10 Historical Untruths About the First Thanksgiving

By: Chris Opfer  | 
kids thanksgiving pagent
By the time you get to the end of this article you'll be able to spot a bunch of falsehoods in this picture. Sean Locke/the Agency Collection/Getty Images

Thanksgiving: the quintessential American holiday in which Americans celebrate the fact that despite superstorms, unemployment and the 24/7 news cycle, life is pretty darn good for many in these United States. And oh yeah, something about tipping a tall black hat to the Pilgrims and American Indians who got this day of eating, drinking and football watching started some 400-plus years ago.

Just as many Christmas celebrators tear through eggnog and wrapping paper with the vague notion that the event is somehow related to a Jewish carpenter's birthday, so, too, do turkey day revelers heap on the cranberry sauce and gravy, sensing that this all has something to do with the native people and settlers who inhabited the land centuries before, but are not exactly sure what.


Perhaps the disconnect should be no surprise, given that modern Thanksgiving observances barely resemble the festivities of the "first" version of the holiday. Read on as we debunk some of the most notable mistruths concerning the original American day of thanks.

10. Thanksgiving Started With the Puritans

pilgrims at plymouth rock
The Pilgrim fathers land in New England, where they founded the Plymouth Colony. Three Lions/Getty Images

Mention Thanksgiving, and the first thing that comes to mind for most folks is turkey. Christmas is all about buying and giving stuff, but Americans dedicate the November holiday mostly to stuffing themselves.

It didn't start this way, however. Puritan settlers in New England originally celebrated days of "thanksgiving" in prayer, thanking the good Lord for various successes in the New World.


The feasting associated with the modern American holiday, on the other hand, is tied to a specific event in the fall of 1621. Pilgrims (not to be confused with Puritans — we'll explain later) who were religious settlers from England, came to America via the Netherlands after breaking away from the Church of England. They celebrated what's considered the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. The newcomers celebrated the event with members of the Wampanoag tribe, with whom they had recently signed a treaty of mutual protection [source: Plimoth Plantation].

This original Thanksgiving was held to mark the Pilgrims' first bountiful harvest. The settlers were particularly grateful for the successful crop, as the harvest followed what had been a long and difficult year, rife with sickness and a limited food supply. Indeed, it was unclear whether the colony would survive in these early days and the good harvest was something of a light at the end of a rather bleak tunnel [sources: Plimoth Plantation].

Yet these partying Pilgrims and Native Americans weren't the first to toast a successful harvest. The practice of celebrating a good haul was popular throughout Europe long before the Mayflower touched down on Plymouth Rock. North American Indians, like the Wampanoag, often held similar events come harvest time [sources: Plimoth Plantation, Scholastic].

9. It Was Just a Dinner

Squanto served as guide and interpreter for the Pilgrims and Chief Massasoit. He died from smallpox just a year and a half after the famous Thanksgiving feast. Kean Collection/Getty Images

Sure, Thanksgiving may seem like it goes on for days — even weeks, once Uncle Johnny gets into the Wild Turkey and Aunt June takes out her dentures to slurp down some pumpkin pie — but the first celebration actually lasted for three whole days.

While the event was indeed intended to toast the successful harvest, it also marked solidified relations among the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. Earlier that year the two sides signed a mutual protection pact, providing that both peoples would leave each other be and act as allies in defending against any attack on either group [source: Plimoth Plantation].


Squanto, a Patuxet Indian who was captured and shipped to England as a slave before returning to North America and taking up with the Wampanoag, helped the Pilgrims endure their first year in New England by teaching them survival skills. He also negotiated the treaty on behalf of the tribe. Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford and Wampanoag Chief Massasoit eventually sealed the deal in March 1621 [sources: Plimoth Plantation, American Indian College Fund].

Most of what is known about the first Thanksgiving celebration comes from a letter Edward Winslow, an early Pilgrim leader, later wrote to a friend describing the event. As Winslow explains it, "for three days we entertained and feasted." Experts believe they probably also sang, danced and played games [sources: Walker, Plimoth Plantation].

This fun and games didn't last forever though. After decades of peace, relations between the Wampanoag and English settlers eventually deteriorated, culminating in a war between the tribe and colonial forces in 1675 [sources: Pilgrim Hall Museum, National Museum of the American Indian].

