The Truth About Thanksgiving Is that the Debunkers Are Wrong

Fact & Fiction
tags: Thanksgiving

Mr. Bangs obtained his doctorate at the Rijksuniversiteit, Leiden, in 1976. He is a former Chief Curator of the Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, MA.

Image via Wiki Commons.

Setting people straight about Thanksgiving myths has become as much a part of the annual holiday as turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. But should historians bother? Jane Kamensky, a professor of history at Brandeis, asks on the website Common-Place (in 2001) whether it’s worth while “to plumb the bottom of it all – to determine, for example, ... whether Plymouth’s ‘Pilgrims’ were indeed the grave-robbing hypocrites that UAINE [United American Indians of New England] describes. ... Was the ‘first Thanksgiving’ merely a pretext for bloodshed, enslavement, and displacement that would follow in later decades?’ ,,, “To ask whether this is true is to ask the wrong question. It’s true to its purposes. … And that’s all it needs to be. For these holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now.”

“And that’s all it needs to be”? I disagree. I think that a historian approaching the question of Thanksgiving Day in the “ever changing Now” will need to ask “the wrong question” – what of all this is true?

Surveying more than two hundred websites that “correct” our assumptions about Thanksgiving, it’s possible to sort them into groups and themes, especially since Internet sites often parrot each other. Very few present anything like the myths that most claim to combat. Almost all the corrections are themselves incorrect or banal. With heavy self-importance and pathetic political posturing, they demonstrate quite unsurprisingly that what was once taught in grade school lacked scope, subtlety, and minority insight.

Commonly the first point scored is that lots of people gave thanks before the Pilgrims did it in 1621. Local boosters in Virginia, Florida, and Texas promote their own colonists, who (like many people getting off a boat) gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Several sites claim that Indians had six thanksgivings every year; at least one says that every day, every act, every thought was carried out with thanksgiving by pre-contact Indians. (My thanksgiving is bigger than your thanksgiving?)

Many sites point out that only Edward Winslow’s brief account records Plymouth Colony’s 1621 harvest festivities, beyond which we have just William Bradford’s seasonal comment that the Pilgrims ate turkey among other things. See, for example, Pilgrim Hall Museum’s website.

Archaeologist James Deetz made much of the fact that Winslow did not name the turkeys Bradford mentioned. This startling revelation (that in this case one should ignore Bradford’s general comments and suppose that Winslow was providing a complete menu listing) recurs in various websites, such as the 2002 article posted by the Christian Science Monitor.

More frequently repeated is Deetz’s emphatic reminder that Winslow did not use the word “thanksgiving” -- drawing the conclusion that therefore the 1621 event was not a thanksgiving but some sort of traditional English harvest festival he characterized as “secular.”

I’ve discussed this oversimplification previously in an article. Deetz’s assertion that there was no thanksgiving in 1621 is repeated at numerous websites. Often authors explain that what took place was so unlike later Puritan thanksgivings that it couldn’t have been a true thanksgiving, usually citing, for the definition of what that would have been, William DeLoss Love, The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England (Boston, New York: Houghton and Mifflin, 1895), a book whose title alone seems to have inspired the common web article notion that in New England people fasted as an expression of thanksgiving.

In “Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving,” Rick Shenkman, editor of HNN, announces that Thanksgiving was not about religion. Had it been, he says, “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.”

Responding to this in reverse order:

(1) that Thanksgivings were not limited to November does not mean that the first one held by the colonists in Plymouth (presumably in September or early October) was not a thanksgiving.

(2) The modern idea that in a religious thanksgiving “everyone spent the day praying” is inconsistent with the only description of the specific activities of a definitely identified thanksgiving day in early Plymouth Colony -- the thanksgiving held in Scituate in 1636 when a religious service was followed by feasting. (See my book The Seventeenth-Century Town Records of Scituate, Massachusetts (Boston: NEHGS, 2001), vol. 3, p. 513.)

(3) That “what we think of as Thanksgiving was really a harvest festival” (as if that meant it could not have been a thanksgiving) repeats Deetz’s incorrect opinion that an English harvest festival was non-religious or even irreligious.

