Thanksgiving: Myths And Facts

By Stephen Laming

Around America, Thanksgiving is a time for families to come together, to reunite and enjoy a feast. People enjoy food and reflect on what they are thankful for. We put differences aside and come together one day a year. A few weeks ago, November 23 marked 2017’s Thanksgiving, and like every year, it was celebrated widely across the United States. It is a significant part of American culture, yet public knowledge about the true origins of Thanksgiving is limited. The average American would tell you we are remembering the day when the Pilgrims sat down with the Native Americans to celebrate a good harvest, but the real story behind Thanksgiving is much more complicated than this. Here are the most commonly misunderstood aspects of the holiday we refer to as Thanksgiving:

The “First” Thanksgiving

Tradition states that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims that sailed to North America in the Mayflower in November 1621. But there are a couple of flaws with this. Although the settlers who sailed on the Mayflower did hold a feast, it did not take place on the fourth Thursday of November. Most records point towards the likely date being in October of that year. And the feast was broken up and celebrated over three days, not just one. In addition, it is still debated whether this meal was even the first Thanksgiving in America. Timelines from Colonial America are rough, at best, so it is hard to give a definitive answer on the “first” Thanksgiving. A few locations have claimed to have held the first Thanksgiving, with the most notable being Virginia’s Berkeley Plantation. It claims to have had the first official Thanksgiving two years before the feast in Massachusetts, but research has found the meal was probably a very small meal, with just some oysters and ham.

Native Americans and Pilgrims

Although the Massachusetts Thanksgiving feast was very special because two different cultures came together to share food, this friendliness did not last long. After the Wampanoag, the predominant native group in what is now coastal Massachusetts, helped the settlers survive their first winter in America, they were quickly eradicated. The settlers carried smallpox, which the native Wampanoag had no resistance to. Smallpox breakouts plagued native tribes and killed an estimated 90% of native people in the New England area. In addition, as the years went on, settlers started to move into Wampanoag land. The Wampanoag resisted this movement, which led to conflict between them and the settlers. This conflict turned into all-out war just one generation after the original feast.

The Thanksgiving Tradition

The Thanksgiving we celebrate today, in remembrance of the Massachusetts meal, did not instantly become a tradition. The first feast was actually never held again. The modern tradition is thanks to Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday for a day to thank Civil War troops for their recent victories in Vicksburg and Gettysburg.


Although turkey and stuffing are highlights of the modern Thanksgiving dinner, there is no evidence they made an appearance at the original dinner. It is agreed that some sort of wild fowl and venison were served at the feast, but many different kinds of wild birds were abundant in the area at the time. The meal could have easily been goose or duck instead of turkey. In addition, it is almost certain pie was not on the menu. Butter and flour were extremely scarce at the time in the colonies, and sophisticated ovens were not around at the time for baking.

The Pilgrims’ Appearance

The classic image of the Massachusetts Pilgrim, wearing black and white, with large buckled shoes, is also false. Shoes with buckles did not come into existence until a few decades after the first Thanksgiving. Settlers only wore black and white on very special occasions; it was too impractical to wear any other time. For day-to-day activity, they would wear whatever they could find, which usually ended up being dark, earthy colors. Settlers also did not bring furniture over on the Mayflower. That would be a waste of space; they built all their furniture once arriving in America.

The First Thanksgiving, an early 20th century oil painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. This painting shows misconceptions about what the Pilgrims and native Wampanoag wore. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons. 

During the Thanksgiving season, Americans spent around thirty billion dollars annually, second only to Christmas in terms of dollars spent. Despite being such a large part of American culture, the origins and realities of Thanksgiving are unknown to many Americans. The reality is that the settlement of Europeans on this continent had many repercussions, especially on native American communities. Similar to the Columbus Day debate, the Native American community was destroyed by the English settlers, yet they seldom get recognition in Thanksgiving celebrations.

Featured image courtesy of Country Living Magazine.

About the author

Stephen Laming is a Junior at Collegiate