Holiday history wrought with misconceptions

What is the true story of Thanksgiving Day?

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Every year it seems someone at the family Thanksgiving gathering pipes up with an opinion about "the myth of Thanksgiving." This usually ignites a flurry of points and counterpoints and raises the question: What is the real story behind Thanksgiving?

Deb Scott, social studies teacher at Moffat County High School, said there is scant curriculum in high schools today covering the Pilgrims. "We pretty much start our studies at the Revolutionary War and the Constitution because there is so much history to cover. With the changes in Russia and in other countries, modern history is moving so fast. Children in the younger grades learn more about Thanksgiving and that period of history," she said.

"What most of us have learned about the Pilgrims and the Indians who were at the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation is only part of the truth," said Chuck Larsen of Takoma, Wash. Larsen is a public school teacher, a historian and an American of Native American heritage.

"The problem is that part of what you and I learned in our childhood about the Pilgrims and Squanto and the First Thanksgiving is a mixture of both history and myth," Larsen said.

According Larsen, Squanto was a Native American of the Pawtuxet tribe who acted as interpreter in concluding a 1621 treaty between the Pilgrim settlers and Chief Massasoit. He later became friendly with the Plymouth colonists, aiding them in their planting and fishing.

Much of the information we have about this period is the result of research conducted by the staff at Plymoth Plantation, the living museum in Plymouth, Mass. They have recreated the lives of the Pilgrims, the Mayflower II and the 1627 Pilgrim Village.

But the first Thanksgiving in America was actually observed on December 4, 1619. A group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Plantation in what is now Charles City, Va. The group's charter required that the day of their arrival in the "new land of Virginia" be observed yearly as a day of thanksgiving to God. Captain John Woodleaf held the service of thanksgiving. It was a private event, limited to the Berkeley settlement. The colony was wiped out in 1622.

What about the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving?

Two first hand accounts give excellent descriptions of the event. The first, written in "Mourt's Relation" by Edward Winslow, who alternated with William Bradford as governor of Plymouth in the 1630s; and the second written by William Bradford, governor of the colony for 33 years, called "Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647." From their writings we know how the village looked, what the colonists wore, how they spoke, what animals they owned and how they lived. We even know what games they played, what their views were on everything from their new home to religion and politics. And with this knowledge, we can piece together what foods were served at the feast, how the table and the setting looked, and even perhaps what the conversation was like.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on Dec. 11, 1620. Jean Craighead George, author of the book "The First Thanksgiving," writes: "[the Pilgrims left Europe] to seek their fortune in the New World." That would have come as news to the Pilgrims, as their leader William Bradford wrote in his diary that the voyage was motivated by "a great hope for advancing the kingdom of Christ."

Their first winter was devastating. Weakened by the seven-week crossing and the need to establish housing in the winter, they came down with pneumonia and consumption. They began to die one per day, then two, and sometimes three. At one point, only seven in the colony were able to fetch wood, make fires and care for the sick. By spring they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower.

But the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. And the remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast. Jean Craighead George writes: "This was not a day of Pilgrim thanksgiving. Instead, this was pure celebration."

The Plymouth feast was never repeated, so it can't be called the beginning of a tradition, nor was it termed by the colonists or Pilgrims a Thanksgiving feast. In fact, to these devoutly religious people, a day of thanksgiving was a day of prayer and fasting, and would have been held any time they felt the need to call for an extra day of thanks. Nevertheless, the 1621 feast has become a model for our own Thanksgiving celebration.

According to a letter written by Edward Winslow on Dec. 11, 1621, the feast went on for three days and food was plentiful. There was enough wild fowl ducks, geese, turkeys and even swans to supply the village for a week. The settlers invited their ally, Massasoit the Native American chief of the Wampanoag, who governed the greater part of what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island to dine with them. Massasoit arrived with 90 braves and a gift of venison. The feast lasted three days. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag ate outdoors at large tables and competed together in tests of skill and strength. Winslow wrote about the "goodness of God" in providing for them, and said the feast was held so that they "might after a special manner rejoice together."

Contrary to how some artists have depicted the historical supper, the Wampanoag did not wear war bonnets. Shortly after the arrival of the Pilgrims in America, Massasoit and Gov. John Carver of Plymouth Colony signed the earliest recorded treaty in New England. The treaty established a mutual peace between Massasoit's people and the Pilgrims that was never broken.

Was Thanksgiving practiced during colonial times?

All 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration for the first and only time in October 1777. The event lasted eight days and commemorated the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga.

George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789. He called for a day of prayer and giving thanks to God. It was to be celebrated by all religious denominatioEvery year it seems someone at the family Thanksgiving gathering pipes up with an opinion about "the myth of Thanksgiving." This usually ignites a flurry of points and counterpoints and raises the question: What is the real story behind Thanksgiving?

Deb Scott, social studies teacher at Moffat County High School, said there is scant curriculum in high schools today covering the Pilgrims. "We pretty much start our studies at the Revolutionary War and the Constitution because there is so much history to cover. With the changes in Russia and in other countries, modern history is moving so fast. Children in the younger grades learn more about Thanksgiving and that period of history," she said.

"What most of us have learned about the Pilgrims and the Indians who were at the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation is only part of the truth," said Chuck Larsen of Takoma, Wash. Larsen is a public school teacher, a historian and an American of Native American heritage.

"The problem is that part of what you and I learned in our childhood about the Pilgrims and Squanto and the First Thanksgiving is a mixture of both history and myth," Larsen said.

According Larsen, Squanto was a Native American of the Pawtuxet tribe who acted as interpreter in concluding a 1621 treaty between the Pilgrim settlers and Chief Massasoit. He later became friendly with the Plymouth colonists, aiding them in their planting and fishing.