8. It Was a Family Affair

Chief Massasoit
Chief Massasoit pays a visit to the Pilgrims' camp at Plymouth Colony, circa 1621. MPI/Getty Images

Like 'em or not, most of us wind up spending turkey day with our families. Or, for those who draw the short end of the stick, with in-laws.

It remains unclear whether the first Thanksgiving was a family affair. Certainly, the group of 101 English Pilgrims who journeyed from Amsterdam across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, landing in New England in 1620, included women and children [source: Plimoth Plantation].


Yet Winslow's letter references only men and the event is believed to have been a political affair strengthening the newly minted bond between the colonists and the Wampanoag. This, of course, was long before the days of Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. Political wrangling of any sort would have been left to the men [source: Krulwich].

Some historians believe colonial women were likely involved to some extent, however. Someone — likely several someones — had to cook that glorious Thanksgiving feast [sources: Krulwich, Gambino]. And, it's unlikely everyone gathered around a table or tables in a house; the meal was probably held outdoors with folks perched on whatever tree stump or log they could find.

So what exactly was on the menu in 1621? Read on to find out.

7. They Ate Turkey and Cranberries

family preparing for Thanksgiving, 1882
An 1882 illustration shows a family preparing for Thanksgiving. By now pumpkin pie is on the menu. Kean Collection/Getty Images

No turkey. No cranberries. Not even any pumpkin pie.

Although wild turkey (the animal, not Uncle Johnny's whiskey) was available to hunters in the American northeast in the early 17th century, many historians say it wasn't likely to have been on the table for the first Thanksgiving meal. According to Edward Winslow's account, Governor Bradford sent four men on a fowling expedition and they later returned with enough bird to feed the colony for almost a week. This feathered fare likely consisted of ducks and geese, experts say, maybe with some swan and pigeons [source: Gambino].


For their part, the Wampanoag guests brought along five deer. Of course, there was also corn, since the Native Americans — Squanto in particular — had recently shown their new neighbors how to grown the local crop [source: Gambino].

Meanwhile, the sweet delicious cranberry sauce that many of us look forward to come Thanksgiving would have required sugar, which wasn't generally available until 50 years later. And while pies weren't unknown at this time, these early European settlers had no access to butter or wheat flour to make a flaky crust [sources: Krulwich, Gambino].

Sobaheg, a Wampanoag dish consisting of stewed corn, roots, beans, squash and meat, may have been served. Other locally available foods, such as clams, lobsters, cod, eel, onions, carrots, turnips and various greens may also have been among the original Thanksgiving dishes [sources: Krulwich, Gambino].

Sarah Josepha Hale wasn't present at that first celebration, but she had a lot to say about the foods we have come to associate with the holiday. The editor of a popular early-19th century women's magazine, Hale printed Thanksgiving menus and recipes in her publication that we now consider traditional Thanksgiving fare, like roast turkey and mashed potatoes [sources: Krulwich, Gambino].

6. It Happened on the Fourth Thursday of November

Thanksgiving dinner, WWII
Soldiers serve children Thanksgiving dinner during World War II, around the time the U.S. Congress declared Thanksgiving an official holiday. Davis/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Everyone knows Thanksgiving goes down on the fourth Thursday of November. Americans plan for it; schools close; many people get a day off from work and airlines raise rates about 300 percent.

Yet the first celebration probably happened somewhere between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, likely not even on a Thursday. English harvest festivals on which the event was partly based occurred around Sept. 29 in those days [source: Mach].


While the celebration was commemorated in the years following the first Thanksgiving — scaled down to a one-day affair — Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until 1863. That year, President Abraham Lincoln declared two national days of Thanksgiving: one Aug. 6 to mark the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, and the other on the last Thursday in November to commemorate the 1621 event. Magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale is largely credited with lobbying Lincoln to establish the holiday, arguing that it would be a good way to unite a country torn apart by the ravages of war [source: Plimoth Plantation].

Succeeding presidents made Thanksgiving a once-a-year holiday each November, customarily falling on the last Thursday in November. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date up a week, setting Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November to lengthen the Christmas shopping season. In 1941, Congress made it an official holiday, no longer requiring an annual presidential decree [source: Plimoth Plantation].

