The Truth About Thanksgiving We Never Learned In History Class

It’s 1621, the year of the very first Thanksgiving celebration. The pilgrims have gathered to celebrate the first harvest in their newly settled land of Plymouth Colony — in what is now Massachusetts. In a gesture of good faith, the settlers invite their Native American brethren to feast on turkey, pie, and sweet potatoes. Sound familiar? Shockingly, much of this tale is complete fiction! What really happened isn't something kids are taught in schools.

The first Thanksgiving didn't happen when you think

Looking back in history, we can track the idea of having a special day of Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims who settled in America from England in the early 17th century. But the first Thanksgiving on record celebrated by those Puritans, whom we often call Pilgrims, wasn't in Massachusetts, but in Virginia — and it didn't happen in 1621.

A totally different month and year

Led by Captain John Woodlief, 38 men landed at Berkeley Hundred in Virginia’s Charles City County in December 1619. On the very day they arrived, they gave thanks to God as their original charter drawn up in London had stipulated they should. The charter also said that the anniversary of that day should be observed as a time for giving thanks to God in future years.

Not taught in schools

Now, that story about the first Thanksgiving in Virginia in 1619 might come as something of a surprise. It is not the familiar tale of the First Thanksgiving you almost certainly learned about in elementary school. The commonly accepted First Thanksgiving actually happened nearly two years later and in a different location.

Establishing Plymouth

Most of what we now celebrate as Thanksgiving is based on events at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts in 1621. And that festival, held in the fall, did not celebrate a safe landing but rather a successful harvest. It was in 1620 that the Pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower off the shores of the New World and established the Plymouth Colony.

Exploring the New World

After their arrival on Virginian shores, things did not go well for the Pilgrims. During December 1620, the Mayflower sailed along the coast, anchoring at various points and sending parties ashore to explore the wilderness. They found an abandoned Native American settlement and were attacked by some of the indigenous peoples.

The harsh winter

Eventually, towards the end of December 1620, the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth. They established a town for the 19 families and the various single men who had traveled on the Mayflower. And this was when the Pilgrims suffered the most from fatal diseases. Around half of the group died during that first winter, weakened by the rigors of their transatlantic crossing and probably finished off by a combination of pneumonia and scurvy.

A gruesome discovery

In fact, the site that the Pilgrims had chosen to build on had previously been occupied by the Patuxet tribe, members of the wider Wampanoag people. However, a plague – probably smallpox – had wiped out all of the inhabitants of the Patuxet village three years earlier. This had so devastated the tribe that the Pilgrims made the gruesome discovery of unburied bodies.

A few survivors

After their dreadful winter, things began to improve for the Pilgrims. They planted corn and other crops and the fall of 1621 harvest was a success. A Native American they knew as Squanto greatly helped the settlers in their endeavors. Squanto was said to be the last survivor of the Patuxet tribe.

Squanto to the rescue

Squanto could speak some English and he was able to teach the Pilgrims how to get the best out of the land previously cultivated by the Patuxet villagers. He taught them survival skills, such as how to catch eels, and even acted as an interpreter between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans of the region.

Native Americans saved their lives

Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag people, also came to the aid of the new settlers. In March 1621 the chief and the Pilgrims agreed that neither side would attack the other. Massasoit also gave the English settlers food as their supplies ran out. Some say that they could not have survived until their first harvest without the help of Squanto and Massasoit.

They were eager to celebrate

Clearly, 1621 was a grim year for the Pilgrims, with the trials of the Atlantic voyage from Europe and the disease and death that followed their arrival at Plymouth. So it’s little wonder that they were keen to celebrate the success of their first harvest. And to do so, they combined religious observance with a sumptuous feast.

Too good to be true

Unlike today's celebrations, the First Thanksgiving went on for three full days! Massasoit joined the Pilgrim’s party with approximately 90 of his men. And as the traditional story goes, the English Puritans and the Native American Wampanoag people were happy to celebrate and break bread together. Sounds too good to be true, right?

