Fact-Check: The Real Story of the First Thanksgiving

The historic event known as the First Thanksgiving is universally recognized as a landmark in American history. Traditionally, it is viewed as a time of celebration and unity between the Pilgrims who arrived on the shore of the New World aboard the Mayflower, and the Native Americans already inhabiting the area. The narrative is one of hope, harmony and shared triumph over adversity, marked by a symbolic feast that signifies peace between the two culturally different groups. And while these elements hold some truth, a closer examination reveals a more complex dynamic.

Historical Context of the First Thanksgiving

Unraveling the Historical Events Leading up to the First Thanksgiving

Threading back into the realm of American history, Thanksgiving is a warmly cherished day, steeped in tradition and collective memory. Yet, what historical events led to the inception of this celebratory feast at the heart of American culture?

Fact Check

Claim: The First Thanksgiving was a simple event of peaceful coexistence and unity

Description: The traditional narrative of thanksgiving holds up an image of harmony, unity, and peaceful coexistence between the pilgrims and the Native Americans. This fact-check probes deeper into historical records to uncover a more nuanced reality including periods of tension, misunderstanding, and eventual conflict in addition to periods of peace.

Rating: False

Rating Explanation: The fact-check reveals that alongside moments of harmony and cooperation, there was significant strife, disagreement and eventual war. It provides evidence of the complexities and challenges surrounding the first Thanksgiving, debunked the simplistic notion of peaceful coexistence and emphasizes the divergence between the traditional narrative and historical reality.

The journey begins in England during the early 1600s, where a religious group, known as the Puritans or Pilgrims, resided. Facing religious persecution under King James I, this community sought a place where they could freely practice their faith (True). They primarily chose to migrate to Holland, an ideal locale for religious freedom. However, cultural differences and the difficulty of making a living impacted their capacity to remain there (True).

Subsequently, their focus moved across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. The Pilgrims secured rights from the London Virginia Company to establish a settlement near the Hudson River. They were tasked with trading for much sought-after goods such as fish, furs, and lumber in exchange for English goods (True).

However, a voyage full of harsh conditions and navigational errors led the Pilgrims off the intended course. In November 1620, the Mayflower, carrying 102 passengers, docked at what is now known as Cape Cod, Massachusetts, not near the Hudson River in present-day New York (True).

Establishing Plymouth Colony, the Pilgrims faced the vastly harsh and uninviting winter of the New World, losing a significant number of their community to illness and unendurable conditions (True). In this period of extreme hardship, an indispensable interaction occurred.

Despite numerous accounts, it’s validated that the Wampanoag Natives, under the leadership of Chief Massasoit, extended the olive branch of diplomacy and assistance. With the invaluable guidance of a Patuxet Native, Squanto, the English settlers learned to cultivate local crops, hunt, and fish – skills crucial to their survival (True).

Come the harvest of 1621, the Pilgrims, blessed with a successful crop yield, decided to organize a celebratory feast, the root of what we celebrate today as Thanksgiving. Having invited their Native allies, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Natives engaged in three days of feasting and recreational activities (True).

Contrary to popular perception, this was not termed “Thanksgiving” by the settlers. The concept of Thanksgiving was traditionally a religious observance for the Pilgrims, involving prayer and fasting, not feasting. It wasn’t until the 19th century that these event ideologies merged into what is commemorated as the “First Thanksgiving” (True).

In conclusion, the historical events leading up to the first Thanksgiving were a progression of severity, cooperation, and shared prosperity. A reflection of resilience amidst harsh tribulations, Thanksgiving marks a pivotal historical moment embedded in America’s heritage.

A depiction of the first Thanksgiving feast, with Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered around a table, sharing food and engaging in conversation

The First Feast Itself

The first Thanksgiving: The actuality behind the feast

Diving deeper into the historical evidence, primary documents of the event have provided crucial insights that help clarify misconceptions surrounding this widely celebrated holiday.

Contrary to popular belief, the first Thanksgiving was not observed as an annual holiday. There are no historical records to suggest that the Pilgrims wished to establish this event as a recurring one. Indeed, according to the colonial governor, William Bradford’s notes, another communal meal was not under discussion until 1623—two years later—when a day of thanks was proclaimed during a drought.

The meal itself was vastly different from the traditional turkey-based feast Americans associate with Thanksgiving today. According to a letter written by attendee Edward Winslow, their diet included wildfowl, which could include ducks or geese, and fowl often combined with various seafood readily available in the region. While turkey was indeed present in the New World, there are no concrete records that it graced the banquet tables during the original feast.

Moreover, the first Thanksgiving did not purely encompass food and feasting. As per several accounts, games and sporting events formed a large part of the celebration, including competition in running, shooting with bows and arrows, and arm wrestling. The Wampanoag natives also wowed their hosts with trick archery and other entertaining displays.

From a numbers perspective, while no concrete participation data has been preserved, Hubert Howe Bancroft’s “The Native Races” suggests that the Wampanoag outnumbered the Pilgrims. He postulates that at least 90 Wampanoag men were present comparable to the entire Pilgrim population, which was reduced to about 50 after the harsh winter of 1620-1621.

Even though the Pilgrims did not directly set out to hold the first Thanksgiving, today’s tradition of giving thanks over a bountiful meal certainly owes its existence to these early communal meals and the interaction between the two very different societies.

Continuing with our rigorous fact-checking mode, we rate the conventional depiction of the first Thanksgiving shared widely in popular culture and education as largely ‘Decontextualized’. It is based in historical truth but our detailed investigation reveals that modern depictions often omit critical elements, skew the narrative, or apply contemporary customs retroactively.

