Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving

Fact & Fiction
tags: Thanksgiving

Rick Shenkman founded HNN. 


You can watch Rick Shenkman's television show on the Pilgrims/Puritans here.  The show aired on TLC (The Learning Channel).  You can watch his show about Thanksgiving here. The shows were part of his series, Myth America.

MYTH # 1

The Pilgrims Held the First Thanksgiving

To see what the first Thanksgiving was like you have to go to: Texas. Texans claim the first Thanksgiving in America actually took place in little San Elizario, a community near El Paso, in 1598 -- twenty-three years before the Pilgrims' festival. For several years they have staged a reenactment of the event that culminated in the Thanksgiving celebration: the arrival of Spanish explorer Juan de Onate on the banks of the Rio Grande. De Onate is said to have held a big Thanksgiving festival after leading hundreds of settlers on a grueling 350-mile long trek across the Mexican desert.

Then again, you may want to go to Virginia.. At the Berkeley Plantation on the James River they claim the first Thanksgiving in America was held there on December 4th, 1619....two years before the Pilgrims' festival....and every year since 1958 they have reenacted the event. In their view it's not the Mayflower we should remember, it's the Margaret, the little ship which brought 38 English settlers to the plantation in 1619. The story is that the settlers had been ordered by the London company that sponsored them to commemorate the ship's arrival with an annual day of Thanksgiving. Hardly anybody outside Virginia has ever heard of this Thanksgiving, but in 1963 President Kennedy officially recognized the plantation's claim.


MYTH # 2

Thanksgiving Was About Family

If by Thanksgiving, you have in mind the Pilgrim festival, forget about it being a family holiday. Put away your Norman Rockwell paintings. Turn off Bing Crosby. Thanksgiving was a multicultural community event. If it had been about family, the Pilgrims never would have invited the Indians to join them.


MYTH # 3

Thanksgiving Was About Religion

No it wasn't. Paraphrasing the answer provided above, if Thanksgiving had been about religion, the Pilgrims never would have invited the Indians to join them. Besides, the Pilgrims would never have tolerated festivities at a true religious event. Indeed, what we think of as Thanksgiving was really a harvest festival. Actual"Thanksgivings" were religious affairs; everybody spent the day praying. Incidentally, these Pilgrim Thanksgivings occurred at different times of the year, not just in November.


MYTH # 4


The Pilgrims Ate Turkey

What did the Pilgrims eat at their Thanksgiving festival? They didn't have corn on the cob, apples, pears, potatoes or even cranberries. No one knows if they had turkey, although they were used to eating turkey. The only food we know they had for sure was deer. 11(And they didn't eat with a fork; they didn't have forks back then.)

So how did we get the idea that you have turkey and cranberry and such on Thanksgiving? It was because the Victorians prepared Thanksgiving that way. And they're the ones who made Thanksgiving a national holiday, beginning in 1863, when Abe Lincoln issued his presidential Thanksgiving proclamations...two of them: one to celebrate Thanksgiving in August, a second one in November. Before Lincoln Americans outside New England did not usually celebrate the holiday. (The Pilgrims, incidentally, didn't become part of the holiday until late in the nineteenth century. Until then, Thanksgiving was simply a day of thanks, not a day to remember the Pilgrims.)


MYTH # 5


The Pilgrims Landed on Plymouth Rock

According to historian George Willison, who devoted his life to the subject, the story about the rock is all malarkey, a public relations stunt pulled off by townsfolk to attract attention. What Willison found out is that the Plymouth Rock legend rests entirely on the dubious testimony of Thomas Faunce, a ninety-five year old man, who told the story more than a century after the Mayflower landed. Unfortunately, not too many people ever heard how we came by the story of Plymouth Rock. Willison's book came out at the end of World War II and Americans had more on their minds than Pilgrims then. So we've all just gone merrily along repeating the same old story as if it's true when it's not. And anyway, the Pilgrims didn't land in Plymouth first. They first made landfall at Provincetown. Of course, the people of Plymouth stick by hoary tradition. Tour guides insist that Plymouth Rock is THE rock.


MYTH # 6

Pilgrims Lived in Log Cabins

No Pilgrim ever lived in a log cabin. The log cabin did not appear in America until late in the seventeenth century, when it was introduced by Germans and Swedes. The very term"log cabin" cannot be found in print until the 1770s. Log cabins were virtually unknown in England at the time the Pilgrims arrived in America. So what kind of dwellings did the Pilgrims inhabit? As you can see if you visit Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims lived in wood clapboard houses made from sawed lumber.