Today's Thanksgiving

That's because it was too good to be true. Still, the picture of a united group of people feasting together and thanking the Lord for a good harvest is what today's holiday is based on. Over the years, it has transformed into more of a family event than a patriotic observance. Nowadays, Thanksgiving is centered around a lavish dinner with a large turkey at the heart of the feast.

It's all about food

If the First Thanksgiving and modern Thanksgivings have anything in common, it's food. As well as the turkey, a contemporary American Thanksgiving dinner generally includes sweetcorn, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. It’s said that Americans consume more food on the day of Thanksgiving that at any other time during the year.

Shaky history

But besides the happy feasting, much of what we think we know about the history of Thanksgiving is based on shaky history, if not outright fabrication. Let’s start with Squanto, the friendly Native American who did so much to help the Pilgrims. The true story of his life makes us question the accuracy of the Thanksgiving story we've heard since childhood.

A walking mystery

The fact is, we know virtually nothing about Squanto’s early life. His birth date is generally given as roughly 1585, but that could be out by a decade in either direction. We do know that his proper name was actually Tisquantum and that he was a member of the Patuxet tribe. And we can surmise that his first contact with Europeans was hardly a happy affair from his point of view.


Tisquantum’s story starts in 1614 when an English trader called Thomas Hunt sailed into Patuxet Harbor with the apparent aim of buying fur from the people of Patuxet village. Somehow, he tricked 20 of the villagers into coming aboard his ship. Once he had them there, he imprisoned all of them. One of their number was the unfortunate Tisquantum.

Sold into slavery

Kidnapping Native Americans was a terribly frequent practice among the early explorers of America as well as those who traveled there for trade. Hunt took his captives across the Atlantic to the port of Malaga on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. There Tisquantum and the other Patuxet people were sold into slavery. No doubt Hunt made a good profit on the deal.

Tisquantum's escape

Unsurprisingly, when monks bought Tisquantum and some of his companions, they immediately tried to indoctrinate the Native Americans into the Christian faith. Perhaps their cheap labor was also attractive. Somehow, Tisquantum escaped the monks, or was perhaps released by them. In any case, he found his way from Spain to England. Once there, he is believed to have lived in London with one John Slany.

So much is unknown

Slany was a prosperous shipbuilder and merchant and it was he who is said to have taught Tisquantum the English language. Since Slany had an interest in a scheme to colonize Newfoundland, perhaps he thought that Tisquantum might be of service to him at some point. Or perhaps he was just a good man. We have no way of knowing.

The lone survivor

Whatever the truth of Slany’s motives, Tisquantum traveled back across the Atlantic and was in Newfoundland in 1618. From there he journeyed to his homeland and his village of Patuxet. But when he got there, the entire village had been wiped out by a plague. Tisquantum was now the last of the Patuxet.

No love lost

So Tisquantum, given the treatment that he had suffered at their hands, had very little reason to love the Pilgrims. He had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. His people had been wiped out, very likely by disease introduced by the settlers to which the Native Americans had no resistance. Yet he proved himself invaluable to the folks of Plymouth Plantation.

Introducing Samoset

Tisquantum first met the Pilgrims through another Native American, Samoset. This Samoset had been the first Native American with whom the Plymouth settlers had made friendly relations. It seems that this Samoset was quite a character. In an article in The Smithsonian magazine, author Charles C. Mann described how the Native American introduced himself to the Pilgrims.

Samoset spoke English

Mann described the first meeting between Samoset and the Pilgrims. “On March 17, 1621, Samoset had walked unaccompanied and unarmed into the circle of rude huts in which the British were living. The colonists saw a robust, erect-postured man wearing only a loincloth; his straight black hair was shaved in front but flowed down his shoulders behind. To their amazement, this almost naked man greeted them in broken but understandable English.”

He lived alongside the Pilgrims

We can only imagine how astonished the settlers were to meet someone in this alien world who could speak their language. And it seems that Tisquantum was far more fluent than Samoset and Massasoit. The colony’s governor, William Bradford, appointed Tisquantum as a kind of liaison officer because of his good command of English. Tisquantum actually ended up living with the Pilgrims.