5. More Pilgrims Than American Indians Attended the Feast

couple in traditional Puritan dress.
A woodcut showing a couple in traditional Puritan dress. MPI/Getty Images

Needless to say, the Pilgrims get a lot of attention when it comes to telling the story of the first Thanksgiving. They held the feast and it was designed to celebrate their triumph in surviving the first year in the New World, as well as that all-important harvest score. After a perilous journey that landed them in New England in December 1620, the 101 Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower had shrunk to just 53 men, women and children by the time of the original harvest festival. Those remaining certainly had a lot for which to be thankful [sources: Plimoth Plantation, Shenkman].

These Pilgrims were a distinct group of settlers from the Puritans who came over from England and with whom they are often confused. Also known as "separatists," the Pilgrims were Brits who crossed the Atlantic and established Plymouth Colony after completely separating from the Church of England. While many sought religious freedom, others came in search of riches, adventure or simply a new life [sources: Plimoth Plantation, Shenkman].


Puritans, on the other hand, settled in Boston a decade later, having traveled to North America with the sole purpose of practicing their religion — still an offshoot of the Church of England — in their own way. Unlike the Pilgrims, the Puritans felt that their homeland's religion could still be reformed [sources: Plimoth Plantation, Shenkman].

With that point settled, it is important to note that the Pilgrims were not the only ones who partook in the early Thanksgiving festivities. With 90 men in tow, the Wampanoags present at the first turkey day outnumbered their new allies almost two to one. That's not to mention the role they had in ensuring that the event even happened. If not for the help of Squanto and others, that harvest celebrated in 1621 may not have been. The European seeds the Pilgrims planted died but the corn supplied by Chief Massasoit thrived [sources: Plimoth Plantation, Shenkman, Armstrong].

4. The Pilgrims Held the First American Thanksgiving

friends enjoy thanksgiving dinner
The foods of the modern Thanksgiving dinner were not on the original menu. In fact, we might not even be commemorating the first Thanksgiving. hobo_018/Getty Images

A small, but vocal group of historians and state tourism officials claim that the first Thanksgiving didn't happen in Massachusetts and wasn't orchestrated by the Pilgrims. There are other contenders for the prize of "first Thanksgiving."

In Texas, some say the first Thanksgiving was held in the city of San Elizario, near El Paso on the Mexican border. Each year, residents commemorate a huge thanksgiving feast celebrated by Spanish explorers marking their arrival on the banks of the Rio Grande in April 1598. That would have been about 23 years before the Pilgrim-Wampanoag shindig in Plymouth, for those counting.


The story goes that Juan de Oñate's 500-person expedition marched from southern Chihuahua for 50 days, almost dying from hunger and thirst in the process. Upon reaching the river, they rested for another 10 days and celebrated their new digs with a feast [sources: Shenkman, Kingston].

Others say the first Thanksgiving happened in the Old Dominion. Supporters of this version of the holiday's history point to Virginia's Berkeley Plantation as the birthplace of American Thanksgiving. Here, in 1619, 38 English settlers sponsored by the London Company supposedly toasted the arrival of their ship, the Margaret,on dry land [source: Shenkman].

3. After the Feast, They Played Football

John Madden
For many, John Madden will always be synonymous with Thanksgiving football. Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The American patriot that many people most identify with Thanksgiving Day activities is neither Pilgrim, Native American, nor president. He was a football commentator named John Madden, who died in 2021.

Narrating one of two annual NFL football games held every turkey day throughout the '90s — and spending much of each broadcast discussing the size, shape and succulence of the game day bird, as well as popularizing the chicken-within-a-duck-within-a-turkey dish known simply as "turducken" — Madden became synonymous with Thanksgiving football for scores of fans. He also was famous for handing out turkey legs to the game's MVPs [source: Perman].


Of course, there was no Madden, no NFL and no TV when the English settlers and Wampanoags broke bread back in 1621. They didn't even throw the pigskin around in the backyard. (American football had not been invented yet.) Instead these early revelers did something even more American: They shot guns. "Among other recreations, we exercised our arms," Edward Winslow later recollected [source: Armstrong]. And he did not mean his biceps.