(4) That the Pilgrims “would never have tolerated festivities at a true religious event” presumes a narrow definition of what a true religious event was before arriving through circular argument at a denial that what the Pilgrims did was such an event, because it differed from the axiomatic definition. (Ever been to a midwestern church picnic? Did tossing horseshoes and playing softball make it non-religious?)

(5) The Pilgrims attempted to pattern their religious activities according to biblical precedent. The precedent for a harvest festival was the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkoth (Deut. 16: 13-14), lasting seven days. The biblical injunction to include the "stranger" probably accounts for the Pilgrims' inviting their Native neighbors to rejoice with them. Besides Sukkoth, the Pilgrims’ experience of a Reformed Protestant thanksgiving every year in Leiden probably contributed to what they considered appropriate. The October 3 festivities commemorated the lifting of the Siege of Leiden in 1574, when half the town had died (an obvious parallel with the experience of the Pilgrims in the winter of 1620-21). Leiden’s ten-day festivity began with a religious service of thanksgiving and prayer, followed by meals, military exercises, games, and a free fair. The common assumption that the Pilgrims’ 1621 event should be judged against the forms taken by later Puritan thanksgivings - whether or not those are even correctly understood - overlooks the circumstance that the Pilgrims did not have those precedents when they attempted something new, intentionally based not on old English tradition but on biblical and Reformed example.

The History Channel website states that, “the colonists didn’t even call the day Thanksgiving. To them, a thanksgiving was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle. On such a religious day, the types of recreational activities that the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians participated in during the 1621 harvest feast – dancing, singing secular songs, playing games – wouldn’t have been allowed. The feast was a secular celebration, so it never would have been considered a thanksgiving in the pilgrims minds.”

Winslow, our sole source, says nothing about “dancing, singing secular songs, [or] playing games.” Those might be intended among Winslow’s general term “recreations,” but one cannot imagine, specify, and cite them as proof that the Pilgrims’ day was “a secular celebration.”

Thanksgiving seems to commemorate a heritage of false memory. The Internet myths of Thanksgiving range from Fundamentalists’ invention of a fake 1623 Thanksgiving Proclamation -- to prove that God was being thanked (not the Indians) -- through Libertarians’ use of the same fake to claim that “the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.”

If Thanksgiving was not about the discovery of private property’s profitability, not about help offered to the colonists by the Wampanoag Indians, not about God’s providence -- what was it?

William Loren Katz, author of Black Indians, A Hidden Heritage, writes that, “In 1637 Governor Bradford, who saw his colonists locked in mortal combat with dangerous Native Americans, ordered his militia to conduct a night attack on the sleeping men women and children of a Pequot Indian village. To Bradford, a devout Christian, the massacre was imbued with religious meaning.”

Clearly we should realize that these people were not nice, but just exactly how bad? “Not even Charles Manson and Jim Jones combined could compare with that murderous Doomsday cult – the Pilgrims,” says a website article called “The Pilgrims, Children of the Devil: Puritan Doomsday Cult Plunders Paradise." The site calls itself the Common Sense Almanac, Progressive Pages (and claims to be a project of the Center for Media and Democracy) and says: “According to William B. Newell, a Penobscot Indian and former chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, the first official Thanksgiving Day commemorated the massacre of 700 Indian men, women and children during one of their religious ceremonies.”

Newell, who is described in one site as having degrees from two universities (wow! Fancy that!), was convinced about the solidity of his research: “"My research is authentic because it is documentary," Newell said. "You can't get anything more accurate than that because it is first hand. It is not hearsay."

What’s not authentic is the claim that William Newell was head of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, whose faculty cannot recall him at all. When the department was founded in 1971, Newell was 79 years old. See the letter by department chair Jocelyn Linnekin here.

And what is completely untrue is the idea that the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony participated in the 1637 Pequot massacre. Although asked to send military assistance, the Plymouth court did not respond until two weeks after the slaughter had been carried out. See my book, Pilgrim Edward Winslow: New England’s First International Diplomat (Boston: NEHGS, 2004), pp. 164-168.

Is this important? Or is the lie “true to its purposes”?