Shocking parallels

Tisquantum once again lived on the ancestral land of his Patuxet people, except this time, he was living alongside his people's killers. It must have been strange for him, acting as a liaison for the people who wiped out everything he'd ever known. Nevertheless, as we saw earlier, his help with cultivation may well have saved the Pilgrims from starvation.

Two versions of events

That brings us back to the Plymouth Pilgrims’ 1621 Thanksgiving celebration. Our precise knowledge about the event is really rather limited. Even the date is unsure. As best we know it was sometime between late September and early November. We do have two contemporary accounts from Pilgrims, one from the governor, Bradford, the other from Edward Winslow.

"All things in good plenty"

In his Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 Bradford wrote, “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty.” So it seems that the Pilgrims were indeed well stocked up for a celebration.

The fruits of their labor

Winslow described preparations for the feast in his aptly-named publication, A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England. “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor,” Winslow wrote.

Coming together to feast

Winslow went on to outline the events of the Thanksgiving festival, including Massasoit's role. “..their greatest king Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”

Not on the menu

As you’ll have noticed, there’s not a single mention of turkey. It’s true that there were plenty of wild turkeys around the Plymouth Colony, but there are no mentions in contemporary accounts of roast turkey being served. And the settlers had no flour or butter, so they couldn’t have baked pies. What’s more, sweet potatoes were unknown in those parts back then. So many modern Thanksgiving staples were definitely not on the menu!

Not so friendly

Here are some truths: Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief we met earlier, really did attend the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving, and he really did bring along 90 of his men. It's widely accepted that the Pilgrims happily invited them to join their feast. But just because it's widely accepted doesn't mean that it's true! It seems that the Thanksgiving encounter between Massasoit’s men and the Pilgrims was a little less friendly than tradition would have us believe.

A tense Thanksgiving dinner

In reality those men that arrived at the Pilgrim’s settlement were a 90-strong band of warriors, and the Pilgrims didn't exactly welcome them with open arms. Just to be on the safe side, the settlers’ militia gave a kind of parade and fired their weapons into the air. This show of strength seems to have done the trick, since there was no violence at the festival. But it sounds like the dinner must have been rather more tense than tradition suggests.

Fact and fiction

So it’s fair to say that the picture of peace and goodwill painted by history books doesn’t quite tell the whole story. At a wider level, the first Thanksgiving can be viewed as a bad omen for the Wampanoag people. As we saw earlier, Massasoit had signed a treaty with the English in which they mutually agreed not to attack one another.

Warring tribes

In truth, it’s probable that Massasoit was motivated by more than just natural friendliness in signing that treaty. Conflict with another Native American people, the Narragansett, who had long been enemies, also came into the picture. The Wampanoag had been devastated by the diseases brought to them by the Europeans and their weakness meant they were in danger of being overwhelmed by the neighboring Narragansett.

A strategic alliance

But by making peace with the Plymouth settlers, Massasoit was able to use this alliance to help protect his people from the Narragansett. And in the short term, this proved to be a successful strategy. But part of the agreement included the Wampanoag allowing the Pilgrims to settle and stay as long as they liked in the land of the Wampanoag.

A bad omen

And the stability this agreement gave the settlers allowed them to flourish. And their success, it can be argued, was a major factor in the large influx of settlers from Britain in the following period. And as the years went by, the Wampanoag and the other Native American peoples of the region were increasingly marginalized.

No reason to celebrate

So that first Thanksgiving was hardly an occasion to celebrate from the point of view of the Wampanoag and other Native American peoples. In fact, it turns out that much of what we think we know about that first Thanksgiving feast is a product of the 19th century, not the 17th!

No peace and harmony here

It wasn’t until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln declared the first official Thanksgiving Day, and that was to celebrate Unionist Civil War victories. Plus some historians say the very first Thanksgiving was in 1637 to mark the settlers’ victory over the Pequot Native Americans – in which case, it’s not quite the festival of peace and harmony of popular belief!