Monday, November 30, 2009

What About the First Thanksgiving Day?

Much of what most of us learned as children about the first Thanksgiving Day in what became the United States was wrong. And it seems that some of what some children are being taught today is also wrong.

It was true, of course, that a day of thanksgiving was held in November 1621 by the surviving band of "Pilgrims" and others who had come to the "New World" the previous year. But some argue that the first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida, on September 8, 1565. And others say that the First Nations (I like the Canadian term better than Indians or even Native Americans) observed harvest festivals and times of thanksgiving long before Europeans came to this part of the world.

Then, many seem to think that most of the people who came across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower did so because of their desire for religious freedom. Actually, fewer than half of those on the Mayflower were religious "pilgrims," as William Bradford called them; the others came for economic or other reasons. And even the Pilgrims had religious freedom in the Netherlands before they left there, so it seems that their main reason for making the dangerous voyage was not for religious freedom as such.

And then there are the Native Americans. The assistance and generosity of the Indians to the Plymouth settlers have generally been recognized, and those like Squanto, a Patuxet, have been highly regarded. But what has not usually been taught is that Squanto, along with many others, had been captured as slaves. Squanto was able to help the Plymouth colony partly because he learned English in the Old World where he had been taken as a slave.

Further, little recognition has been given to the fact that a large percentage of the Native Americans in "New England" had already died before 1621 from diseases (mostly smallpox) brought by the Europeans who had come in the previous decade. When the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, all the Patuxet living in the area had already died from such illnesses.

To counter the numerous Thanksgiving Day myths, errors, and half-truths that have usually been taught in the schools, some have developed alternative curriculum materials. But, unfortunately, the ones I found on the Internet also seem, unfortunately, to contain errors and misleading statements. Combating errors with errors is not helpful. In this case, as in all others, we need to seek to learn and to live by the truth. And that is hard to do.


  1. Alas, Leroy, you are on the right track. Much of what is taught about early American history and up through the founding the nation is interspered with stories about as reliable as George Washington and the cherry tree. Some of them, like the midnight ride of Paul Revere, are probably harmless, but others, like the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation or that the majority of American supported the Revolution are more seriously misleading. Your comment that the Pilgrims had religious freedom in the Netherlands is correct, but actually does not go far enough. The Pilgrims, if anything, were seeking to get away from religious freedom (their youth, particularly, were leaving their religion in Holland)to a place where they had no competition. At least the Pilgrims, as Separatist Puritans, wanted to get away and leave the rest of the world alone (the rest of the world was unerringly headed for hell anyway). The Puritans who set up Massachusetts Bay (around Boston) were setting up a perfect society as a light unto a sinful world and religious freedom would have been a great hindrance to their plan, so they didn't have any.

    The United States, of course, is not unique in this business of myth-building. To cite a more recent example, recent historical investigation has demonstrated that at least 5 French men and women claimed to have been involved in the resistance to the Nazis for every one that actually was--and usually got away with it because those who actually were all too frequently were dead by war's end.

    So, is it better to know what actually happened or to have pleasant myths to believe in and, hopefully, emulate? The Bible says that you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free. In practice, we might revise that to say that you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you disillusioned.


  2. Thomas, thanks for your comments and for adding more information about the first European settlers.

    You make a significant point in your final statement, but I like the statement attributed to President Garfield better: "The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable."

  3. Easel Roberts, my friend and fellow church member at Second Baptist Church, gave me permission to post his comments that I received yesterday. The issue he raises is so important that I have decided to respond to it in my next posting.

    Easel wrote,

    "I think this blog posting helped me clarify my fundamental problem with Cone. My reaction to both Cone and this blog is the same. Both are condemning past actions of European Whites. Both are big on recognition (primarily based around blame) but neither offer a path to Repentance, Reconciliation, or Renewal. We are European Whites with no hope.

    "As an engineer, my job is not to wonder about why things are the way they are and stop, it is understand the 'why's' and then fix it. If I can't identify a path to 'fix it,' then I've failed.

    "So, the response I have to Cone's book and speech as well as this blog is 'and therefore, I should do what?' In my opinion, without an 'and therefore we should . . .' we are only irritating old wounds which do nobody any good."

    J. Easel Roberts, P.E.
    Principal Engineer, Filtration Technologies
    GE Energy Services

  4. I recommend Nathaniel Philbrick's recent book, The Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Vicking, ISBN: 0-670-03760-5).

    It gives a rather honest/truthful account of these early settlers which does follow Leroy's admonition that the pictures painted for us in elementary school were far from reality.

    It is interesting to me how reliant these settlers became on the native people they found here...and how sad was the treatment the natives received in return.

  5. David, thanks for your comments and for the book recommendation. The book looks quite interesting and I would like to read it--and would be more likely to if it were 180 pages longer rather than 480 pages.

  6. History from differing perspectives is interesting. Australians view "Yanks" as close cousins since they refer to us as the original penal colony for England.

  7. Easel,

    I hear you regarding the "what now," however we do not get to the what now until we fully comprehend the "what." As an engineer I assume you are not able to adequately fix the problem until you adequately identify the problem. But for the voices of James Cone and others like him (from various ethnic and religious backgrounds) we would not have an adequate picture of the "what" to fix. Many of the injustices that you claim are "past" injustices, continue to this day, and mindsets and cognitive models that resulted in the past injustices remain unfortunately (here, I reference the mindset of conquest and excavation being undertaken in South America and the accompanying mindset that the indigenous people of the region are "savage" and "uncivilized" and, therefore, do not have some adequate claim to the land). In our own country, laws related to Indian and non-Indian relations remain fixed to antiquated conquest/discovery doctrines that still impact Indian communities. James Cone and others like him have done what they've set out to do (as noted by the Koreans he mentioned who asked him to come tell them his story) --- to give permission to the marginalized in society to speak out on injustice everywhere in a voice unique to the injustice being suffered by the group speaking out. Only by listening and understanding can we identify and, then, correct the injustices of our society. "He who has an ear, let him here.." (Rv. 2:7)