The leaves are changing, the weather is cooling, and November is upon us. Easily my favorite time of year, I love the good moods and good foods we associate with the holidays. As we always do, the LRC is appropriately festive — We are rocking the time-honored tradition of 4 year olds everywhere and making some seriously awesome hand turkeys.
As I was getting into the Thanksgiving festivities, I began wondering. We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving: The pilgrims, the Native Americans, the good harvest at Plymouth, the giving of thanks. But then I started wondering how true that story is, and whether or not it’s apocryphal. After all, at the library we are all about instilling good information literacy skills. And anyone who has been in a conversation with me for more than 5 minutes has probably experienced my burning desire to correct incorrect information (a trait that got me in trouble in my 9th grade English class and also makes me pretty insufferable at parties). I wanted to see if the Thanksgiving story was actually true, or if it was in fact a myth.
So I turned to a library resource to research the topic. Specifically, Thanksgiving: Biography of an American Holiday. The author is James Baker, the Director of Research at Plimouth Plantation who writes extensively on both Plymouth (the supposed site of the first Thanksgiving) and Thanksgiving. What better authority on the topic?
Long story short, yes, the basics of the story are true. However, details are scant and mostly come from Mourt’s Relation, written by colonist Edward Winslow, possibly with help from William Bradford (whose Of Plymouth Plantation you might have read for your American Lit class). So the full details are pretty vague, but there did seem to be a major harvest feast that the colonists and Natives celebrated together. If you want to get technical, it wasn’t the first Thanksgiving celebrated in America either. There are plenty of other similar celebrations in our colonial history, the earliest going back to Ponce de León in 1513, and various other celebrations in Florida, Newfoundland, Virginia, Maine, and even Texas. Of course, despite that, the Pilgrim Thanksgiving is the one that inspired the national holiday, enacted by the Continental Congress in 1777 and then George Washington in 1789.
Why write all this just to conclude “Oh yeah, the story is basically real”? Because we so often accept stories without really considering whether or not they’re true. For example, it’s commonly thought that when Columbus embarked on his famous voyages, most people thought the Earth was flat. That’s not true — even the ancient Greeks were able to determine the Earth was a sphere, and even calculated the Earth’s circumference with astonishing accuracy. By Columbus’ time, it was common knowledge that the Earth was a sphere — Columbus was actually mistaken in that he grossly underestimated the Earth’s size, which is why he believed he had reached India. Even when it comes to Thanksgiving, what we think isn’t entirely true. Picture a pilgrim. You probably imagined those silly hats with the buckles, right? Not true. The hats did not actually have buckles. And of course different Native American tribes had many different styles of dress and costume, so how you picture them might not be totally accurate either.
It’s always important to evaluate the information we receive to determine that it’s credible and accurate. Even if they’re harmless myths, there’s a lot of value in being able to investigate them and determine the truth. Look for information provided by credible sources — People who have research credentials in the field (such as James Baker whose research and work at Plymouth distinguishes him as an expert). This will help you not only in your classes, but also in your professional career to critically engage with ideas and topics and make informed choices.
But in the meantime, sit back, watch some football and the parade, enjoy some good food, make some hand turkeys, and take comfort in knowing that the popular Thanksgiving origin story is (basically) true. Happy Thanksgiving!