They do it while praising and admiring their victims. When their genocide is over, they make loud protestations of regret, and try to placate the survivors with gifts. But they do not stop until the massacre is complete. They are neither fully good nor fully evil – just alien.

Then, still caught up in the legends of their homeworld, they forget everything more than a slight inkling that an apocalypse ever happened. A few strangely shaped hills that look like they might be artificial – who built them? Hundreds of miles of groves – who planted them? It is not in the aliens’ nature to think too much about such things.

As for Mr. S? The man who traveled worlds, who pulled the puppet strings behind the scenes, who tried in vain to reverse the fall of civilization? The aliens remember him fondly. Their legends record him as the person who taught them how to fertilize corn with fish heads.

Thanksgiving: Fact or Fiction - HISTORY

Grade Range: 2-6
Resource Type(s): Reviewed Websites, Interactives & Media
Date Posted: 9/1/2009

This interactive Web site from Plimoth Plantation, a Smithsonian Affiliate, focuses on clarifying fact and fiction surrounding the "First Thanksgiving." Students use audio from Plimoth Plantation historians, images of artifacts, and a glossary to answer questions and explore the lives of the Wamapanoag and English settlers, and their interactions. The presentation encourages critical thinking and historical investigation. A related Teacher's Guide includes a bibliography, educational standards alignment, and printable versions of the Web site's content. This site works best in Internet Explorer 5+. The site is most appropriate for children in grades two through six.


TWENTY days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. Did you know that most of what we know (or think we know) about the First Thanksgiving comes from a work of fiction? Read on for the details.

In my last post I noted that Americans have long been tempted to make up stuff about the First Thanksgiving. This is true, in part, because so little evidence about the event has survived. The only surviving firsthand account of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration comes from the pen of Pilgrim Edward Winslow, who wrote the following brief description in a letter to England not long afterward:

Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling that so we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our Arms many of the Indians coming amongst us. And amongst the rest, their greatest King, Massasoyt, with some ninety men whom, for three days, we entertained and feasted. And they went out, and killed five deer: which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain, and others.

These 115 words don’t give us a whole lot to go on, do they? And yet Americans have constructed quite an elaborate edifice on this flimsy foundation.

In actuality, much of what might be called the “traditional” memory of the Pilgrim’s 1621 celebration dates from the late-nineteenth century. This was a time when “television was called books,” to quote the grandfather in The Princess Bride, and no book was more successful in making the First Thanksgiving “come alive” than a best-selling historical novel by Jane Austin.

No, not Jane Austen, the early-nineteenth century British writer famous for novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. I’m referring to Jane Austin (notice the different spelling of the last name), the late-nineteenth century American author of such literary classics as A Nameless Nobleman, Mrs. Beauchamp Brown, and Nantucket Scraps. In 1889 this fifty-eight-year-old New England wife and mother penned Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, and in the process created a stereotypical view of the First Thanksgiving that has lasted for generations.

Austin promised her readers that they would “not be misled as to facts, though these be strung upon a slender thread of romance.” In reality, romance dominates the plot, and as for the facts, well, let’s just say that they were few and far between. Historical novels always involve some combination of fact and faction, but Austin embellished the historical record with a vengeance. This was particularly true of her chapter on “The First Thanksgiving of New England,” where she had few known facts to constrain her and could let her imagination run wild. My own (conservative) guess would be that 99 percent of the material in this chapter is pure invention.

To begin with, there is a pervasive romantic tension that reads like the script of a network soap opera. In this one single chapter (out of forty) we learn that John Howland is interested in Elizabeth Tilley (and that both enjoy popcorn) that the widower Bradford has apparently been making eyes at Mary Chilton that the widower Allerton has proposed unsuccessfully to Priscilla Mullins that Priscilla only has eyes for John Alden, though he has yet to succumb to her “saucy” and “bewitching” glances that Myles Standish is infatuated with Priscilla and that Standish is secretly admired by Desire Minter, who has enlisted the aid of an Indian woman in brewing a love potion that will win his affections. “Slender thread” indeed.