MYTH # 7

Pilgrims Dressed in Black

Not only did they not dress in black, they did not wear those funny buckles, weird shoes, or black steeple hats. So how did we get the idea of the buckles? Plimoth Plantation historian James W. Baker explains that in the nineteenth century, when the popular image of the Pilgrims was formed, buckles served as a kind of emblem of quaintness. That's the reason illustrators gave Santa buckles. Even the blunderbuss, with which Pilgrims are identified, was a symbol of quaintness. The blunderbuss was mainly used to control crowds. It wasn't a hunting rifle. But it looks out of date and fits the Pilgrim stereotype.


MYTH # 8


Pilgrims, Puritans -- Same Thing

Though even presidents get this wrong -- Ronald Reagan once referred to Puritan John Winthrop as a Pilgrim -- Pilgrims and Puritans were two different groups. The Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower and lived in Plymouth. The Puritans, arriving a decade later, settled in Boston. The Pilgrims welcomed heterogeneousness. Some (so-called"strangers") came to America in search of riches, others (so-called"saints") came for religious reasons. The Puritans, in contrast, came over to America strictly in search of religious freedom. Or, to be technically correct, they came over in order to be able to practice their religion freely. They did not welcome dissent. That we confuse Pilgrims and Puritans would have horrified both. Puritans considered the Pilgrims incurable utopians. While both shared the belief that the Church of England had become corrupt, only the Pilgrims believed it was beyond redemption. They therefore chose the path of Separatism. Puritans held out the hope the church would reform.


MYTH # 9

Puritans Hated Sex

Actually, they welcomed sex as a God-given responsibility. When one member of the First Church of Boston refused to have conjugal relations with his wife two years running, he was expelled. Cotton Mather, the celebrated Puritan minister, condemned a married couple who had abstained from sex in order to achieve a higher spirituality. They were the victims, he wrote, of a"blind zeal."


MYTH # 10

Puritans Hated Fun

H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as"the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy!" Actually, the Puritans welcomed laughter and dressed in bright colors (or, to be precise, the middle and upper classes dressed in bright colors; members of the lower classes were not permitted to indulge themselves -- they dressed in dark clothes). As Carl Degler long ago observed,"The Sabbatarian, antiliquor, and antisex attitudes usually attributed to the Puritans are a nineteenth-century addition to the much more moderate and wholesome view of life's evils held by the early settlers of New England."

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michelle lee fortin - 11/21/2007

Aaawwww, kinda ruined the mood!!
I liked believing those myths!! :)

Mich Librarian - 11/14/2007

The first North American Thanksgiving was held in what is now Newfoundland (Canada) in 1578 by the English explorer martin Frobisher.

John H. Kimbol - 11/14/2007

"sex as a God-given responsibility"
hahahah...you Christians and your silly notions of shame.

Philip Taterczynski - 11/29/2004

Actually, witches who were executed by hanging, not burning. Historically, worldwide, far more people were executed for heresy, not witchcraft, but many people fail to make this distinction.

John H. Lederer - 11/25/2004

"thus tending to support the claims of authors such as Randolph Roth that guns were accurate enough to hit targets."

From the large quantity of birds I rather suspect that the firearms used were either "fowlers" or "punt guns". These are very large bore smoothbores that shoot a large amount of shot in the direction of a flock of birds (usually waterfowl) that are not flying. Typically one might kill a dozen or two birds in a shot. They are usually shot from a rest (forked limb, oarlock, etc.)

Not good proof of accuracy <g>

There is a picture of one here:

Though this percussion fowler is much later in date, I suspect that it is a conversion from a flintlock. Similar dimensions, less graceful lines, and a clubbier butt to the stock would probably be similar to a fowler ~1625.

At the time period the ignition system was probably a mathlock, though early flintlocks would have been starting to take over.

In practice the inherent accuracy of an early firearm is not very meaningful. In use, they are inaccurate. It is very difficult to hit a bird on the fly with a matchlock, and quite difficult with a flintlock. The problem is the erratic time to ignition from trigger pull and amount of commotion before the shot itself. The shooter has to have the discipline to continue swinging the firearm on the moving target while, quite close to his face, a heavy hammer falls, and a blast of heat and white smoke comes out near his face.

The problem becomes much simpler with a percussion firearm.

Lloyd G Drako - 11/25/2004

So, all the Pilgrims were Puritans, but not all Puritans were Pilgrims. There, that settles it.

Val Jobson - 11/24/2004

In 1578 Martin Frobisher's expedition celebrated Thanksgiving while exploring in the eastern Arctic.