2. The Pilgrims Wore Black

actors at Plimouth Plantation
Actors play the parts of colonists and Wampanoag at Plimouth Plantation, a recreation of Plymouth Colony. Note the authentic clothing, which differs from the usual depictions of Thanksgiving. Michael Springer/Getty Images

We've all seen the various depictions of the first Thanksgiving supper, American Indians in their feathered headdresses and loincloths and Pilgrims in the black-and-white costumes that we've come to believe that they wore. From television and film, to the local elementary school's Thanksgiving pageant, reenactments of the original holiday celebration have ingrained in our heads the vision of Pilgrims in tall hats and lots of big buckles.

But historians say these fashions, including the black-and-white kit, didn't come into vogue among settlers until many years after that first holiday. In fact, the early Pilgrims typically reserved black-and-white clothing for Sundays and formal occasions. Otherwise, they are believed to have donned a more colorful wardrobe, including red, green, brown, blue, violet, and gray [sources: Large, History].


In 1621, anyone rocking a steeple hat and black breeches along with white squared cuffs and collars was more likely a Puritan in Boston than a Pilgrim in Plymouth. Women likely wore solid-colored, full-length skirts along with bonnets and aprons. Men decked themselves in long-sleeved button down shirts, baggy, colored breeches and stockings. Hats would have been of the floppy, felt variety, instead of the tall, narrow types often associated with Pilgrims [source: Heinsohn].

As for the Wampanoag, one historian wrote, "It's likely that the Indians were fully clothed to ward off the chill of autumn in New England. Who would wear only a loincloth in Massachusetts in November?" [source: Walch].

1. The U.S. Is the Only Country That Celebrates Thanksgiving

Pearly Kings and Queens
Pearly Kings and Queens celebrate their annual Harvest Festival in London, England. Oli Scarff/Getty Images

New England, Texas, Virginia ... we may not all agree on where the first Thanksgiving took place, but many of us assume that Thanksgiving Day is solely an American holiday. This may be the biggest myth of them all.

The world is a big place. Its inhabitants recognize a whole host of thanksgiving-type celebrations with wide variety of foods, drinks and events reflecting their own culture and history.

As we mentioned earlier, the English settlers were familiar with the practice of celebrating a thanksgiving; in the Middle Ages, Anglo-Saxons commemorated Lammas Day, a precursor to other harvest festivals [sources: Project Britain]. Also in England, the Pearly Kings and Queens, renowned for their pearl-button bedecked outfits, celebrate the harvest with a festival, church service and parade to raise funds for charity, as they have for more than 100 years.

Canadians celebrate that country's Thanksgiving holiday on the first Monday of October, coincidentally, the same day as American Columbus Day. The Canadian version of the holiday honors a 1578 feast held by English explorer Martin Frobisher, marking the end of his journey to Newfoundland. Surprisingly, however, Newfoundland is one of a few places across the country where the holiday is not officially recognized. Those who do celebrate the day do it a lot like their U.S. neighbors: with turkey, parades and (Canadian) football [source: HUI].

Meanwhile in western Africa, Liberian Thanksgiving is a national holiday, celebrated since 1883 [source: Government of the Republic of Liberia].

Finally, on the island of Grenada, the publicly recognized Thanksgiving holiday (on October 25) marks the anniversary of an invasion by U.S. and Caribbean forces in 1983. Known as Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion overthrew the communist government which had recently seized power [source: Anyday Guide].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Historical Untruths About the First Thanksgiving

Assuming that the version taught is free of any of the historical mistruths that we just spent about 3,000 words debunking, the story of Thanksgiving is a valuable history lesson for those lil' Pilgrims and Native Americans who may not be ready to sit at the adult table just yet. But it is the celebration of the holiday that probably provides more valuable life lessons. Learning to survive a several hour ordeal, from Uncle Johnny's whiskey-fueled mysticism to Aunt June's toothless indigestion, not to mention an annual rendition of Grandpa Milt's World War II stories, is a skill that can be carried into the classroom, on the field of play and eventually as a member of the board of a Fortune 500 company.

Related Articles

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