The most outrageous Thanksgiving myths schools keep teaching

We all love a tasty dinner and celebrating with family, but it’s time to stop spreading these myths around.

Thanksgiving Day is one of the most important celebrations in the US (and slightly in Canada). The idea of a union between the Natives and the settlers in a festive three-day gathering sharing their cultures has been well ingrained in American identity. However, despite the historical evidence out there, most of the cute story about brotherhood is still permeating in the collective narrative.

As a matter of fact, the idea of the holiday wasn’t even a thing until over two centuries later, in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it official. He didn’t really want to honor the alleged endearing episode in American history, but actually use it as a metaphor to thank his troops for the victories in the Vicksburg and Gettysburg battles during the Civil War. Not only that, the term Pilgrim wasn’t even used by the Mayflower settlers, but one that surfaced until the 1880s.


So, as it happens with most foundational stories in basically all countries in the world, the Thanksgiving story is more of a myth than an actual registry of one of the many encounters Natives had with European settlers. So, while you’re getting ready to have that amazing feast, let’s debunk some of the most outrageous myths regarding the Thanksgiving Day narrative.

The Pilgrims were the first Europeans to interact with the Native peoples of the region

Story has it, in 1620, the Mayflower ship landed on the shores of Massachusetts. According to the story, the so-called Pilgrims were the first Europeans to interact with the Native population of New England. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Historical accounts talk about encounters between Natives and Europeans at least since the late 15th century.

These accounts tell of encounters between the Natives and Basques, French, and even other English people. The French actually had a very profitable fishing business in the area. Now, the story says that the Pilgrims encountered the Wampanoags and that they were the very first Europeans to meet them. Of course, as you can guess, this isn’t true. The first European to meet the Wampanoags and the Narragansetts of Southern New England was an Italian explorer named Giovanni de Verrazano in 1524; he traded for years with the Natives.


More impressively is the fact that the Native Americans of the region already spoke English when the Pilgrims arrived. Many learned the language through trading, but many others had learned it after being taken to England against their will; some managed to escape and return to their land already knowing how to speak English.

The Pilgrims came to the New World seeking religious freedom

Another great myth regarding the Pilgrims is that they fled England and came to the New World in an attempt to find religious freedom. As the story goes, the Pilgrims were Puritans who wanted a haven to practice their religion freely. Actually, less than half of the passengers of the Mayflower were Puritans.


Not only that, but basically the main reason why the Pilgrims migrated to America was to make money. When the Puritans split from the Church of England in the early 17th century, many fled to the Netherlands where they embraced a more welcoming way to practice their faith; however, they found it very hard to thrive economically with an unemployment crisis in the country. Besides that, many feared they would lose their culture and morals. So, they needed a new land where they could basically keep their morals and life perspectives while becoming rich; the New Land seemed like the perfect place to do so.

The Pilgrims landed directly in what is now Plymouth

It’s commonly thought that the Mayflower landed in Patuxet, which was later on renamed Plymouth in Massachusetts, but this was actually their second landing. The ship landed first on Cape Cod on the shores of what is now known as Provincetown. Unfortunately (for them), they were driven off only a month later by the Nauset tribe, who didn’t want these people on their land.


The Pilgrims returned to the Mayflower and sailed to Patuxet, which was a relatively abandoned territory (mainly due to the disease brought by former European settlers). They had to live for some months on the Mayflower while they built some edifices.

The Pilgrims and Natives came together for a Thanksgiving feast

Finally, this is likely the biggest myth of them all! It’s said that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags gathered together as a symbol of peace to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest. So yes, the Puritans did practice Thanksgiving rituals, but they were far from being joyous feasts eating turkey and cranberry sauce. These rituals consisted of several days of fasting and lots of praying.


Edward Winslow, one of the passengers aboard the Mayflower, wrote about the first years of the Plymouth settlement. There he does mention a celebration of the first successful harvest. This party likely took place around October 1621, a year after they arrived. However, the Wampanoags weren’t invited (although they did help them and taught them how to grow the crops).

The Wampanoags did make an appearance at the celebration, but not because the Pilgrims wanted to share the joy with them, but because the Pilgrims started shooting to celebrate; the tribe thought they were being under attack. When discovering the settlers were just celebrating, the Wampanoags invited themselves to the gathering, but more than a happy party, it was a very tense moment with quite important political implications.


So yes, the alleged Thanksgiving celebration did happen, although it had nothing to do with giving thanks nor a celebration between two cultures. As we know, the Pilgrims didn’t come to blend with the Natives, and the Natives didn’t gladly agree to share their land and knowledge just like that. Keeping these myths and narratives alive, is being tone-deaf to the horrors that the Natives endured at the hands of the settlers; horrors that are still very much divisive in the country.

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