Talking Turkey About the Thanksgiving Myth

24 Nov

A mother turkey and her children foraging for food on the Cumberland County College campus

Thanksgiving — an American holiday, originating with the first colonists of what is now the United States, and celebrating their first harvest with the help of the Native Americans.  A tradition every year since then, that includes turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, string beans, cranberry sauce and gravy.

Well, that’s what we are supposed to believe…

Every year, children are indoctrinated with the story of Pilgrims.*  Every adult my age or older could surely recite it from memory…”The Pilgrims were English settlers who sailed on the Mayflower seeking religious freedom.  They landed on Plymouth Rock and established a colony in 1620.  With the help of local natives, including Squanto, they planted and later harvested an abundance of crops.  They then invited their native friends and had a huge feast with turkey and called it Thanksgiving, wherein they gave thanks for their good fortune.”  That’s how I learned it, and many others still believe it.

*As an interjection here, I will add that in all my years of teaching I did not experience a perpetuation of this flawed curriculum and was not obligated to teach this story I had learned — however, it was mostly due to lack of time to digress from the regular curricula.  With the fervor for raising test scores, most schools do not have time to teach anything about holidays any more.

As an adult, I finally learned that almost every word of that Thanksgiving story is false — (all except the word “English,” “1620,” and maybe some articles and prepositions such as “the” and “of”).  And  yet so many people will gather around the Thanksgiving dinner table tomorrow and swear that they are eating turkey as a tradition traceable to 1620.  In fact, some of us vegans and vegetarians may even hear, “What do you mean you’re not eating the turkey?  It’s tradition!  It’s the American way!”

Well, to help those of you who might hear these comments, I’ve summarized some main points surrounding Thanksgiving and the original settlers of Plymouth Colony to retort the Thanksgiving myth.

A few years ago I purchased a book entitled Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen.  After perusing it in a book store, I felt compelled to read it, as a responsible school teacher who certainly did not want to continue lying to my students!  The book is written by an historian who examined tons of history text books meant for schools at all levels, finding serious flaws throughout all of American history.  In general, the history written in these books is typically boring, overly abbreviated and simplified, and overly positive.  In particular, a lot of negative events are omitted, or only discussed from a particular point of view (such as the oppressor’s).  Loewen asserts that history textbooks avoid controversy and instill patriotism so that children can “feel good” about their national pride.  The content is driven by publishers and school boards more so than actual historians with knowledge.

Chapter 3 is called, “The Truth About Thanksgiving,” and is approximately 21 pages of historical information debunking common misconceptions.  What follows are aspects of the Thanksgiving myth that Loewen has explained:

  • The Pilgrims were not the first settlers; the native groups settled in what is now known as the United States 30,000 years ago.  Too long ago for it to count?  Well, then believe it or not a group of African slaves were abandoned in South Carolina in 1526 by their Spanish captors, so that makes Africans the first to settle here.  But if you want to be specific about what Europeans were the first to settle, then that would be the Spanish that settled an area of the U.S. that covers — oh, just about half of the continent!  (From San Francisco to Arkansas and also Florida).  In fact, they had their own group fleeing religious oppression before the English Pilgrims — Spanish Jews settled in New Mexico in the 1500s seeking freedom.  What?  Do they still not count since they’re on the West Coast?  Well, what about the Dutch who settled in the area of Albany in 1614?  Or, if they really must be English settlers — what of Jamestown in 1607?  Right from the start of this myth, our characters (the settlers of Plymouth Rock) have been chosen rather arbitrarily — and by the way, only 35 out of 102 people on the Mayflower were actually “Pilgrims” (the name coined for them in the 1870s!) — the rest were just pursuing new fortunes, not religious freedom.
  • Squanto and friends did not welcome the Pilgrims because they were so kind, or the Pilgrims were so blessed and good, but rather because a terrible plague had wiped out 90 to 96% of natives in the area of New England.  Fisherman who had visited the area in 1617 infected natives with whom they had contact, and within three years the population was decimated, leaving villages abandoned and tribes without the resources to fight off invaders.  The Wampanoags, for example, were so weakened by the plagues that they formed an alliance with the Pilgrims to increase their numbers in the face of a threat from the neighboring Narragansets.  As in all areas of the Americas settled, or at best visited by Europeans, epidemics of small pox, influenza, chicken pox, viral hepatitis and even bubonic plague defeated native populations who might have otherwise fought off these invasions.  So in truth, the Conquest really happened on a microbial level.
  • The Thanksgiving myth often states that the Pilgrims originally meant to go to Virginia and settle near the existing English settlements, but that “bad weather” veered them off course and led to a navigation error.  There is evidence to support that it was no accident.  Earlier fishing expeditions in the area of Cape Cod had already taken place, and the area was thus known to people back then.  Some historians believe they went there on purpose, since back then it was not difficult for sailors to measure latitude and realize they were off course right away.  Moreover, they could have headed south towards warmer weather, since they still had supplies to travel further.  Thus they chose to stay in Cape Cod on purpose, and settled in Plymouth — which was actually the village of Patuxet, abandoned because of the plague, but ready to go with lands cleared, corn growing in fields, and even homes still in place.  The Pilgrims rummaged through these homes, and even dug up graves, finding food, baskets, bowls, and other objects.
  • Who was Squanto and how did he speak English?  Apparently, around 1605 Squanto had been captured and sent to Europe as a slave.  He lived in England and then Spain, where he escaped slavery and managed to seek passage to Newfoundland and then catch a ride back to Cape Cod the next time Captan Thomas Dermer went fishing in that area.  When he made it home, almost everyone in his village was dead until the Pilgrims showed up.
  • The Pilgrims did not introduce the concept of Thanksgiving to the natives, since the natives had observed autumn harvest celebrations long before.  In fact, Pilgrims did not even call it Thanksgiving — that word came later in history.  But even if the Pilgrims did have a lot to be thankful for (there are some scary primary resources from back then thanking God for the “pestilence” that removed the natives), they weren’t so religious and moral about it.  In fact, they were also in Plymouth to make a profit by way of the fur trade, and many also sought gold as other settlers like those in Jamestown had.  That makes them no different than other settlers, but they certainly weren’t holier-than-thou.
  • When did Thanksgiving actually become an official holiday?  1621?  1776?  No, try 1863.  Declaring it a national holiday was a strategy to encourage patriotism during the Civil War, and ironically, the Pilgrim story wasn’t even a part of it until the 1890s.
  • Who was at the first Thanksgiving?  Definitely some Pilgrims, but there is no definite record of natives present.  Several sources suggest that it lasted three days, and was earlier than November — probably October.

