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5 Busted Myths About the Pilgrims — They Ate Venison Not Turkey, and More

Pilgrims and Indians
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Thanksgiving is on record as being America’s second-favorite holiday (Christmas wins first prize, of course), so it makes sense that Thanksgiving lore is a part of our shared cultural history and something we start learning early in our lives. But it turns out a lot of what we think we know about Turkey Day is wrong.

The Thanksgiving story everyone grows up with, involving Pilgrims and Indians, is a nice example of sharing and giving thanks, but it really has nothing to do with what actually happened. Here are five things we think we know about our national day of turkey and stuffing, but are actually not right at all:

The Pilgrims Were the First to Feast

There are stories of a large feast held by the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 that have been passed down through the years. We know this feast happened and this is what we all consider to be the First Thanksgiving. But this wasn’t actually the first feast of this kind. For example, 23 years before the 1621 feast, a Spanish explorer held a large feast in Texas as thanks and celebration for the safe passage of a party of settlers after a long journey across the Mexican desert. Furthermore, in 1619 a group of settlers from England held a Thanksgiving celebration feast after safely arriving in America on a ship called the Margaret.

The Pilgrim Meal Was Thanksgiving

As we pass down the story of the Pilgrim’s 1621 feast, we call it Thanksgiving, but in reality the feast was a harvest festival (actually celebrated in late September or early October) to celebrate a good harvest. Native Americans joined the feast (either by invitation, or because they heard celebratory shooting and came over to investigate) because they had helped teach the Pilgrims how to grow and find food in their new world. The Pilgrims also celebrated Thanksgiving, but this was generally a religious observation and happened at different times throughout the year. To them, Thanksgiving was a time of prayer and reflection (to which Native Americans would not have been invited) and not a time for games and feasting.

The Pilgrim Feast Started a Tradition

As the story goes, the Pilgrims sat down with the neighboring Indians for Thanksgiving dinner in 1621 and then every year thereafter to commemorate that first meal together. This was not actually the case. Not only did they not sit down for dinner—the food was laid out on a table, but there weren’t enough place settings and silverware to accommodate everyone so it was finger food and standing room only)—they didn’t repeat it every year as a tradition. The real tradition didn’t get organized nationally until Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. It took much longer for our country to finally agree to celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November every year.

The Pilgrims Ate Turkey and Pumpkin Pie

We don’t know everything that was on the menu during the Pilgrims’ 1621 feast, but we do know that the main meat dish was probably venison and not turkey. There was a fowl of some kind served, but there is no evidence that the feast was centered around the bird that goes gobble-gobble. Sweet potatoes were not at all a food of the people of that time and pumpkins were eaten, but they weren’t made into pies. It’s not likely cranberries were involved either.

The traditional Thanksgiving meal we think of now was created by a writer named Sarah Josepha Hale, who was the editor of a magazine and the woman instrumental in convincing President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving an official, national holiday. She’s the one who wrote stories of a traditional Thanksgiving meal with the delicious foods we think of now, in order to get everyone on board with her pet holiday.

The Pilgrims Wore Black Clothes With Buckles to the Feast

By this time, it should come as no surprise to you that the pictures of the Pilgrims we share in our collective imagination are completely inaccurate. In 1621 Pilgrims wore black and white as formal wear, likely to church, but since that early feast was a harvest celebration and not a religious affair, they would have worn their casual, colorful clothes. Both women and men generally wore brightly colored fabrics that could be dyed naturally. And buckles weren’t involved at all.

In the 19th century, when artists began depicting those first settlers, they drew buckles on their clothes as a way of expressing quaintness. But buckles didn’t become fashionable until well after the 1621 feast. Besides, while they may have started to become en vogue in England late in the 17th century, the Pilgrims would not have been able to afford metal buckles, which would have been a luxury (and difficult to get in the new world.) Also, the Native American guests would not have been wearing loincloths at the feast. Fall in New England is a chilly time and the savvy native residents of the land would have been dressed appropriately for the weather.

 

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