Ernesto Paris - 12/1/2003

I think this celebration is BEUTIFUL

Tim Hamilton - 12/1/2003

I just had to comment. One the Pilgrims didn't invite the locals. It was the other way around because the Pilgrims were starving, the locals felt had pity on them and brought them food during their Thanksgiving ceremony.
The Native Americans have a completely, and more believable story behind the feast.
Also after a year or two of being fed by a local village, the Europeans went to the village and slaughtered most of the people, to steal their food.

History of the Occupation vs. History of the Oppressed.

AJ - 11/28/2003

And the puritans who stayed in England were NOT fun either - Oliver Cromwell banned make-up, theatre and Christmas as well as slaughtering thousands of Irish Catholics.

sccatalyst - 11/28/2003

Good on the Puritans. Imagine that, people actually telling other people that their view is not necessarily affirmed, is harmful to the society. You'd better reference your propaganda though about forced labor and mutilation and I'm not talking about someone's home spun website.

Maybe we should be flexing like they did in this country today.

Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans rock.

Night Owl - 11/27/2003

"The Sabbatarian, antiliquor, and antisex attitudes usually attributed to the Puritans are a nineteenth-century addition to the much more moderate and wholesome view of life's evils held by the early settlers of New England."

Was the desire to burn witches part of this 'moderate and wholesome view of life's evils'? Or was it all just good, clean fun?

David - 11/27/2003

"I don't know who or what they were giving thanks to! Maybe each other for helping each other survive.

A typical and expected multi-culti look back at the origins and traditions of our country and culture.

I'm sorry if you felt belittled. It wasn't my intention to make you feel less "worthy" on thanksgiving than anybody else. If you don't believe in God, your thanks will be directed elsewhere, perhaps towards people, as you say. Each to his own.

But I just wanted to make sure that, as we relentlessly rewrite the past, some simple realities will survive unscathed from this butchers cleaver.

No, my friend. The puritans were giving thanks to God, attempts to rewrite history, and "dispel myths", notwithstanding.

Allen Burnsworth - 11/27/2003

I don't know who or what they were giving thanks to! Maybe each other for helping each other survive. Maybe to what their perception of God was at that time. Which I doubt since I'm pretty certain that the indian's there at the time weren't Monotheistic. I think we all get it Dave. We know your a religious fundamentalist zealot. O.K., O.K.! We're not as good as you! We get it!

But you know what. I'm still thankful for my family, my friends, opportunities, great sex, great rap music, great classical music, great art, all of these things that make me laugh, cry, and enjoy life with all of it's foibles and faux pas' as well as the excitement and exhilaration of just living. And no I don't need a god to tell me that. I don't know if there is a god. But I'm pretty certain that if there is He/She/It would be more concerned that we enjoy life, than whether or not we can belittle someone into thinking our way. If the purpose of life is not to enjoy it, then I don't know what it could be.

It's your planet. Do what you love!,

jahfrey - 11/26/2003

David, your point is....?

David - 11/26/2003

Although you may feel free to discuss the demoninational nuances between 'puritans', 'pilgrims', 'separatists', etc., the fact still remains that they were a christian religious sect that arrived in America for religious reasons. And they didn't give thanks to Indians, nor turkeys, nor did they give thanks at the Temple of No Particular Deity in the underground city of Zion. They gave thanks to GOD, the God of the Bible.

Beth Quitslund - 11/26/2003

Yes, the Mass Bay colony was very rigid about religous conformity and particularly nasty to the indigenous people. One of the major disagreements between the Plymouth group and the Mass one, in fact, was the treatment of native peoples: the Plymouth plantation was far more inclined to negotiate with the local tribes, and viewed the Mass Bay Colony's unremitting hostility to the indigenous people as imprudent.

David - 11/25/2003

Who were they giving thanks to? The indians? The turkeys?

Take a wild guess my God-hating atheistic friends.

Wesley Smart - 11/24/2003

Can the editor of HNN answer for everyone whether it is the policy of HNN to extend their editing to the content of particular posts? I posted material in a thread in the Prescott Bush article the other day, and reread it several times when checking to see if Ralph Luker had replied to it.

I check it today and find that much of it had been removed. Not the entire comment, mind you, just enough of it that Ralph Luker was unable to reply to my argument.