The purposes can best be understood as fitting in with the description of the Pilgrims that animates the so-called National Day of Mourning sponsored by the United American Indians of New England. “The pilgrims ... introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod … was to rob Wampanoag graves.”

Or as one of the founders of the National Day of Mourning, AIM’s Russell Means, claims, “After a colonial militia had returned from murdering the men, women, and children of an Indian village, the governor proclaimed a holiday and feast to give thanks for the massacre. He also encouraged other colonies to do likewise -- in other words, every autumn after the crops are in, go kill Indians and celebrate your murders with a feast.”

Did the Pilgrims rob Indian graves? Not really. As Winslow said, “ because we deemed them graves, we put in the bow again and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransack their sepulchres.” There’s more to the story.

One could go on. Someone should go on. To respond to all the assorted internet nonsense about Thanksgiving it is necessary to go on and on. I have, here.

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    More Comments:

    Bob Loza - 11/25/2010

    Mr. Bangs' comments from way back in '05 (which I just stumbled upon this Thanksgiving Day 2010) seem well presented and well said.
    I have no idea what the "agenda" may be behind the author's words. A call for unemotional debate or discussion of the "facts" seems to cover it, however. I have always been skeptical of the glorious rhetoric so often heard in praise of the Puritans (or Friends, or whatever they called themselves), because I have never felt we as a nation needed to do so. The holiday itself was instituted in the latter 1800's, or so I have read, and as a union of states who had survived all manner of discordant events - some of them self-inflicted - it made sense then, as it does today, to set aside a day to ponder our history and fortunes, and then sit down to stuff ourselves. I would personally prefer it if we didn't have to keep bringing up these ornery malcontents who landed here to establish their own exclusive (literally) society, and ascribe all manner of noble and self-determining motives to them, but that's the history of own history, and in the end, most of us try to just have a day together and get along as best we can.

    I mean, what does buying a mattress or watching The Saints on TV have to do with Thanksgiving anyway?

    The good news is that I am free to read and absorb all the truth available and conclude, in the end, that one single story or POV doesn't quite cover everything. Maybe we should have a few American Natives join us for dinner every year, and hey, that's not a bad idea. But today I'll just chill and enjoy the dinner my wife's cooking downstairs. It'll be great. Cheers to us all.

    Steven A. Gold - 11/27/2009

    Revealing the grand narrative of colonialism appears to sting those who make their living supporting it.

    The article headline is not supported in the analysis. Not many of the 'debunkers' he's talking about, say that the colonial force that massacred approx. 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Nation was from one specific particular colony. The gloating Governor proclaiming an annual day of celebration and thanksgiving for an act of genocide was from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    Myself and many people indigenous to Turtle Island really do not care about the European squabling about secular/non-secular, pilgrim/puritan/protestant or any other biblical reference inaccuracy. That fact that genocide was justified and encouraged by Euro-christians is enough. The majority of Bangs clarifications are simply designating the difference between the SS and the Gestapo, to use a more recent genocide as reference.

    And, Bangs seems to think that by disproving claims of 'initial' grave robbing by pilgrims, he is disproving the introduction of sexism, racism, homophobia, jails, social class system, and the murderous genocidal tendencies of early colonials. It doesn't.

    I do agree with this wee bit of insight:
    “To ask whether this is true is to ask the wrong question. It’s true to its purposes. … And that’s all it needs to be. For these holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now." "And that’s all it needs to be”? I disagree. I think that a historian approaching the question of Thanksgiving Day in the “ever changing Now” will need to ask “the wrong question” – what of all this is true?"

    Truth is relative. Bangs' acculturation as a historian, classically trained in the European tradition means that he thinks he can discover the truth of the Then, if he is diligent enough. But what he will accept as truth will be different than someone else who may be trained differently and is just as dilligent.

    re: 200 Internet websites that he surveyed on this topic:
    "Almost all the corrections are themselves incorrect or banal. With heavy self-importance and pathetic political posturing, they demonstrate quite unsurprisingly that what was once taught in grade school lacked scope, subtlety, and minority insight."
    1) I could find 10,000 Internet references by christians and muslims alike, that are likely incorrect. It's the Internet for heaven sake.
    2) That he uses terms like "banal" and "pathetic" reveal his own self-importance and his position within a specific ideology.

