Thanksgiving: Separating Myth from Fact

A stroll through the grocery store reveals Thanksgiving bounty: massive frozen turkeys and cranberries and sweet potatoes galore. Clearly Turkey Day is upon us.

Almost every child learns the tale of the brave Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock, befriended the local Native Americans, and celebrated the First Thanksgiving – but how much of this oft-repeated story is fact and how much is myth?

In the tradition of C2 Education, let’s create a teachable moment and separate Thanksgiving myth from fact.

Myth: The Pilgrims sought religious freedom.

Only about 35 of the original 102 Pilgrims sought to separate from the Church of England. The remaining 67 left England for a variety of reasons in order to begin their lives anew in America.

Myth: The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.

The Pilgrims intended to land in Virginia but were blown badly off course. Most historians believe that they actually landed at Cape Cod, about thirty miles away, and then sailed to the safer harbors at Plymouth about a month later. Though there are many written records from the Pilgrims, none mention Plymouth Rock as their landing place.

Myth: The First Thanksgiving was a celebratory feast and day of prayer shared between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans in November 1621.

During the Pilgrims’ first winter, 46 of the 102 Pilgrims died, so when they finally got a plentiful harvest the next fall, they had much to be thankful for. The Pilgrims did indeed hold a feast to which roughly 90 Native Americans were invited, but there is no mention of this being a feast of thanksgiving. The first actual mention of thanksgiving was associated with a feast held in July of 1623. The Pilgrims had experienced a terrible drought for two months, so they decided to spend a day fasting and praying for rain. The next day, rain fell. Governor Bradford then proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving.

Neither of these feasts truly qualifies as the first feast of thanksgiving in America. During the 1500s, Spanish settlers held several such feasts in Texas, and settlers at Jamestown held a similar feast about two years before the Pilgrims held their Thanksgiving.

Myth: The First Thanksgiving featured many of the same dishes we eat today.

It’s possible that turkey was served at the First Thanksgiving, but it’s just as likely that the Pilgrims roasted ducks, geese, swans, or even passenger pigeons. The Wampanoag guests brought deer along, so venison was probably also on the menu. While cranberries were certainly plentiful, they would not have been served as a sweet sauce or relish because the Pilgrims had run out of sugar by November 1621. Seafood likely composed a large part of the meal; after all, New England is known for its abundance of mussels, lobster, bass, clams, and oysters. Mashed potatoes and sweet potato casserole almost certainly didn’t appear at that feast because potatoes hadn’t become popular among Europeans yet. And while pumpkin likely made an appearance, it wouldn’t have been served in a pie since the Pilgrims lacked butter and wheat flour, key ingredients for any crust.

We actually have Sarah Hale, author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” to thank for our modern Thanksgiving meals. She campaigned for over 20 years to have Thanksgiving become an annual national holiday. During this campaign, she wrote a series of widely circulated editorials in which she shared a variety of recipes; though the recipes were for foods that almost certainly weren’t served at the First Thanksgiving, they have become traditional for our modern feast.

While today’s Thanksgiving bears little resemblance to that of the Pilgrims, it remains a day to celebrate our many blessings. Those of us at C2 Education would like to offer thanks for our many talented students, their supportive families, and our dedicated teachers and staff.