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The Truth About Thanksgiving

The Truth About Thanksgiving

The Truth About Thanksgiving
REPRINTED FROM VEGETARIAN TIMES November 1982

History books describe the first Thanksgiving as a harvest celebration held in 1621 by the Pilgrims, whose early settlers of Plymouth Rock, who wore big black hats and buckled boots and carried flare- barreled muskets.

The Pilgrims invited local Indians to their celebration, or so the story goes, and together they gave thanks and feasted on turkey and sweet potatoes.

Despite the propagation of the Thanksgiving story in books and encyclopedias, some historians believe a good deal of Pilgrim lore is just plain false. It's generally agreed that sometime in early October, not late November, fifty or so Pilgrims held a three-day harvest bash. Beyond that, there is little evidence to authenticate the stories. Writers and painters have tended to moralize and romanticize the story, embellishing it with colorful anecdotes and side stepping the grimmer details.

For instance, the Pilgrims most likely wore bright colored clothing and no shoes in the summer. Painters of the 17th century apparently supplied the pilgrims with their black hats and buckles. Did the Pilgrims really give thanks as the holiday implies? Plymouth Historian James Baker says that in all the voluminous writings of the Mayflower settlers, there are exactly three paragraphs referring to any kind of feast--with no mention of anyone saying thanks to anyone. There's no evidence that anyone said prayers, either.

The role of the Indians is also disputed. According to most history books, about ninety Indians were invited by Governor William Bradford to share the feast. (Bradford is the author of Plymouth Plantation, a history of the settlement which he helped establish.) The Dictionary of American History tells us that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated with the help of Squanto, a "friendly Indian." But other document reveal that Squanto was twice kidnapped and taken to Europe where he learned English. Upon returning to his native land, Squanto found that a disease carried to the New World by Europeans had wiped out his entire tribe, the Pawtuxet People.

What many history books don't tell us is that Thanksgiving may have been held to celebrate the massacre of Indians. In colonial times the settlers periodically held religious fasts, or "days of humiliation," and Thanksgiving days throughout the year. Sometimes such a day marked an Indian Massacre.

According to William B. Newell, a-Penobscot Indian and former chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, the first official Thanksgiving Day Commemorated the massacre of 700 Indian men, women and children during one of their religious ceremonies. The Indians were celebrating their annual green corn dance--Thanksgiving Day to them--in a meeting house when they were attacked by English and Dutch settlers. The Indians were ordered from the building, and shot down as they came forth. Those who were left inside died in the building, which was set on fire. Another such "thanksgiving" day was proclaimed by Gov. Kieft in February 1644.

Weather they were celebrating Indian deaths or truly giving thanks for a good harvest, the Pilgrims consumed a good deal of home brew. Each Pilgrim drank at least a half gallon of ale a day. According to one account, when Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe first visited the Plymouth colony, he was given a pot of brandy. It is said to have "made him sweat all the time after."

We know the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621, but the year the feast went national is anyone's guess. Some scholars say Thanksgiving became a formal holiday in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it in response to a campaign by a magazine editor named Sara Joseph Hale, the author of "Mary Had A Little Lamb." Others say it was President George Washington who proclaimed it a holiday in 1789.

Still others say the holiday was proclaimed as early as 1637 by the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Some Historians even argue that the First Thanksgiving dinner did not include turkey. Apparently turkeys were not as easy to catch as geese and ducks, so the first Thanksgiving more likely consisted of goose, duck and vegetables.

Part of the problem is that so much of what we know about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving is learned from the people of Plymouth, who were prolific writers. A collection of letters co-authored by Gov. William Bradford portrayed early life at Plymouth as prosperous and peaceful to encourage recruits from England to replace the dead and sick. His claims in the letters are contradicted by accounts in his own journal. "In William Bradford, the Pilgrims had the ultimate press agent," said one Plymouth historian.

In any case, the story of the first Thanksgiving may be more fiction than fact. It's ironic that today it is touted as a celebration of peace and life when a bloody massacre may have started the whole thing.-- Karen Gullo


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