Ever since the beginning of the National Day of Mourning – an annual anti-Thanksgiving gathering in Plymouth, Massachusetts – during the early years of the Indian rights movement, there’s been a growing awareness that the story of Thanksgiving we were all taught in school is not true.
As the story commonly goes, the Pilgrims who sailed from England on the Mayflower and landed at what became Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 had a good harvest the next year. So Plymouth Gov. William Bradford organized a feast to celebrate the harvest and invited a group of “Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit” to the party. The feast lasted three days and, according to chronicler Edward Winslow, Bradford sent four men on a “fowling mission” to prepare for the feast and the Wampanoag guests brought five deer to the party. And ever since then, the story goes, Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November.
The National Day of Mourning began with the official suppression of an Indian’s speech. It started in 1970 in Plymouth where the first Pilgrims are said to have landed. That year Frank James, a Mashpee Wampanoag member of the United American Indians of New England, was dis-invited from making a presentation at a state event celebrating the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims after officials discovered his speech didn’t reflect or honor the settler colonists’ point of view but instead was written from the Wampanoag perspective – a cry from the heart.
Plaque commemorating the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts
“It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts,” James said at the beginning of his speech. “This is a time of celebration for you – celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.” He went on to describe what happened: atrocities, genocide, slavery, land theft and more.
So since that time when James and other Native activists and scholars across the country began to speak out about history as experienced and handed down by their cultures, others – largely non-Natives – have made a concerted effort to document “the true story of Thanksgiving.” According to various "true" stories, the first Thanksgiving was in 1598, 1619, 1621, 1623, or 1637; it was started by a Spanish explorer in Texas, English settlers in Virginia, George Washington or Abe Lincoln; and it was "not so much a celebration as it was the last meal of condemned men." Have the “true stories” succeeded in correcting the record of historical inaccuracies? Here are some samples – you decide: Al Borrego, Don Juan de Onate,
—The first Thanksgiving took place in San Elizario, Texas in 1598. “This Thanksgiving celebration was 23 years before the Pilgrims,” Al Borrego, San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society president, told Lubbock Online. This first Thanksgiving celebrated the journey of Spanish explorer Don Juan de Onate into West Texas. Borrego said Onate traveled with 539 colonists and thousands of head of livestock from Santa Barbara, Mexico, across the Chihuahuan Desert to San Elizario, which is located about 22 miles south of El Paso. The journey was plagued with a seven-day massive rainfall followed by drought before the travelers reached their Texas destination, where Onate took peaceful possession, Borrego said. For 10 days, the expedition party nursed their sick and tended to their famished livestock, he said. Onate set aside April 30 as the date to give thanks for their survival, Borrego said. Onate’s expedition brought not only colonists but also the first horse to America, Borrego said.
—The first “official” Thanksgiving took place on December 4, 1619 at Berkeley Plantation, originally called Berkeley Hundred, on the banks of the James River in Charles City County, Virginia, according to Berkeley Plantation. On December 4, 1619, a group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred, which was about 20 miles upstream from Jamestown where the first permanent settlement of the Colony of Virginia was established on May 14, 1607. The group's charter required that the day of arrival be observed yearly as a "day of thanksgiving" to God. Another American "first" took place at Berkeley Plantation: the first bourbon whiskey in Virginia was distilled there in 1621 by George Thorpe, an Episcopal priest.
—The first Thanksgiving was proclaimed by Massachusetts Colony Governor William Bradford to be November 29, 1623, after the Pilgrims’ communist system failed, according to economics professor Fred. E. Foldvary. In his book Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford relates how the Pilgrims set up a communist system in which they owned the land in common and would also share the harvests in common, Foldvary says on his website. “By 1623, it became clear this system was not working out well. The men were not eager to work in the fields, since if they worked hard, they would have to share their produce with everyone else. The colonists faced another year of poor harvests. They held a meeting to decide what to do.” After much debate, Foldvary says, the Pilgrims changed their economic system from communism to individual enterprise by allotting each family a parcel of land and allowing them to keep whatever they grew. “Their new incentive-based economic system was great success. It looked like they would have an abundant harvest this time. But then, during the summer, the rains stopped, threatening the crops. The Pilgrims held a ‘Day of Humiliation’ and prayer. The rains came and the harvest was saved. It is logical to surmise that the Pilgrims saw this as a sign that God blessed their new economic system, because Governor Bradford proclaimed November 29, 1623, as a Day of Thanksgiving,” Foldvary says.
—Who could resist television “pundit” Rush Limbaugh’s take on Thanksgiving? "The real story of Thanksgiving is William Bradford giving thanks to God for the guidance and the inspiration to set up a thriving colony,” Limbaugh says on his website. “The bounty was shared with the Indians. There was a thanks to the Indians. They [the Pilgrims] had so much, they had the Indians over. They did sit down, and they did have free-range turkey and organic vegetables. But it was not the Indians that saved the Pilgrims, and it was not the Indians who saved the day. It was capitalism and Scripture which saved the day.”
—The Mises Institute goes a step further than Foldvary and Limbaugh and asserts that the popular Thanksgiving myth “is a fairy tale, a whitewashed and sanitized collection of half-truths which divert attention away from Thanksgiving's real meaning” that socialism does not work, according to an article by Richard Maybury on the Mises website. The harvest 1621 and 1622 were disastrous because the colonists preferred to steal food rather than work in the commonly owned fields, Maybury says. “The prevailing condition during those years was not the abundance the official story claims, it was famine and death. The first ’Thanksgiving’ was not so much a celebration as it was the last meal of condemned men.” Harvests improved after the land was given to individual families. ”The one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them,” Maybury says. The Mises Institution is “the worldwide epicenter of the Austrian economics.”
This image depicts the attack on the Pequot fortified village at Mystic on June 5, 1637, which left an estimated 700 Pequot men, women and children dead in less than an hour, many of them burned to death. The woodcut was included in John Underhill’s account of the Pequot War published in London in 1638.
—The first Thanksgiving took place in 1637, when the Massachusetts Colony Governor John Winthrop proclaimed a day to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, all colonial volunteers, from their journey to what is now Mystic, Connecticut, according to Richard Greener in the Huffington Post. The men had traveled to the Mystic area where they participated in the Pequot War in which 700 Pequot men, women and children were massacred. This day is still remembered, not by white European Christians, but by the United American Indians of New England who meet each year on the Day of Mourning, Greener said. “They gather at the feet of a statue of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember the long gone Pequot,” Greener said. “They do not call it Thanksgiving. There is no football game afterward.”
[Note: Although the Pequots were devastated by what was the first genocidal war by Europeans against a Native Nation, they are not “long gone.” They survived and re-emerged as the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in the mid-20th century. You can read about the Pequots’ history here.]