Like the story of Columbus discovering America and Washington chopping down a cherry tree, boomers were taught myths surrounding Thanksgiving as though they were facts. To start with, we have identified Thanksgiving with the Plimouth Colony in Massachusetts (later known as Plymouth) since the days of the Civil War, yet the Jamestown Colony in Virginia was established two decades earlier, and Spanish explorers had colonies in Florida and Texas fifty years before that. Historical records show each landing was followed by a “thanksgiving.” The nature of thanksgiving at that time was a religious day of fasting and church-going to give thanks to the Creator for safe passage to this new land.
Before the Pilgrims landed, the Wampanoag tribe had established a village there called Patuxet. The tribe had 69 villages throughout southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island, with residents numbering 50,000 to 100,000. When European settlers arrived, they brought disease that was unknown to the continent. A plague devastated Patuxet and it was abandoned. This abandoned village is where the pilgrims set up the Plimouth Colony. They say history is written by the victors, but now a study of written records of the time show that the Europeans exhibited cruel and inhuman treatment of their New World hosts. Thousands of men, women and children were slaughtered wholesale in written accounts that thank the Lord Almighty for giving them the strength to vanquish the “heathen savages.” Thousands more were captured and sold into slavery. By the time the pilgrims arrived in 1620, the Wampanoag held them in fear and mistrust. Some historians now believe the Native Americans did not, as our myth says, teach the pilgrims how to survive as a goodwill gesture, but rather as coerced labor.
Every boomer child — and indeed every school-age kid today — could identify the pilgrims by their tall black hats with the big buckle around the brim, black and white clothing and buckled shoes. In fact, the pilgrims wore simple clothes that were colored blue or shades of brown in the natural dyes that were available to them. The picture we recognize as a pilgrim was conjured from 18th century paintings. The distinctive black and white outfits belonged to the European wealthy class of that age, not immigrants to the New World.
The meal is another myth. Since native tribes had celebrated the harvest for thousands of years, more than likely the event was a harvest celebration as opposed to a thanksgiving the way Europeans understood the term. Likewise the harvest season for that area would have been earlier than late November. As to the day in question, one account written by a Native American says the pilgrims were celebrating by shooting their guns — this in itself does not say “thanksgiving,” but rather, harvest celebration. Based on previous encounters, the Native Americans dressed for battle and went to investigate, killing five deer, possibly to bring as a peace offering. Whether at that point they were invited to a meal or they stayed on their own, we do know they shared a meal. While there are no records specifically stating turkey was on the menu, it is a possibility as turkeys had been domesticated by the native tribes before that time. Peas, squash, pumpkin, mussels, lobster and some wild fowl like geese were consumed.
Sugar was an expensive commodity, as evidenced by the 17th century locking sugar cabinets which appear in antique stores. Therefore pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce were out of the question. These items were incorporated into stews and savory applications. Likewise sweet potatoes had not made their way to the area by that date, nor were potatoes a regular part of the English diet at that time. There also were no forks with which to eat the meal; a spoon and a knife were the customary utensils.
Abraham Lincoln, spurred on by Sarah Josepha Hale (the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 as a way of providing a sense of unity for a country at war with itself. Hale had been advocating that Thanksgiving Day, marked in different ways and days in various states, be made a common national day. The originally designated day was the last Thursday of November. In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt changed it by Presidential Proclamation to the fourth Thursday in November as a way of extending the Christmas shopping season to help in the nation’s recovery from the Great Depression.
Mister Boomer stopped at Plymouth, Massachusetts on a family vacation in the sixties. On seeing the rock, with the date 1620 carved into it, he recalls how he and Brother Boomer were rather disappointed. The rock wasn’t that much bigger than a large watermelon. The boomer boys did not know that the original rock was said to have been more than 20,000 lbs. and that the remaining piece was broken off during an attempt to move the larger stone. The piece the boys saw is about a third of the original stone, said to be the foot landing of the first Pilgrim settlers, though no definitive writings have been unearthed to verify that.
Mister B wonders why the myths continue to be perpetuated in the 21st century. What is puzzling is that boomers — the originators of “politically correct” — were hell bent on changing the world in the sixties, yet left national myths intact to this day, though there are some attempts at correcting the history in some school districts.
As we approach another Thanksgiving, it is interesting to note the current infighting among even family members concerning the acceptance of immigrants to our shores. If the Native Americans were the ones with the guns at the time, perhaps our Thanksgiving would look a whole lot different.
What Thanksgiving myths do you remember hearing as kids, boomers? Did your children and grandchildren hear the same ones?