Thanksgiving 2008

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Surprise! First Thanksgiving went turkey-less

By Billy Davis

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If you really want to experience Thanksgiving, then travel east to Plymouth Rock, the beginning of turkey and dressing, and Pilgrims in wide-brim hats and shiny shoes with buckles. 

Or so we think. 

In present-day Plymouth, visitors tour a re-created Plymouth Plantation to learn about Colonial English life, and of course to learn about that very first Thanksgiving… which never really was.

“People have this quintessential idea of the first Thanksgiving, that the natives all sat down together at a table and shared turkey,” said Paula Peters, associate director of marketing for Plymouth Plantation.

Peters said the public’s idea of the first Thanksgiving dinner tops the myth-buster list. In fact, that first famous Thanksgiving meal at Plymouth was considered a harvest festival, not a “Thanksgiving meal.”

The festival lasted three days, and it was a one-time event.

The modern-day tour of Plymouth Plantation, which will welcome 70,000 visitors in November, isn’t designed to bust our Thanksgiving bubble. But telling the real story means dispelling legends and myths, like turkey and dressing, and those wide-brimmed hats.

“What’s most important for us is that we present the story of the colonists and the Wampanoag in the most historically accurate way possible,” said Peters.

According to Peters, the harvest festival itself happened accidentally, when a group of hunters from the Wampanoag tribe (the “Indians” schoolchildren learn about) happened upon the colonists during their harvest.

The hunters offered to share their white-tailed deer, and the colonists shared their harvest. Fowl was added to the menu, and the feast began – minus any turkey.

Historians have only one primary source for the harvest festival, a letter written by Plymouth colonist Edward Windslow to a friend. In the letter he described the setting: 

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors…many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted…”

The colonists first used the word “Thanksgiving” in 1623 following a drought, a prayer for rain and a subsequent rain shower according to historians. A thanksgiving event in that religious community would have included a church service rather than a feast.

The people we commonly refer to as Pilgrims were actually English Protestants who were fleeing religious persecution in their native England. They did set sail on a ship called the Mayflower, and the ship landed in Plymouth in 1620.

The word “Pilgrim” was first used in Of Plymouth Plantation, the first-hand account of colonial life penned by Plymouth governor William Bradford. He used the term when he described the Old Testament imagery of “strangers and pilgrims” in a new land. 

Owing to historical accuracy, visitors to present-day Plymouth Plantation will not hear the Plymouth’s re-enactors  referred to as “Pilgrims” or “Puritans.” To be historically accurate, the correct term is simply “colonists.”

And about those wide-brimmed hats and buckled-shoes…“That is definitely not what you’ll find here,” Peters said. “Those have become a caricature of the colonists…They’re not historically accurate.” 

On the Web site, historian Kathleen Curtin explains that “many people think that ‘history’ and ‘the past’ are the same thing. But they aren’t. The past is what actually happened. The past can never change.”

“History,” she said, “is how we think and write about the past. History is always changing.”

 “…By the goodness of God,” Winslow wrote about that harvest festival, “we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Even after four centuries, some things never change.