Godfrey Hodgson: Feathers ruffled by book claiming to debunk 'myths' of first Thanksgiving

Historians in the News

The British writer who tried to steal the turkey from Thanksgiving might have bitten off more than he can chew.

The provocative claim that there was no turkey in the Pilgrims' first harvest feast in 1621 comes from a newly published history of Thanksgiving by British journalist and historian Godfrey Hodgson.

But devotees of holiday authenticity need not kiss the gobbler goodbye. Hodgson's claim is more tosh than truth, according to scholars and Pilgrim experts.

"There were turkeys there," declared the president of the Organization of American Historians, Richard White, who is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University.

"Do whatever you can do to lay this scurrilous rumor aside," pleaded Kathleen Curtin, food historian at the Plimoth Plantation living-history museum in Plymouth, Mass., recoiling from a gaggle of inquiries prompted by the book.

"We had a film crew from 'CBS Sunday Morning' -- they had it on 'good authority' that there were no turkeys," she said. "It's so frustrating."

The "authority" is Hodgson's book, "A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving." His account -- featured Nov. 12 in The Chronicle's Sunday Book Review -- tackles several alleged myths about the Pilgrims.

"There were, however, no turkeys at Plymouth," he writes, describing this revelation as the "most shocking of all, given the central part played by turkey in the modern mystique of the holiday."

The publisher, PublicAffairs Books of New York, touts the purported revelation as a key selling point. The book's Web page description begins with the absence of turkey, and the book's dust jacket declares, "There was, for a start, no turkey."

One shocked reader, were he alive, might be William Bradford, the famous governor of Plymouth Colony whose account -- "Bradford's History 'Of Plimoth Plantation' " -- includes what the Pilgrims gathered in their first harvest in 1621: "And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many."

Another new book on the Pilgrims, the best-selling "Mayflower" by Nathaniel Philbrick, devotes a chapter to Thanksgiving that accepts Bradford's account of the "great store of wild Turkies" among the food that was gathered. ...

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Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 11/24/2006

Be kind to Mr. Hodgson. As the rest of his article indicates, he relied on the work of the late Professor James Deetz, whose book claiming the Pilgrims did not have turkey at their 1621 festivities received widespread praise from reviewers. The claim was nonsense, but how was a poor journalist to know? Perhaps he should have read "1621, A Historian Looks Anew at Thanksgiving," - my review of the National Geographic (with Plimoth Plantation) book, "1621, A New Look at Thanksgiving." That popularizing book ignores turkeys and repeats much of Deetz's assumptions. The review is online at:

Charles Lee Jackson - 11/24/2006

Further information on this Hodgson at