Significantly, Austin also creatively embellished Winslow’s skeletal description of the Pilgrims’ celebration. She tells us which four men the governor sent hunting, who was dispatched to invite Massasoit, which three men welcomed the Indians when they arrived at sunrise on a Thursday morning, what Edward Winslow was doing at that precise moment (he was buttoning his doublet), and what Massasoit’s brother thought to himself as he marveled at the Pilgrims’ marksmanship.

As Austen tells the story, however, the Indians soon recede into the background, and this Victorian housewife reserves her most lavish detail for the imagined culinary accomplishments and domestic sensibilities of the Pilgrim womenfolk. We read that “by noon the long tables were spread” in the most idyllic of settings, as “the thick yellow sunshine filtered through with just warmth enough for comfort, and the sighing southerly breeze brought wafts of perfume from the forest.” The menu for the banquet would have done honor to a Boston hotel. There were numerous enormous turkeys, of course (“more succulent” than “any I ever saw at home,” according to John Alden), perfectly complemented by Priscilla Alden’s beechnut stuffing. But there was much, much more:

The oysters in the scallop shells were a singular success [the ladies had fried the oysters in a mixture of bread crumbs, spices, and wine, and placed a serving of the delicacy in a clamshell at each man’s place], and so were the mighty venison pasties, and the savory stew compounded of all that flies the air, and all that flies the hunter in Plymouth woods, no longer flying now but swimming in a glorious broth cunningly seasoned by Priscilla’s anxious hand, and thick bestead with dumplings of barley flour, light, toothsome, and satisfying. Besides there were roasts of various kinds, and thin cakes of bread or manchets [loaves or rolls made from the finest wheat flour], and bowls of salad set off with wreaths of autumn leaves laid around them, and great baskets of grapes, white and purple, and of the native plum, so delicious when fully ripe in its three colors of black, white, and red.

Martha Stewart, meet Priscilla Alden.

You’ve got to give Austin credit for a lively imagination, and in truth, the problem with Standish of Standish doesn’t lie in its grandiose embellishment of the historical record, per se. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with historical fiction as long as we know that’s what we’re getting. Austin was far from candid about the extent of her embellishment, however, and we can only wonder how long her nose grew when she promised her readers that they would “not be misled as to facts.” What is certain is that the public adored how she made the past come alive.

Austin’s novel went through twenty-eight printings and has shaped popular memories of the First Thanksgiving ever since. In 1897 the national magazine Ladies’ Home Journal drew heavily from Austin’s novel for an article titled “The First Thanksgiving Dinner.” Only eight years after the publication of Standish of Standish, Austin’s fictional recreation was so widely accepted that the magazine repeated her details as unquestioned historical fact.

The Journal did add one important contribution to the story, however. While Standish of Standish had included no illustrations, the magazine’s article was headed by a sketch from an artist named W. L. Taylor. The drawing, widely reproduced and imitated, featured the now familiar portrayal of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag seated at a heavily-laden banquet table, the Indians obviously uncomfortable in such a formal setting, the Pilgrims—decked out in black suits, white lace collars, and high steepled hats—much more at ease.

Rethinking Thanksgiving: Myths and Misgivings

In 2006, an Atlanta newspaper ran several photos with captions describing the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday. The first picture featured a 5-year-old girl wearing a precision-cut fringe vest made out of a brown paper bag from a local grocery store (as identified by the store name and tagline detailed prominently in big blue letters on the vest). On top of her head sat a multicolored feather headdress made of construction paper. The caption under the picture read: “Feathers in her cap. Ava adjusts the headdress of her American Indian costume for a Clairemont Elementary School Thanksgiving feast. More photos from the feast are on page J9.”

Page J9 includes three additional pictures—one showing a group of Pilgrims (with white paper collars and hats) and Indians (as identified by their feather headdresses, of course). A second picture shows students in “costume” working on a coloring project and a third captures a student showing off his “homemade American Indian costume.” Between the pictures it reads: “Clairemont Elementary School studied American Indians and Pilgrims in preparation for today’s big holiday. Last week, they re enacted the first Thanksgiving and dressed in costumes for a feast with family members.” In the center is the phrase “Thanks for the lessons.”