    What is taught today, not "once taught," in all formal education, not just grade school, on this topic, does "lack scope, subtlety, and minority insight." Now if this comes "unsurprisingly" to Bangs, then why does he banter about the differences between the colony's? Why doesn't he add some scope and minority insight into the myths being taught as history? Maybe add some stories that have previously failed to the meet the colonial project that continues to teach that the transplanted European civilization is the pinnacle of humanity. He knows it is not, but he choses to participate in the erasure of knowledge that doesn't fit the colonial project standard.

    To call other perspectives as being "heavy with self-importance and pathetic political posturing" is an excellent grasp of the extremely obvious. He is only able to publish this on the Internet, because no academic publication would allow such an opinion piece that is ladden with his own "self-importance and pathetic political posturing." That is not calling the kettle black. It is what it is. What in the world did he expect to find by surveying 200 or more Internet sites? Truth? His truth is already revealed. My response supports the revelation of other peoples truths. Yup, it's a political project.

    William D French - 11/26/2009


    The article on the debunkers of Thanksgiving myths is completely wrong. The writer might have a Doctorate but his arguments are not based on fact (he gives very few in his piece) and we must remember he worked for THE organization that has purposefully spread lies about the history of Thanksgiving.

    Sarah Tollen - 11/8/2009

    What was done to the Jewish people in Germany was sick. But even the people who were guily of those crimes do not have a holiday to relish what they did year after year. Millions of native American killed. Millions of Africans killed. And we keep sugar coating what happened and lying to our children to carry on a very sick tradition based on death. We cant forget what happened to these people because history has a way of repeating itself. The children of America are raised on lies and denials
    Many go their whole life believing in fairytales that the rest of the world find horrific. The truth will set us all free. Then and only then can we move forward as a whole nation and be respected throughout the world.

    Steve Stockford - 11/3/2008

    Nice job at trying to discredit A dead college professor who did the academic research needed to set the record straight. Had you done a little more research you would have discovered professor Newell was in fact well learned, and a faculty member at at several prestigious schools including U of Florida, U of Maine, U Penn, and U of Tampa. Newell was also a recognized expert in U.S. Indian relations, giving testimony to the U.S. congress in the early 1970's. I believe William Newell's accounting to be the most true and accurate accounting of the facts. Peraps before you try to discredit someone you shoud do a little more research.

    Michael Roy Paulick - 11/8/2005

    I agree with Dr. Bangs that there is a great assortment of nonsensical interpretations regarding the Pilgrim thanksgiving celebration of 1621. I believe it is useful to review the documentary sources from that time.
    In 1614 John Robinson, the Pilgrim’s pastor and religious teacher, wrote that thanksgiving to God “for other good things [bestowed] upon themselves, and theirs . . . [was merely] a duty of the Christian person, or family. . .” Later, in the same essay, John Robinson wrote that Leiden Pilgrims must especially serve God with “fervent prayer, and hearty thanksgiving unto God, for his unspeakable goodness . . ..”
    Thomas Wilson’s A Christian Dictionarie was first published in 1612 so it is possible that the Pilgrims read it in Leiden and carried it onboard the Mayflower in 1620.
    Copies were found in the inventories of some of the Pilgrims and William Brewster had a copy in his library which may have served the community. Wilson’s dictionary offered a religious definition of thanksgiving that included “An acknowledgement and confessing, with gladnesse, of the benefits and deliverances of God . . . to the praise of his Name.” Wilson added Thanksgiving hath in it “Cheerfulnesse, being glad of an occasion to praise him, and doing it gladly, with joy.”
    Research into what the Pilgrims themselves were taught and read can, perhaps, shed some light on their intentions. It is likely that they fulfilled their perceived Christian duty by offering thanksgiving and praise to God for their harvest. Many of them were probably glad, joyful, and cheerful to be able to survive on the fruits of their harvest.

    Michael R. Paulick
    John Robinson, Of Religious Communion Private & Public, 1614
    Robert Ashton’s version, Vol. III, 105, 110, may be found on line at
    Thomas Wilson’s A Christian Dictionarie 1612 STC 25786