Dave Livingston - 11/22/2003

Rick may or may not have succumbed to El Paso's C of C hype. Nonetheless it is true, Rick is correct, that thanksgiving was celebrated by Christians in America long before Plymouth Rock. For instance, it is said that there is a church in Santa Fe in which the Mass has been celebrarted daily, without fail, for a hundred years before Plymouth Rock. Indeed, a few years ago in Curenevaca I went to Mass in a cathedral the foundation stone of which is said to have been laid by a fellow by the name of Cortes. Perhaps the secular mind cannot grasp the concept, every Mass celebrated is a celebration of thanksgiving.

For us European Americans whatever harvest celebrations the Stone Age Indian celebrated prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims is beside the point that the Thanksgiving celebrated in most American homes is a Protestant religious celebration firsdt and foremost. To whom do we give trhanks? God. Without acknowledging Him the vcelevration is meaningless.

Clearly, today's secular mind has difficulty in grasping (resents?)how pervasive was the Christian mindset in European mand in the Middle Ages & in the early modern period.

It is amusing how vexing it may be to the secular mind, hating religion, America's traditional immersion in Christianity, that our two most important holidays in this secular society are religious: the Protestant Thanksgiving & the Catholic Christmas (Christ's Mass).

Editor of HNN - 12/4/2002

The Boston Herald
November 28, 2002 Thursday ALL EDITIONS
HEADLINE: Prof: Spanish colonists held first Thanksgiving
BYLINE: By Jules Crittenden
The Pilgrims' Thanksgiving wasn't the first in the New World, a Florida professor says, and it's about time Americans put a few more seats at the table to make room for other historical traditions.
Long before the 1621 meal the Pilgrims shared with the local Wampanoag, University of Florida Professor Michael V. Gannon said, a band of 800 Spanish colonists grateful to have fended off a French attack, sat down to pray and then eat with the local Seloy tribe in St. Augustine, Fla.
That Mass of Thanksgiving took place Sept. 8, 1565 - 55 years before the Mayflower dropped anchor off Cape Cod. "While the holiday that observes the events in Plymouth is an important one in our national culture, let's not forget it was preceded by a similar event 56 years earlier," Gannon said.
"I don't mind the Plymouth story at all. But it overlooks the fact that there were earlier settlements and earlier Thanksgivings. Let's enjoy all of them."
Explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his Spanish followers probably dined on cocido - a stew made from salted pork and garbanzo beans, laced with garlic seasoning - hard sea biscuits and red wine, said Gannon.
If the Seloy Indians contributed food, then the menu could have included wild turkey, venison, tortoise, fish, corn, beans and squash, he said.
"I recommend that for an authentic Thanksgiving dinner, that's what people have," Gannon said.
The first Thanksgiving is recounted by Gannon in "We Gather Together," an article published in this month's St. Augustine Catholic, the publication of the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine.
Gannon and Boston College historian Thomas O'Connor said the Pilgrim story won out in large part because it reflected the English and Protestant culture that dominated North America.
"It is also a homegrown celebration that's not imported from Europe. Behind the Spanish Thanksgiving is the Spanish church and the Spanish crown. Behind the Pilgrim Thanksgiving is the Mayflower Compact," O'Connor said, referring to the document that is seen as the first step toward democracy in the New World.
But O'Connor said he would not be surprised to see a Hispanic and Catholic Thanksgiving heritage become popular.
Carolyn Travers, a researcher at Plimoth Plantation, the Pilgrim re-enactment site in Plymouth, said the traditional New England Thanksgiving is also distinguished by having been celebrated every year since at least 1693.
But she said Plymouth doesn't have a monopoly on images and expressions of thankfulness.
"The more, the merrier," Travers said.

James Lindgren - 11/28/2002

The only original account of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth is Edward Winslow's in the first entry here:


Note that fowl was the main dish mentioned, though the 90 Native Americans went out and killed 5 deer, whether before they came or (more likely) after 3 days of feasting is unclear. Note also that for entertainment they exercised their arms and that four colonists shot in one day almost enough fowl for over 50 people feasting for nearly a week, thus tending to support the claims of authors such as Randolph Roth that guns were accurate enough to hit targets.

Here is the account:

"Our Corne did proue well, & God be praysed, we had a good increase of Indian Corne, and our Barly indifferent good, but our Pease not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sowne, they came vp very well, and blossomed, but the Sunne parched them in the blossome; our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a more speciall manner reioyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst vs, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed fiue Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed upon our Governour, and upon the Captaine, and others. And although it be not alwayes so plentifull, as it was at this time with vs, yet by the goodneses of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

akinyele brandley - 7/31/2002

Not many writers who are of the European ancestory write about the truth plain and clear , its beautiful.

