It’s one of American history’s most familiar scenes: A small group of Pilgrims prepares a huge November feast to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and show their appreciation to the Native Americans who helped them survive their first winter. Together, the Pilgrims and Native Americans solemnly sit down to a meal of turkey, pumpkin pie, and cranberries. But just how accurate is this image of American’s first Thanksgiving? Not very, it turns out. Here are some common misconceptions about the origin of one of our favorite holidays:
The settlers at the first Thanksgiving were called Pilgrims
Fact-They didn’t even refer to themselves as Pilgrims they called themselves “Saints.” Early Americans applied the term “pilgrim” to all of the early colonists; it wasn’t until the 20th century that it was used exclusively to describe the folks who landed on Plymouth Rock.
It was a solemn, religious occasion
Fact-Hardly, it was a three-day harvest festival that included drinking, gambling, athletic games, and even target shooting with English muskets which was intended as a friendly warning to the Native Americans that the Pilgrims were prepared to defend themselves.
It took place in November
Fact-It was sometime between late September and the middle of October, after the harvest had been brought in. By November, says historian Richard Ehrlich, “the villagers were working to prepare for winter, salting and drying meat and making their houses as wind resistant as possible.”
The Pilgrims wore large hats with buckles on them
Fact-None of the participants were dressed anything like the way they’ve been portrayed in art: the Pilgrims didn’t dress in black, didn’t wear buckles on their hats or shoes and didn’t wear tall hats. The 19th century artists who painted them that way did so because they associated black clothing and buckles with being old fashioned.
They ate turkey
Fact-The Pilgrims ate deer, not turkey. As Pilgrim Edward Winslow later wrote, “For three days we entertained and feasted, and (the Native Americans) went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation.” Winslow does mention that four Pilgrims went “fowling” or bird hunting, but neither he nor anyone else recorded which kinds of birds they actually hunted so even if they did eat turkey, it was just a side dish. And since the Pilgrims didn’t yet have flour mills or cattle, there was no bread other than corn bread, and no beef, milk, or cheese. And the Pilgrims didn’t eat any New England lobsters, either. Reason: They mistook them for large insects.
The Pilgrims held a similar feast every year
Fact-There’s no evidence the Pilgrims celebrated again in 1622. They probably weren’t in the mood, the harvest had been disappointing, and they were burdened with a new boatload of Pilgrims who had to be fed and housed through the winter.