Thanksgiving Myths, Legends and Lies: Why Settlers Really Started the Annual Feast

How much do you really know about Thanksgiving?

As most students in the U.S. learn, the event we consider the “first” Thanksgiving happened in Plymouth, Mass. in 1621 when the Pilgrims (who actually called themselves separatists and weren’t referred to as Pilgrims until the 1870s) gathered with the local Wampanoag peoples to celebrate the fall harvest.

Wampanoag leader Massasoit visiting colonists at Plymouth, 1620s
Massasoit, the Wampanoag Indian chief who maintained peaceful relations with the English in the area of Plymouth, Massachusetts, visits the Pilgrims. (Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

There is historical evidence that this feast occurred in 1621, but there’s no indication that the Native Americans were actually invited. Some accounts suggest that about 90 Wampanoag heard the settlers firing guns and came to see the cause of the stir or even ready to enter battle.

It’s also possible that the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, was making diplomatic calls after gathering his own harvest.

“Pilgrims and Indians”

While the story is often told that the indigenous peoples traded with the Pilgrims and taught them how to cultivate crops, interactions between the settlers and the Wampanoag — which means “Easterners” or “People of the Dawn” — were significantly more violent.

National Day Of Mourning Across From Plymouth Rock
Juan Gonzalez of Boston rekindles a small fire — the smoke symbolizing a ritual for healing and a connection with the “creator.” He has been attending this day of mourning for 30 years. “We feel the pain of the Wampanoag,” said Gonzalez. United American Indians of New England gather for the National Day of Mourning across from Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, MA on Thursday, November 25, 2010. The day signifies the deaths of American Indians at the hands of early settlers and colonists and the independence of American Indians.Boston Globe Boston Globe via Getty Images
Photo by Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

The English settlers found good land to establish Plymouth as quickly as they did because a smallpox epidemic wiped out a Wampanoag village there before they arrived. Tisquantum, or Squanto, well-known for aiding the Pilgrims, was a member of that tribe. He was captured by the English in 1614 and sold into slavery in Spain. He learned English in order to escape, only to return home in 1619 to find his entire tribe was dead.

Plimoth Plantation In Plymouth, Mass
PLYMOUTH, MA – AUGUST 29: Squanto, played by Frank Hicks, chairman of the Mashpee board of selectmen; Chief Flying Eagle, portrayed by Earl Mills’ and Governor Carver played by Dr. Robert M Bartlett re-enact the signing of the Treaty of 1620 at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., on Aug. 29, 1971. (Photo by William Ryerson/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)Boston Globe Boston Globe via Getty Images
William Ryerson/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The celebration in 1621 did not mark a friendly turning point and did not become an annual event. Relations between the Wampanoag and the settlers deteriorated, leading to the Pequot War. In 1637, in retaliation for the murder of a man the settlers believed the Wampanoags killed, they burned a nearby village, killing as many as 500 men, women, and children.

Following the massacre, William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth, wrote that for “the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”

When Was the First Thanksgiving

Although we celebrate the holiday in November, the 1621 harvest feast in Plymouth likely occurred in September or early October.

In 1789, President George Washington designated November 26 of that year as a day of thanksgiving for the nation under its new federal Constitution. The day did not become an official national holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation of thanksgiving following a request from writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who asked that the day “become, permanently, an American custom and institution.”

It was in this instance, in a country divided by the Civil War, that the unifying imagery of Pilgrims and Indians coming together to eat and celebrate was introduced.

Food At the First Thanksgiving

The Wampanoag brought a gift of five deer and the settlers contributed vegetables to the 1621 harvest celebration, which lasted three days. The Pilgrims were excited about the venison and mentions of the dish show up frequently in the letters sent back to England, where hunting deer was illegal.

4th Annual 'We Gather Together' Native American Thanksgiving
Shellfish was part of the traditional meal served during the fourth “We Gather Together” a Mashpee Wampanoag Annual Native American Thanksgiving Celebration on November 23, 2013 at the Old Indian Meeting House in Mashpee.Boston Globe Boston Globe via Getty Images
Photo by Essdras M. Suarez/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

There was definitely no pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, or turkey — although goose or duck may have been served. The feast likely included seafood, corn bread, and squashes as well.

Thanksgiving isn’t unique to the United States

Many other countries celebrate Thanksgiving including Germany, Japan, South Korea, China, and Canada. The holiday in Canada, which falls on the second Monday of October, shares many traditions with the American version.

But the holiday looks different around the world. In Japan, the season’s first rice harvest is celebrated by Labor Thanksgiving Day, which is centered around giving thanks for workers rights. Germans give thanks for the fall harvest with Erntedankfest, a less family-oriented holiday than American Thanksgiving which is marked by parades, fireworks, music, and dancing.

People take a stroll under ginkgo yellow
TOKYO, JAPAN: People take a stroll under ginkgo yellow leaves at Tokyo’s Showa Kinen Park, 23 November 2004 on the Labor Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday. Some 650 ginkgos have turned to their autumn colors. AFP PHOTO/Kazuhiro NOGI (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)KAZUHIRO NOGI AFP/Getty Images
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