Image of a table set with various types of food, depicting the first Thanksgiving feast

The Relationship Between Pilgrims and Native Americans

Considering the significant occurrences that preceded, marked, and followed the first Thanksgiving, a multifaceted characterization of the relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans emerges.

Before the Thanksgiving Feast

Archival sources, including writings by and about the Pilgrims, reveal that their interactions with the Wampanoag Nation began under strained circumstances. In the depths of a brutal winter, the arrival of these settlers disrupted the Wampanoag’s relative stability. This created an initial sense of mistrust on the part of the Native American tribes. Even so, the Wampanoag, led by Chief Massasoit, chose a diplomatic route. Historical measurements validate this as Massasoit signed a treaty with the Pilgrims on March 22, 1621, which stated that each group would not bring harm to the other, and they would provide mutual support in the event of an attack by third parties.

During the First Thanksgiving

In the context of the actual Thanksgiving event, it’s vital to note that the Wampanoag did not initially receive an invite to the occasion as the gathering was considered internal and not an inter-tribal affair. However, when the Wampanoag heard gunshots, thinking it was a sign of an attack, they arrived prepared for battle. What they found instead was a gathering of Pilgrims celebrating their harvest. An act of unexpected graciousness then took place: Instead of reacting with hostility to this unintentional intrusion, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag to stay and join in their feast. Both parties, thus, managed to turn an uncertain situation around and co-exist peacefully, if only for three days.

After the First Thanksgiving

Despite the iconic image of unity at the first Thanksgiving, the post-feast reality underscores a decline in the relationship between the Plymothian Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Nation. During their early encounters, temporary mutual benefits allowed peace and cooperation to dominate the relationship. However, with more English settlers arriving and ongoing disputes over land and resources becoming more intense, this alliance soon frayed.

The so-called peace of the first Thanksgiving proved fleeting, as conflict and eventual war, otherwise known as King Philip’s War in 1675, decimated the Wampanoag and other neighboring tribes.

It’s essential for anyone analyzing the cultural underpinnings of Thanksgiving to acknowledge these facts. Even as they give context to the supposedly harmonious Thanksgiving tale, they also foreground how different the narrative becomes when analyzed from varied perspectives. Momentary peace should not eclipse the harsh realities that followed or decontextualize the complexity of this historical event.

Given these verifiable facts, the characterization of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag’s relationship can only be understood as complex: periods of peaceful co-existence intertwined with moments of tension, misunderstanding, and conflict. It’s a narrative that far exceeds the confines of a single feast and extends into a prolonged, complicated history where common ground gave way to divergent interests and tragic consequences.

Image depicting Pilgrims and Native Americans standing together for the first Thanksgiving feast

Photo by andrewjamesphoto on Unsplash

The Evolution of Thanksgiving into a National Holiday

Continuing from the first part of the article, it is of great importance to recognize that the event that sparked the evolution of Thanksgiving into a national holiday was not necessarily wholly celebratory or universally peaceful. This evolution was a series of historical occurrences and the influence of multiple societies and cultures, often characterized by strife and strain.

Although a widely accepted notion is that the Wampanoag Native American tribe was warmly invited to join the Pilgrims in their celebratory feast, this fact is not exceptionally robust. Some historical records hint that the Wampanoag, initially, might not have been intentionally invited but came to investigate upon hearing gunfire from the Pilgrims. Expert historians assert that the Wampanoag’s presence at the feast was more of an outcome of diplomatic consideration than an act of friendship.

Following the initial thanksgiving feast in 1621, the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag significantly deteriorated. Various sources confirm that a series of conflicts, misunderstandings, and deceptions led to a decline in their rapport, ultimately culminating in the brutal King Philip’s War in 1675-76, named after the English name given to the Wampanoag chief Metacomet. The war, amongst the deadliest in American history, devastated the Wampanoag people and permanently altered the balance of power in favor of the English settlers.

Despite these devastating realities connected to the first Thanksgiving, the evolution into a national holiday took root during the American Revolution. According to historical archives, the Continental Congress declared a day of thanksgiving after the American victory at Saratoga in 1777. However, Thanksgiving was not yet established as an annual event, and subsequent declarations were made sporadically in case of notable victories.

The credit for transforming Thanksgiving into an annual nationwide celebration goes to Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent editor and writer, known for her persistent 17-year campaign to establish the holiday. Hale wrote numerous editorials and sent numerous letters to governors, senators, and presidents advocating for the cause. Finally, in 1863, her efforts bore fruit when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be a national holiday, marking the last Thursday of November to be a day of Thanksgiving. The objective was to foster unity among American citizens in the middle of the Civil War.

Hence, the evolution of Thanksgiving from its origins to the national holiday we observe today was a complicated journey shaped by a variety of historical events and cultural shifts. The celebration as we know it owes just as much to the early 17th-century communal meals as it does to the tireless efforts of a 19th-century woman activist. As with any historical event, it is essential to recognize the complexities, both rewarding and challenging, that played a part in its conception and acknowledge the profound historical narratives often underrepresented in conventional Thanksgiving depictions.

Illustration depicting the evolution of Thanksgiving from its origins to a national holiday with multiple historical events and cultural shifts.

Through investigations into historical records, primary sources, and careful examination of the social and political dynamics, we gain fresh perspectives on the First Thanksgiving. The relations between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, initially considered harmonious, are found to be more nuanced and turbulent. As we discover the role key figures played in the evolution of this singular event into a national holiday, we gain an understanding of the tradition’s natural evolution. The narrative of Thanksgiving thus holds a mirror to the fabric of the American nation, reflecting both its spirit of resilience and its willingness to engage with its complex past.