'First Thanksgiving' Was Actually Not the First

The idea of a feast of thanks certainly wasn't invented by the settlers at Plymouth.

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.

People stuff themselves with pumpkin pie after wolfing down Thanksgiving dinner. However, wolves, coyotes and foxes dined on pumpkins stuffed with canine delicacies at the Wolf Park in Battle Creek, Indiana's annual Pumpkin Party. Just as human families may have simmering tensions beneath the Thanksgiving holiday harmony, wolves too have family feuds. Renki, the male gray wolf (

Canis lupus

) shown here, once lost a power struggle with his two younger brothers in the park's main pack.

Complex social interactions determine which wolf claims the rights of the alpha, or dominant, animal. Renki's family feud pitted him against his younger brothers, the litter-mates Wolfgang and Wotan (shown here), in a battle for supremacy. The wolves' caretakers eventually had to move Renki into a separate pack to protect him from his not-so-little brothers. Move over Loki and Thor, the brawling brothers Wolfgang and Wotan now have their own dynastic dilemma. Although Wolfgang rose to dominate the pack, Wotan has never completely given up his aspirations to be top dog. Wotan, named for the chief god in the Germanic pagan pantheon, may yet live up to his namesakes' grandeur.

The Wolf Park uses the pumpkins as “enrichment,” or a situation designed to break the daily routine of the sanctuary's wolves, coyotes and foxes. Animals in captivity benefit mentally and physically from enrichment activities and the challenge of figuring out new problems, such as getting at the goodies hidden in a pumpkin. Here, 15-year-old female gray wolf Marion paws at her pumpkin. Like Wolfgang, Marion rules other wolves as an alpha. Marion rose to her status despite being the smallest wolf in the park.

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Wolfgang (shown here) and his brothers may have a dysfunctional family, but he still manages to express his artistic side. Wolfgang learned that when he jumps backwards repeatedly his delighted human audience will give him treats. Wolfgang even takes a cue from W. Amadeus Mozart and hops in unison with one of his caretakers while she hums a waltz.

Dharma seems to be using her pumpkin to go trick-or-treating. She lives in the main pack and is mother to Wolfgang's pups. When Dharma herself was a pup, a series of experiments studied her behavior, along with nine other wolf pups, in comparison to that of domesticated dog puppies. Dharma tended to seek out new areas to explore more than the dog puppies. She also showed less interest in unknown individuals and new objects than the dogs.

Dharma and Wolfgang's daughter, Fiona, could try out as an extra in a zombie flick. She seemed to have a knack for nibbling on noggins. Instead of brains inside the pumpkin, Fiona found treats, such as pig ears, cheese and dog biscuits. Wild wolves don't regularly hunt jack-o'-lanterns. However, the skills Fiona needed to get the good stuff out of the pumpkin were similar to the abilities wild wolves use to forage, hunt and share prey.

The Pumpkin Party wasn't a wolves-only event. Hunter and Gypsum, two gray foxes (

Urocyon cinereoargenteus

) also got to disembowel a pumpkin. Gray foxes range in the wild from Canada to Venezuela. In the wild, gray foxes themselves can end up as snacks for wolves and coyotes. However, gray foxes have a trick up their behavioral sleeves. Unlike the wily coyotes, the sly foxes can climb trees.

Tricky red foxes can't even be trusted to be red. Devon, the red fox (

Vulpes vulpes

), sports a darker gray coat than his distant relations Hunter and Gypsum, the gray foxes. In the wild, numerous color variations from white to black appear naturally across the red fox global distribution. Red foxes can thrive even in areas with heavy human disturbance, and gained territory from the gray fox as urbanization spread west across the United States.

Willow the coyote (

Canis latrans

) looks like she suffers from the post-dinner coma that overtakes many humans on Thanksgiving. In the wild, coyotes have been anything but lazy. Like the red fox coyotes have expanded their range as human settlement displaced wolves and other carnivores.

Kailani, the grey wolf in this photo, likes to bite other wolves even more than she enjoys biting this pumpkin. As a pup, Kailani started biting her mother's behind as a play behavior. She never grew out of that phase and continues to nip rumps if an unwary wolf lets her sneak up on them.

One of the wolves that often received Kailani's bites was her sister Ayla. Kailani, Wolfgang and Wotan would gang up on Ayla. Eventually, Wolf Park caregivers moved Ayla to a separate pack along with her father and Renki, the other target of the Wolfgang and Wotan alliance.