Michael Grace - 4/25/2002

It is a good bet that the Pilgrims brought the Thanksgiving celebration with them from England/Britain. Bearing in mind that these people were not Americans but expat English in effect, they would have no doubt wanted to retain old customs of home on the North American soil.

A thanksgiving celebration has been in existence in Britain since pre Christian times and is still know to this day as Harvest Festival but is also referred to as thanksgiving. So what does one mean by the first thanksgiving? Clearly thanksgiving predates Europeans reaching N. American soil.

Ronald Dale Karr - 11/23/2001

Even Gura's getting a bit dated. Especially in English scholarship, the term "Puritan" or "puritan" has been subject to a lot of questioning, with some arguing that the term is so difficult to define that it provides little historical meaning. (One conference I attended featured a paper by an English scholar that included the phrase, "It's Puritanism, Jim, but not as we know it!") Certainly the recent scholarship on the Family of Love throws into question a lot of what we thought we knew about English religious radicalism.

In the English context, separatists such as the Pilgrims fell clearly into the Puritan camp. Once here, the Mass Bay Puritans, despite their protestations to the contrary, quickly adopted a system of congregational churches that differed hardly at all from that of Plymouth (that is, whenever Plymouth actually had a minister!). The statement that the Pilgrims "wanted nothing to do with the non-separarting congregationalists of the Bay Colony" distorts the complex relationship between the two English colonies that ultimatlely led to the creation of the New England Confederation.

John P. Bloom - 11/22/2001

Historian Shenkman is doing a disservice to history in proposing: "To see what the first Thanksgiving was like you have to go to: Texas...." He has succumbed to an El Paso Chamber of Commerce hype. If capital-T Thanksgiving has any reality in the US, it has to be based (centuries back) on the harvest festivals held by many peoples, and/or on the various proclamations by US Presidents referring to events staged by early English colonists. The main element of Oñate's ceremony in April (sic) 1898 near present El Paso was to proclaim possession of the area for the Spanish crown. Sure, they were glad to have reached the Río Grande in their journey, but they gave similar thanks at other stages of their trip to colonize New Mexico, so El Paso can assert no uniqueness in that. They also held other ceremonies proclaiming possession for the crown as they went along. PLEASE!--don't spread a new myth abroad in looking for ways to poke fun at schoolchild myths! (Now, the Virginia claim is something else....) Ref for instance David Weber, _The Spanish Frontier in North America_, pp. 77ff.

John Stahler - 11/21/2001

Regarding myths 9 & 10: The non-separating congregationalists living in the bay Colony during the mid-17th century were fruitful and multiplied, so they had to have sex at some point. However, if they enjoyed it, there was nothing communicated about it. Also, regarding #10, the Puritans were anything but nice people. They established an ecclesiastical oligarchy, and were very totalitarian in the way they governed. By the mid-1650s, they were engaging in a brutal suppression of all who disagreed with their point of view. This suppression included large fines, confiscation of both real property and chattel, forced hard labor, banishment, imprisonment, mutilation (having body parts removed or a hot poker stuck through your tongue) and execution. Unfortunately, these were not isolated instances of overzealous persecution, but regular and recurring actions by those in power. So many were banished to Rhode Island (which they referred to as the "sewer of New England"), that church membership actually declined. They were not a lot of fun to be around...

John Stahler - 11/21/2001

The "Pilgrims" were NOT Puritans, but Leydon separatists, and wanted nothing to do with the non-separarting congregationalists of the Bay Colony. As for the work of Perry Miller, a much more accurate and comprehensive view of the Puritan society during the mid-17th century can be enjoyed in "A Glimpse of Sion's Glory", 1982, Wesleyan University Press, by Philip F. Gura. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard, and researched much of his fascinating book at Harvard and other Boston area archives utilizing many original documents. The views of Miller, et al, while not discredited, warrant serious revision based upon Dr. Gura's work.

CG - 11/21/2001

The statement that the "Pilgrims" were not Puritans is untrue. They were simply a different set of Puritans who came to North America via the mainland of Europe, where they'd lived for some years before 1620. A good discussion of the distinction between Plymouth Puritans ("Separating Separatists") and Massachusetts Bay Puritans ("Non-Separating Separatists") can be found in Perry Miller's _Orthodoxy in Massachusetts_.

glenna - 11/21/2001

Though the points are well taken about shooting down Thanksgiving myths, I believe that it is misplaced to attribute our current Thanksgiving menus only to the Victorian era. When I first read the first American cookbook, Amelia Simmons' "American Cookery," which appeared in 1796, I was struck by the fact that it codified recipes for many dishes that we eat on Thanksgiving, including roast turkey and puumpkin pie.