Americans believe that Thanksgiving is about, well, giving thanks for things like food, shelter, liberty, and football, but few people are aware that there may be a dark side to the holiday.
When we think about Thanksgiving, images of children dressed in tall hats and buckles and paper-made feathered headbands come to mind. Most of us were those children in grade school. We remember what we learned from our teachers — Native Americans taught Pilgrims to sew corn, and they shared a big feast to give thanks for the bounty and friendship they had made.
We weren’t taught about the first-hand accounts of thieving puritans, or the evidence of failed crop, and the bloodshed of hundreds of people.
So who started “Turkey Day”
Historians tell us that the first Thanksgiving, the one where the natives and the pilgrims shared a feast at the same table, happened in 1621. Evidence of it stems from an account in the journal of Edward Winslow, the governor of Plymouth between 1633 and 1644, that the pilgrims held a four day feast with the Wampanoag Indians.
Some dispute that there is evidence of an even earlier date. A written account of settlers proclaiming a day of thanksgiving is said to come from Captain John Woodleefe, who in 1619 lead a group of English settlers to a place they called Berkeley Hundred just 20 miles from Jamestown, Virginia. President George W. Bush gave a speech at Berkeley on November 19 (Monday) quoting the captain’s order that “The day of our ship’s arrival shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” This statement, somewhat altered in his speech from the original, comes from a collection of manuscripts kept by John Smyth, who was one of the founders of Berkeley Hundred.
Thanksgiving as we know it today is based on an event that was celebrated in Europe long before the establishment of Christianity. Just before the coming of winter, people gathered and stored food in order to survive the most barren months ahead. After all the hard work, they often held a harvest festival. The settlers of Berkeley and Plymouth were only acting on a very old tradition. Thanksgiving was not a regularly held event in America until Abe Lincoln established it as a national holiday in 1863, and the date was moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday in November by FDR in 1939.
We’re not even sure the settlers had turkey for their Thanksgiving feast because there is no surviving menu to describe the foods on their plates. It could have been any type of fowl or even venison. The idea that the settlers and Native Americans ate turkey, mash potatoes with gravy, corn, and pumpkin pie is a myth. Turkey may not have come into play until the Civil War, because a turkey could feed more troops than a chicken. According to an article written by James S. Robbins for the National Review in 2004, an editor known as George W. Blunt during the Civil War estimated the need for 50,000 turkeys to feed the union soldiers.
Lazy Pilgrims and Bloodshed
We can be pretty certain the settlers learned how to grow corn from the natives because it was an entirely new crop to them. England did not have cornfields, and if you know anything about corn, it’s an exhausting crop that can drain the soil of important nutrients for the following year. Anthropologists and historians argue that the harvests of 1621 and 1622 were not bountiful.
There are accounts from William Bradford, governor of Plymouth in 1621, that the settlers did not want to work the fields and so began stealing from the Native Americans—from their graves and their homes.  This seems to conflict with Winslow’s journal, if the accounts are referring to the first three years of the Plymouth settlement.
If the harvest was as poor as anthropologists and historians claim, I’m not sure how they supported the four-day long supper mentioned by Winslow; unless the pilgrims were sharing the very same food they had stolen from the Native Americans. Wouldn’t that be something?
Meanwhile, according to my Anthropology professor from undergrad school, the Native Americans were growing restless. They were uncomfortable with the lazy pilgrims who were using their land, taking their food, and forcing Christian beliefs on their children. My professor even went as far as to claim the settlers were stealing the children of the Powhatans to raise them as Christians. If there is any solid evidence to back this up, I haven’t found it, but it certainly caught my attention.
A year after the alleged first Thanksgiving of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Native Americans back-lashed and slaughtered hundreds of settlers at Berkeley and Martins Hundred in Virginia. Many of the settlers who had once given thanks beside Captain Woodleefe were killed. Oddly enough, despite this bloodshed in which it is believed nearly 400 English settlers were killed, the site of Berkeley Hundred has been the host of many national Thanksgiving events, including this year.
There is more to the story than I suspect we’ll ever know, since what we do know is based on obscure written accounts and oral tradition. How much of it is true and how much of it is fabricated, it’s hard to say?
At least this Thanksgiving you’ll have something interesting to talk about — everyone enjoys a little blood at the dinner table.
1 Walch, Timothy, Thanksgiving Day Myths, Cultural World, [http://culturalworld.wordpress.com/2007/11/15/thanksgiving-day-myths/]
2 Snopes.com, Thanksgiving myths, [http://www.snopes.com/holidays/thanksgiving/beliefs.asp]
3 Robbins, James S., Giving Thanks in War Time, National Review, 2004, [http://www.nationalreview.com/robbins/robbins200411240851.asp].
4 Geoff Metcalf, [http://www.geoffmetcalf.com/firsttday_19991126.html]
5 Mann, Charles C., Unnatural Abundance, New York Times, [http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/25/opinion/25mann.html?_r=1&n=Top/Reference/ Times%20Topics/Subjects/T/Thanksgiving%20Day&oref=slogin]