While Loewen does not get into the specifics of food, here are some more facts about the first Thanksgiving from a few other resources:

  • Food: Well, there is no absolute record that specifies turkey — instead, there was specifically venison and waterfowl (ducks and geese probably).  In addition, it is likely that there were shellfish on the table and eels too.  Plant foods were abundant: cornmeal, beans, squash, grapes, plums, onions, blueberries, parsnips, and turnips.  No potatoes or sweet potatoes, apples, or even cranberry sauce actually, as these foods would not be introduced until much later!

So is all of Thanksgiving a lie??  Pretty much!  But why?  Loewen, citing another historian Mircea Eliade, states that Thanksgiving is a ritual observance of an origin myth for the following reasons:

“1) It constitutes the history of the acts of the founders, the Supernaturals.

2) It is considered to be true.

3) It tells how an institution came into existence.

4) In performing the ritual associated with the myth, one ‘experiences knowledge of the origin’ and claim’s one’s patriarchy.

5) Thus one ‘lives’ the myth, as a religion.”

A national religion, it seems, as Thanksgiving is our national holiday.  Obviously, the United States were literally divided during the Civil War, and so the country needed to market a positive publicity campaign to inspire national pride and respect.  As an English-speaking nation with ties to English cultural and probably little to no cultural identification with the Spanish — much less the Africans — the protagonists settlers for this origin myth had to be English.  The first ones, in Jamestown, had basically ruined their reputation because they had enslaved natives, dug for gold instead of planted crops, and were basically just out to make a profit.  So the 35 Pilgrims who had sought religious freedom made much better characters for an origin myth.  The rest of the story falls into place as presumption and a simplistic plot with a happy ending, completely ignoring any controversial tragedies and not-so-flattering Pilgrim activities.

I am not slamming Thanksgiving, nor do I believe it should be discontinued, but I do prefer that our traditions and rituals be truthful and transparent.  I do not like the myths because unfortunately too many people accept them as facts.  Some of us grow up believing in Santa Claus until someone — a parent, or a bully at school — tells us the truth.  That does not mean we stop giving (or receiving!) gifts or celebrating Christmas (another holiday full of myths).  Instead, we change our perspective of it, either from a religious point of view or otherwise.  The settlers of Plymouth need to be regarded for who they were in reality — we do them no justice by making up fantasies about them — and the plight of the natives that suffered in the plague should not be ignored from our history either.  As Loewen concludes in his chapter about Thanksgiving, “Origin myths do not come cheaply.  To glorify the Pilgrims is dangerous.  The genial omissions and the invented details with which our textbooks retail the Pilgrim archetype are close cousins of overt censorship…”

I suggest we completely forget this myth and reinvent Thanksgiving for ourselves.  If you are interested in a return to truly traditional foods, then focus on creating meals with cornmeal, squash, and beans (known as “The Three Sisters” in some native groups).  If not, just make your favorite (vegan) food and just reflect on what you want the holiday to mean for you.

Personally, I’m going to enjoy a delicious stuffed acorn squash with several sides and desserts, and I will reflect on my gratitude for the Earth’s food.  I will also say many prayers for the abused and wrongfully murdered turkeys gracing everyone else’s table (including the table I will share with my extended family), as this holiday is very much about death as it is about life for me.

And I also plan on having some drinks!  Haha!!!


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