Anyone who grew up in the United States know the story of the first Thanksgiving. But that portrait might not be so accurate.
Nearly 400 years ago in 1620, more than 100 people sailing in a ship called the Mayflower left England bound for the New World. Many of those on board were part of a religious group intent on separating from the Church of England, their beliefs outlawed in their home country. Because of the religious intent of their journey, these people referred to themselves as Pilgrims.
Instead of arriving at the southern coast of what would become the United States as intended, their ship instead drifted further north, landing them in Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts. They eventually settled in an abandoned Native American village that they named Plymouth.
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During the first year in the New World, the colonists did not fare well. They arrived at the start of winter, so they couldn't plant crops. Most didn't know how to hunt game and in were in fact afraid of the wilderness.
Half of the colonists died that first year and the rest would have followed had it not been for the aid of the Wampanoag Indians. In exchange for protection against rival tribes, the Wampanoag allowed the colonists to live on their land and taught them how to grow crops, as the grain varieties they brought from England were ill-suited for their new home. The natives also instructed the Pilgrims on how to hunt and fish.
By the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims adapted to their new home, and decided to organize a special day of prayer and a three-day-long feast. They invited the natives, who brought a feast of their own upon joining the colonists.
This is the story of the first Thanksgiving - except it isn't.
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While that sums up what happened in the fall of 1621, the idea of a feast of thanks certainly wasn't invented by the settlers at Plymouth. Similar harvest festivals were common in Europe, and other "thanksgivings" were common in the early American colonies to celebrate safe arrival. Spanish colonists, for example, had a similar meal in Texas 100 years earlier.
In 1789, Congress passed a resolution recommending a national day of thanksgiving. Days later, President George Washington named Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a "Day of Publick Thanksgivin." But it didn't yet become a tradition. Other thanksgiving proclamations were issued sporadically in later years under different presidents and even governors, though never with any consistency.
Those thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Pilgrims, however. A thanksgiving was celebrated in 1776, for example, to celebrate national independence. Another was declared in 1815 by James Madison to celebrate the end of the War of 1812, the last time Thanksgiving was recognized on a national level until the 1860s.
In 1841, New England historian Alexander Young published a book containing a letter from pilgrim Edward Winslow describing the three-day event in 1621. Young included a footnote describing the event as "the first Thanksgiving." Young mistakenly determined that the days of thanksgiving celebrated in the United States and national and state levels traced back to the Pilgrims.
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The myth of the first Thanksgiving, however, was passed down as a story of trial and good fortune to those immigrating to America, and the connection to the Pilgrims stuck ever since.
President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1863 that cemented Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, a tradition that held until 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the celebration to one week earlier to extend the holiday shopping season. And the rest is history.