Most of what you learned about the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving in elementary school is probably a bunch of baloney.
The Plymouth colony didn't celebrate the "first" Thanksgiving.Some accounts say that Virginia colonists held a Thanksgiving in 1619 at Berkeley along the James River. That was a year before the Pilgrims even boarded the Mayflower for America.
Other accounts suggest that such celebrations were held in 1607 in Popham, Maine, and Jamestown, Virginia - but both of these settlements were short-lived and essentially ignored by historians.
The one in Berkeley was held Dec. 14, 1619, shortly after the arrival of the 39 settlers from Bristol, England. The ceremony was held in accordance with the charter they had been given by a London company. One of the dictates of that charter was that settlers' arrival day "shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God."
The feast that Plymouth settlers had with Indian friends was in 1621, and it was a traditional English Harvest Festival, dating back to the 16th century. It consisted of several days of feasting, drinking, games of skill and chance, and other forms of revelry after the crops were safely in.
There were no religious overtones to it.
Chief Massasoit was invited, and he brought 90 braves to be fed and entertained. The Indians brought five deer they had killed for the occasion. For three days the natives and the English gorged themselves on venison, duck, turkey, goose, fish, fruits, berries, corn bread, pudding, leeks and watercress, all washed down with "strong water" and wine, "very sweete and strong," made from the wild grape.
Thanksgiving as we know it, however, did not come to be until 1863, when President Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving holiday to be held the last Thursday in November, based on the tradition loosely established on the first Harvest Festival held in Plymouth in 1621.
That date was eventually changed when merchants convinced President Franklin Roosevelt that the last Thursday didn't give them enough time to prepare for the Christmas sales. As of 1941, Thanksgiving became the fourth Thursday in November.
According to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, "More bunk has been written about the Pilgrims than any other subject." Some other surprising facts are:
- They didn't call themselves Pilgrims. They called themselves "Saints" and their own descendants called them "the Forefathers." It was not until the 19th century that the term "Pilgrim" came to be used.
- They didn't dress in the black and gray suits with the white collars and tall hats with buckles on them. Every modern child who has ever studied the Pilgrims in elementary school has drawn the Pilgrims that way. In fact, the Pilgrims looked like other Englishmen, wearing the rich browns or the Lincoln greens then popular in the homeland. Gov. William Bradford had a red vest and William Brewster had a violet coat.
- The artists who depicted Pilgrims wearing blacks and grays also depicted Indians with buckskins and war bonnets. The truth is the Indians didn't wear much of anything. When Chief Massasoit first walked into the Plymouth colony he was wearing nothing more than black paint. Squanto was stark naked.
- The Plymouth settlers didn't live in log cabins. Log cabins were a later architectural creation. Instead, they lived in homes designed in the wattle-and-daub fashion of their native England: woven sticks covered with mud and supported by wood beams. The roofs were thatched.
One thing that has not been exaggerated is the privation the Pilgrims endured during their first winter when cold, disease and famine cut their number in half.
In "Of Plimouth Plantation," William Bradford graphically described the ways they sacrificed for each other, "all of this willingly & cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, shewing herein their true love unto their friends & brethren."