Much of the information we have about this period is the result of research conducted by the staff at Plymoth Plantation, the living museum in Plymouth, Mass. They have recreated the lives of the Pilgrims, the Mayflower II and the 1627 Pilgrim Village.

But the first Thanksgiving in America was actually observed on December 4, 1619. A group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Plantation in what is now Charles City, Va. The group's charter required that the day of their arrival in the "new land of Virginia" be observed yearly as a day of thanksgiving to God. Captain John Woodleaf held the service of thanksgiving. It was a private event, limited to the Berkeley settlement. The colony was wiped out in 1622.

What about the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving?

Two first hand accounts give excellent descriptions of the event. The first, written in "Mourt's Relation" by Edward Winslow, who alternated with William Bradford as governor of Plymouth in the 1630s; and the second written by William Bradford, governor of the colony for 33 years, called "Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647." From their writings we know how the village looked, what the colonists wore, how they spoke, what animals they owned and how they lived. We even know what games they played, what their views were on everything from their new home to religion and politics. And with this knowledge, we can piece together what foods were served at the feast, how the table and the setting looked, and even perhaps what the conversation was like.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on Dec. 11, 1620. Jean Craighead George, author of the book "The First Thanksgiving," writes: "[the Pilgrims left Europe] to seek their fortune in the New World." That would have come as news to the Pilgrims, as their leader William Bradford wrote in his diary that the voyage was motivated by "a great hope for advancing the kingdom of Christ."

Their first winter was devastating. Weakened by the seven-week crossing and the need to establish housing in the winter, they came down with pneumonia and consumption. They began to die one per day, then two, and sometimes three. At one point, only seven in the colony were able to fetch wood, make fires and care for the sick. By spring they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower.

But the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. And the remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast. Jean Craighead George writes: "This was not a day of Pilgrim thanksgiving. Instead, this was pure celebration."

The Plymouth feast was never repeated, so it can't be called the beginning of a tradition, nor was it termed by the colonists or Pilgrims a Thanksgiving feast. In fact, to these devoutly religious people, a day of thanksgiving was a day of prayer and fasting, and would have been held any time they felt the need to call for an extra day of thanks. Nevertheless, the 1621 feast has become a model for our own Thanksgiving celebration.

According to a letter written by Edward Winslow on Dec. 11, 1621, the feast went on for three days and food was plentiful. There was enough wild fowl ducks, geese, turkeys and even swans to supply the village for a week. The settlers invited their ally, Massasoit the Native American chief of the Wampanoag, who governed the greater part of what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island to dine with them. Massasoit arrived with 90 braves and a gift of venison. The feast lasted three days. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag ate outdoors at large tables and competed together in tests of skill and strength. Winslow wrote about the "goodness of God" in providing for them, and said the feast was held so that they "might after a special manner rejoice together."

Contrary to how some artists have depicted the historical supper, the Wampanoag did not wear war bonnets. Shortly after the arrival of the Pilgrims in America, Massasoit and Gov. John Carver of Plymouth Colony signed the earliest recorded treaty in New England. The treaty established a mutual peace between Massasoit's people and the Pilgrims that was never broken.

Was Thanksgiving practiced during colonial times?

All 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration for the first and only time in October 1777. The event lasted eight days and commemorated the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga.

George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789. He called for a day of prayer and giving thanks to God. It was to be celebrated by all religious denominations, but discord among the colonies prevented it from being practiced by all. Many felt the hardships of a few Pilgrims did not warrant a national holiday. And later, President Thomas Jefferson scoffed at the idea of having a day of thanksgiving.

It was Sarah Josepha Hale, a newspaper editor, whose efforts eventually led to what we recognize as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many editorials championing her cause in "Boston Ladies' Magazine" from 1828 to 1837 and later in "Godey's Lady's Book." She was determined to have the whole nation join together in setting aside a national day for giving thanks "unto Him from whom all blessings flow."

In 1830, New York proclaimed an official state Thanksgiving Day. Other states soon followed. In 1852, 29 states united in declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. Finally, after a 40-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, Hale's passion became a reality. In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day "of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father."

Since then, the date has been changed only once, by President Franklin Roosevelt, who moved it up one week to the third Thursday of November in order to create a longer Christmas-shopping season. Public uproar against this decision caused Congress, two years later, to move Thanksgiving back to its original date.

"Thanksgiving is a bigger concept than just the story of the founding of Plymouth Plantation." Larsen said. "The theme of Thanksgiving has truth and integrity far above and beyond what we and our forebearers have made of it."ns, but discord among the colonies prevented it from being practiced by all. Many felt the hardships of a few Pilgrims did not warrant a national holiday. And later, President Thomas Jefferson scoffed at the idea of having a day of thanksgiving.

It was Sarah Josepha Hale, a newspaper editor, whose efforts eventually led to what we recognize as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many editorials championing her cause in "Boston Ladies' Magazine" from 1828 to 1837 and later in "Godey's Lady's Book." She was determined to have the whole nation join together in setting aside a national day for giving thanks "unto Him from whom all blessings flow."

In 1830, New York proclaimed an official state Thanksgiving Day. Other states soon followed. In 1852, 29 states united in declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. Finally, after a 40-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, Hale's passion became a reality. In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day "of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father."

Since then, the date has been changed only once, by President Franklin Roosevelt, who moved it up one week to the third Thursday of November in order to create a longer Christmas-shopping season. Public uproar against this decision caused Congress, two years later, to move Thanksgiving back to its original date.

"Thanksgiving is a bigger concept than just the story of the founding of Plymouth Plantation." Larsen said. "The theme of Thanksgiving has truth and integrity far above and beyond what we and our forebearers have made of it."

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