By Deborah G. Miller
“The First Thanksgiving”... we have seen it printed in our history books, museums, paintings, literature, and in our homes to name a few. We have talked about it, passed the tradition on from generation to generation. You probably even have a painting replicating this national holiday in your home. Do you call it “The [First] Thanksgiving”? If you do you need to think again. Henry Hornblower, the founder of Plimoth Plantation, could not have said it better:
“A myth associated with the 1621 harvest celebration at Plymouth. Historians at Plimoth Plantation do NOT use this name because what happened in 1621 wasn’t a part of how our modern Thanksgiving was started.” — Plimoth Plantation, 1997, Plimoth Plantation, A Pictorial Guide, Fort Church Publishers, Inc, R.I.
There are only two primary sources that reference the gathering (not the first thanksgiving) in 1621 in Plymouth; one by William Bradford and the other by Edward Winslow:
Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation. In the original 17th-century spelling:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.”
William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation: In the original 17th-century spelling:
“They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; fFor as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no want. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids, they had about a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corn to yt proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.”
What has happened in the past can never be changed. Events that happened in 1621 (the past) will never change. Truly to have lived in the past is to know about the past. How we write about the past and history is the deciding factor between fact and fiction. Primary sources (i.e. eye witness) can answer many questions about the past and history. Historians study information written and spoken by people who were there.
Not only are there articles written about “The [First] Thanksgiving” but about it not being the first thanksgiving. So why do we, (teachers, educators, professionals, curators, and historians, continue to refer to the forefathers gathering as “The [First] Thanksgiving”? The list is endless, Dr. Jeremy D. Bangs in “Thanksgiving on the Net: Roast Bull with Cranberry Sauce”, points out that the debunkers of the “first” thanksgiving are as wrong as the myths and misconceptions themselves.
If we, as direct descendants and members of the Mayflower Society, are going to eliminate the years of documented myths and misconceptions and the continued falsehoods of today about “The [First] Thanksgiving,” we need to look no further than our own back door. When I see and hear individuals, groups and organizations refer, in detail, to our forefathers gathering in 1621 as the “first” thanksgiving it makes me wonder why this myth continues? We are not here to profit from our forefathers but to educate others with the accurate story without myth and misconceptions. Am I saying not to celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course not. Do I think if it was not for this myth our Pilgrim story might not have been as popular? Maybe not. But is the popularity worth the misconceptions? Absolutely not. This is a story deeper than 102 Pilgrims and “strangers” crossing the Atlantic that gave us our mythological Thanksgiving story of today, it is a story of faith, forgiveness, religious diversity, historic cornerstones, mathematical calculations, journal and letter writings, self motivational decisions and consequences. This is a story that is our duty as Mayflower descendants to pass on today, tomorrow and perpetually as honestly and accurately as we can. Let’s celebrate Thanksgiving NOT because our forefathers past (history) has been embellished and falsified. Let’s celebrate Thanksgiving as a celebration of survival and a cultural bond that survived over 50 years. Join me for the “First” time in telling the true story without myths or misconceptions, without profiting from others’ emotions and lack of knowledge.
Have a Great Thanksgiving revealing the accurate story of our descendants.
What history will you leave behind?