What lessons did they learn? Between Columbus Day in October and Thanksgiving in November, Native Americans [the “official” curricular name in Georgia] play a key role in the mythology of U.S. history as taught in schools. As someone who works with pre- and inservice elementary teachers, I see firsthand how these happy stories maintain children’s ignorance and reinforce stereotypes.

The traditional first Thanksgiving story recounts Pilgrims from Europe settling in the wilds of the New World and celebrating their survival by sharing their bountiful feast with the Indians. As my students learn, this version of Thanksgiving is inaccurate. The Pilgrims did leave Europe and comprised 35 out of 102 colonists traveling on the Mayflower, eventually settling in 1621 at Patuxet—aka Plimoth. The “new” and “wild” world to which they arrived was neither new, wild, or unnamed, thanks to the Wampanoag, the indigenous people who lived there. Given the Pilgrims’ ignorance of the “new” land, their survival was made possible through indigenous knowledge, labor, harvest traditions, and trade. Most significant to the first Thanksgiving story: According to the Wampanoag and the ancestors of the Plimoth settlers, no oral or written account confirms that the first Thanksgiving actually occurred between them in 1621. The Wampanoag, however, did participate in daily and seasonal thanksgivings for thousands of years prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival.

Beyond the inaccuracy of the first Thanksgiving story itself are its omissions: Colonists initially stolebushels of corn buried and stored by Wampanoag families for their own use, robbed graves and homes, and left diseases that devastated (albeit unintentionally) Native American communities, subsequently enabling European settlers to overtake Indian land.

The traditional Thanksgiving story is continuously retold through plays, activities, worksheets, and children’s books, perpetuating misinformation and stereotypes that maintain a deep misunderstanding of American Indian history and current issues. Thanksgiving Day, for example, is considered a Day of Mourning by many American Indians—a time to acknowledge the ongoing painful legacy of removal from their homelands, enslavement, and deaths from diseases. Thanksgiving images further negate significant cultural and sacred distinctions among indigenous peoples. Long feather headdresses and tipis are not part of an accurate portrayal of Northeast Coast Native Americans. Thanksgiving pictures tend to depict garments and housing of Plains Indians, whom the Pilgrims would have not met.

As a teacher of teachers, I attempt to engage students in a more accurate, inclusive, and culturally respectful approach to a time in history that began to set the pattern for U.S. race relations. I choose to critique the first Thanksgiving story because of its familiarity, inclusion in so many schools’ curricula, and persistent misrepresentation of Indians and Pilgrims.

Flipping the Script on the First Thanksgiving

Before launching into the myths and omissions surrounding the “first Thanksgiving,” I ask my teacher education students what they already know about the event: Who celebrated the original Thanksgiving and when? What was celebrated and for how long? Who initiated the celebration? Why? Where did the event take place?

My students find the details difficult to recall. Generally, their contributions reflect a disjointed recollection: Pilgrims and Indians something about religious persecution the Mayflower Jamestown, Va. an abundant harvest after tough times the Pilgrims’ generosity toward the Indians and three days of fun, games, and eating popcorn, turkey, and pie. Sometimes students suggest names of actual “Indians” like the Sioux or Cherokee nations or people such as Sacagawea, Squanto, or Pocahontas.

I challenge my students’ knowledge about Pilgrims, Indians, and Thanksgiving through a series of exploratory activities using elementary-appropriate materials. I designed activities meant to model how they might introduce a critique of Thanksgiving to their own elementary students that also identifies stereotypes about Native Americans and explores the events surrounding 1621. The activities require my students to work first within and then across small groups to compare and contrast the histories of the “Indians” and “Pilgrims,” separate fact from fiction about the Thanksgiving story, and uncover new information concerning Native Americans past and present.

For one activity, I divide a set of students into “Indians” and “Pilgrims.” Both groups visit, a website elementary teachers and students could use that offers an interactive timeline with key dates in the history of the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims. I send the students to the “path to 1621” for their respective group’s story. The “Indians” follow the Wampanoag ancestor Ahsaupwis’ story and the “Pilgrims” follow English ancestor Remember Allerton. In the penultimate phase of the activity, I combine the “Indians” and “Pilgrims” and tell them to create a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting what they learned.

