Stuff You Should Know: The First Thanksgiving

By: Josh R.

     When you think of Thanksgiving, people often conjure up images of turkeys, feasts, pies, family gatherings, and the US president pardoning a previously mentioned fowl. However, something else that may come to mind is the propaganda-filled, over-simplified glory-hog that is the “First Thanksgiving.”

The “First Thanksgiving” is an extremely American concept introduced to students at an early age. This historical event is frequently over-simplified to younger audiences in order to enlighten them to good citizenship and the lofty dream that is American freedom; however, the cost of over-simplification is that some of the facts surrounding such events may not be as accurate. In an attempt to correct this discrepancy between fact and fiction what follows can only be described as: What you never knew about the “First Thanksgiving.”

First off, the Harvest Festival in 1621 may not even have been the “first” Thanksgiving. Earlier records of thanksgiving-esque celebrations include a particularly large harvest festival in Spanish St. Augustine, Florida on September 8th, 1565, a celebration for a successful journey to Spanish-owned San Elizario, Texas in 1598, and a harvest feast at the Jamestown colony, Virginia. Next, the Thanksgiving in 1621 was not in November; rather historians believe the three-day festival commenced on September 29th.

The “first” Thanksgiving in 1621 was not the darkly-dressed, caucasian-dominated, three hour meal that you may have learned about. In fact, the “first” Thanksgiving was predominantly populated by Native Americans who would come and go whenever they pleased during the feast. There were a good deal more Native Americans than pilgrims–about 90 to 53–at the feast. On one side of the table were the pilgrims who, incidentally, did not wear all black; in fact they wore a good deal of color on most of their outfits. Another little known fact is that the pilgrims were heavy drinkers (this would explain a few things…). I have read that present-day Native Americans hate Thanksgiving because it is a brutal reminder of betrayal and bloodshed, because the “everlasting peace” lasted very briefly.

Especially in a food-motivated culture like America, the most important part of the holiday is clearly the meal. The “first” Thanksgiving actually lasted three days and included breaks for playing ball games, dancing, and singing. The actual cuisine did not include popcorn, turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce, or even pumpkin pie; however, it did include at least five deer, fresh fruits and vegetables from the seasonal harvest, corn, shellfish, roasted meat, ducks, geese, and swan. After this celebration, Native Americans and pilgrims would unfortunately never share a festival of this sort again. The next time pilgrims met with Native Americans in 1637, around the date in November we now consider to be Thanksgiving, resulted in a massacre of 700 Pequots.

Just because what we know about the “first” Thanksgiving may not be as true as we may have thought doesn’t mean that there is no educational value in this classic American story. There are morals if we delve deep enough to find them. There is the idea of sharing with others, the tolerance the feasters shared with one another, and most importantly perhaps, what it means to our society as a whole. It is American history; those separatists, for better or for worse, are our forefathers. This story is also telling, because it is an untruth. It illuminates to the reader how misconceptions can be passed down from generations; furthermore, it is living evidence of why a good citizen– a well-informed person–must not believe what others say just because it was said. This legend is so crucial, because it proves that readers must question what they read and keep their eyes open to the world around them, rather than blindly accepting fallacies just so they don’t have to think for themselves.

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