Other student groups work to determine the facts, fictions, and omissions of the first Thanksgiving story using a selection of traditional first Thanksgiving picture books. To add to their critique, students receive additional texts that provide perspectives and information often distorted or omitted in traditional texts.I send the students to partner-read their selected books with questions: From whose perspective is the story told? Whose voices are active and passive? What words are used to describe the groups? Whose story has the most detail? What details were offered or implied in the text or illustrations about Thanksgiving and each group’s lifestyle (e.g., food, clothing, beliefs, and traditions)? Are the illustrations accurate? How do you know?

After partner-reading, students read the short version of Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin’s article “Deconstructing the Myths of The First Thanksgiving.” I tell them to mark new and surprising information. Typically during this activity, as students read and discuss, I’ll overhear one say, “So there was no Thanksgiving at all? I’m confused.” I clarify that although the Thanksgiving story as told is not historically accurate, Native Americans and Pilgrims had thanksgiving traditions exclusive of each other.

When the groups reconvene as a whole class, I ask each to report what they learned and to share what they believe to be the main points of their activities. It is clear from their reactions that in most instances, the activities presented different depictions from what they had previously believed or known. As Lorrie said, “I remember learning about a huge friendly feast between ‘Pilgrims’ and ‘Indians.’ It was taught almost as though it was a culmination of a friendship that had been building from day one.”

Charlie commented, “I remember making the feather headdress for Thanksgiving. I had no idea it could be inaccurate, let alone inappropriate.” Students often remark on the cultural disrespect implicit in illustrating Thanksgiving stories with clothing that the Wampanoag didn’t wear.

By the end of our re-examination of Thanksgiving, students grow anxious and begin to consider if and how they might integrate a more critical perspective of Thanksgiving with their own students. As Iris later wrote:

So, how do we go about talking about Thanksgiving now that we have all of this new information? How should we treat it with our students? Truly, it is not a day of Thanksgiving for all people in this country. I am at a loss now. I think that we could approach it with the new information that Ms. Stenhouse gave us and debunk some of these myths for our students, but I’m beginning to question what the bigger message should be. Is the holiday real? Is there really something to celebrate? I mean, sure, I’m glad to be here, and I’m thankful for the blessings in my life, but am I celebrating at the expense of others? If I do teach my children that the coming of the settlers was at the indigenous people’s expense, will they want to continue celebrating this day? Will their parents thank me if I do? I am not sure how to proceed.

My response to Iris’ conundrum and to students who ask “now what?” starts with prompting my students to generate alternative ideas for teaching Thanksgiving. I want them to start thinking about how they might use or adapt our activities or their underlying concepts with their students. I notice that, as they share their ideas with each other, they introduce a variety of ways to reframe Thanksgiving based on what they experienced in class (for example, book critiques or use of the two-voice poem, as described in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 1) and begin to consider tactical approaches to parents’ and administrators’ potential concerns. Given my students’ focus on the repercussions from school authorities, I also ask them to imagine for a moment what the first Thanksgiving story means for Native American children in their classes. And based on their own experiences, I ask them to keep in mind the lasting impressions about Indians and Pilgrims from their own schooling. I further encourage them to first find out what their students already know, which is how I started with them.

More recently, I have also begun showing a video clip of Monty, a former student of mine, who discusses how he addressed Thanksgiving with his 1st graders. After witnessing parents, students, and teachers delight in a Thanksgiving re-enactment held at his school, he determined he needed to provide his students with a more complex perspective of Native American-Pilgrim relations. Monty shares candidly the steps he took (including a trip to his principal’s office) and the process he went through to teach his students about fairness through a lesson on the consequences of colonial encroachment on indigenous lands. Watching Monty adds a perspective to our discussion other than my own about the possibilities, relevance, and power of teaching critically at any grade level.

I know that what I am asking my students to consider is unsettling to many of them however, I’m convinced that it is necessary in order for them to be the teachers they wish to be. In addition to our in-class discussion, I ask my students to continue thinking, problem-posing, and talking with me and each other through the class blogs and journals.

Waiting for Later to Disrupt the Status Quo

As preservice teachers, my students are overwhelmed by learning to teach the prescribed curriculum and consumed by their university schoolwork. They work in schools they assume are not populated by indigenous students or other students for whom it is relevant to know the unpleasant details of historical events. Why trouble a good story?

Silent in most discussions about indigenous peoples are the current realities of Native American life, including widespread poverty relegation to reservations the persistent political, social, and economic disregard for things cultural or sacred by the dominant U.S. society and the advocacy necessary for linguistic, cultural, economic, and territorial sovereignty. I use the Thanksgiving story to provide an opportunity for my students to ask themselves, “If not me, who?” and “If not now, when?” as it relates to challenging the status quo.

In terms of measuring progress, we have come a long way from learning how to count to 10, one “Indian” at a time. Yet national multimillion-dollar franchise sports teams retain derogatory “Indian” names, logos, and chants commercial products still utilize “Native” names and imagery as brands and we still have the enduring uncritical portrayal of the first Thanksgiving. I believe a connection exists between the unwillingness to “give up” the beneficent 1621 Thanksgiving story and the ongoing appropriation of the imagery, spirituality, ceremonies, sovereign rights, and identity of this country’s indigenous peoples. Students from all racial and cultural backgrounds learn early that it is OK to play Indian. They learn that Indians wear “costumes,” feathers define cultural features for all Indians, and sacred cultural artifacts are crafts to be made from brown paper bags, paper towel rolls, paper plates, and construction paper. And after Thanksgiving, crafts and all, the “Natives” disappear back onto the shelf.

Confronting racism, injustice, prejudice, and stereotypes through a consciousness-raising education is a far cry from the fun-filled, feel-good activities characteristic of how schools approach holidays. With respect to indigenous peoples, I want my students to acknowledge the diverse and unique traditions among Native American cultures and to explore the historic and contemporary legacy of colonial intrusion, brutality, and cultural ignorance. As a teacher educator, I seek to invite my students on a journey of interrogating the fallacy of the “standard” curriculum as neutral and push them to develop an understanding of official knowledge as politically constructed and contestable. Critiquing received fact, such as the first Thanksgiving, is an integral piece of an overall critical approach to teaching and learning. I want my students to recognize that the histories of indigenous peoples have been subverted, silenced, and misrepresented in the curriculum. Equally important: I want my students to recognize that we can do something about it.

Evaluating resources about Native Americans:

Boston Children’s Museum. Evaluating Resources: The Wampanoag in Teacher Resources on Native American History and Culture. (

Seale, D., and Slapin, B., eds. (2005)
A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Lanham, Md.: Altamira Press.
Cultural appropriation in books for children. Evaluates hundreds of books for children and teenagers published from the early 1900s through 2004.
“Evaluating Children’s Books for Bias.” Integrating New Technologies into the Methods of Education. (

Wampanoag information past and present:

“Mashpee Wampanoag Timeline.” Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Website. (
Timeline of events from precolonial times to current federal recognition.

Boston Children’s Museum. “People of the First Light.” Teacher Resources on Native American History and Culture. (
Information and suggested activities about Wampanoag origins and life before, during, and after 1620 survival and current day.

Teacher and student resources on Thanksgiving, Native Americans, and colonists:

Dow (Abenaki), J., and Slapin, B. “Deconstructing the Myths of The First Thanksgiving.” Oyate. (
Facts and fiction about the first Thanksgiving story, including critiqued excerpts from popular books.

Recommended books, links, and videos:

Goldstein, K. “As American as Pumpkin Pie.” Plimoth Plantation.
How, when, and why the “first Thanksgiving” came to be known as such.

Boston Children’s Museum. Teacher Resources on Native American History and Culture. (
Wampanoag voices, information, and suggested activities.

Seale, D., Slapin, B., and Silverman, C., eds. (2001) Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective. Berkeley, Calif.: Oyate (available at Historical and contemporary information about Thanksgiving. Context and counterstories for a critical cultural approach to Thanksgiving.

Jones, G., and Moomaw, S. (2002) Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms.St. Paul, Minn.: Red Leaf Press.
Problems and appropriate alternatives to addressing Native peoples’ experiences.

Loewen, J. (2007) Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York City: Touchstone Press.
Detailed information on the first Thanks-giving based on primary resources.

Bigelow, B., and Peterson, R., eds. (1998) Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years . Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools
Essays, poems, historical vignettes, and lesson plans.