Learn the real story of Thanksgiving

For most American families, the Thanksgiving holiday is abundant with good cheer, good food, a wonderfully smelling roasted turkey, family and friends, maybe a football game on the TV, and a great sense that all is well in the world. It’s a time to enjoy, relax, reflect, and express thanks.

When I was a kid—just like youngsters of today still do—we cut out the shapes of turkeys and Pilgrim hats from colored paper and decorated walls of the classroom. Back then, as now, Thanksgiving was a grand marketing opportunity for advertisements featuring clean, well-dressed Pilgrims and Native Americans happily eating dinner at a long table covered by a white tablecloth.

What the Mayflower may have looked like when it set sail for the New World. Note the supply of apples in the lower left corner. The fruit and vegetable supplies soon ran out and the crew and passengers came down with scurvy. Painting by Bernard Gribble

It wasn’t until I was an adult in my later years that I became interested in genealogy and discovered I am the descendant of six colonists who came to America on the Mayflower: William Brewster and his son Love Brewster; Richard Warren; William Mullins and his daughter, Priscilla, age 18 when they set sail; and John Alden, who married Priscilla not long after her father and step-mother, Alice, died shortly after reaching America.

Back then, the population of Europeans along our Eastern seaboard was severely limited; in fact, almost nonexistent outside of the Mayflower settlers and a few others at small colonies scattered long distances away along the coast.

As a result, a fair amount of intermingling of Plymouth families occurred during the first few generations, this among the original Mayflower families and others who later immigrated there. By the fourth generation, the intermingling produced a lady named Janet Murdock, who married my ancestor Stephen Tilson, whose English grandparents immigrated to Plymouth shortly after they were married in 1625.

After discovering this ancestral tie to the Plymouth colonists, I puffed myself up and thought, “Well, hey, this is pretty neat! I must be a very special guy, having come from such special ancestors.”

Self-aggrandized as I had suddenly become, I probably should’ve let things alone. But…I decided to find out how many Mayflower descendants are alive today. I expected maybe a couple of dozen, if that. After all, those Pilgrim people lived a long, long time ago. There couldn’t be many descendants alive today. Gosh, I mused to myself, I really am special!

Well, uh, as I discovered on the Internet, the estimated numbers are 10 million descendants in the U.S. and 35 million worldwide. Some descendants comprise notable figures in American history. Among John and Priscilla Alden’s descendants, for example, are U.S. Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams; poet William Wadsworth Longfellow; Julia Child, chef, author and TV personality; and actors Orson Welles, Raquel Welch, Dick Van Dyke, and Marilyn Monroe.

Here’s an interesting point to consider: The nation’s public schools have about 50 million enrolled students this year. The 10 million Mayflower descendants in the U.S. means that in any given public school classroom today, which usually have about 30 students, give or take, there may be at least one or two students related back to the Mayflower folks. Most kids, unfortunately, don’t know it. Nor do their parents.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to a couple of topics. First, I want to encourage people to delve into their own ancestral past. It’s amazing what could be found there—maybe kings or queens, or perhaps inventors or great authors, or maybe a famous outlaw or soldier, or a Pilgrim or two. Second, my interest in genealogy has encouraged me to learn many things about history that I once never imagined I would find interesting. Case in point: the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. I’ve done considerable research and reading since learning that my ancestral line, on my mother’s side, is connected to the Pilgrims.

One of the important things I discovered: The arrival of the Mayflower and its 102 passengers and their survival in America comprise one of our nation’s most important historical events (and yet—just a side note here—very little attention is given to telling their real story in the curriculum of our public schools).

It’s a story of bravery, grit, determination, optimism, and great faith. The themes behind the adventure cover about every literary genre one can think of: humans against nature, love of fellow beings and the land, the demands of sacrifice, overcoming major challenges, a quest for religious freedom, and, among others, the bold search for something better.

In the fall of 1620, 102 Mayflower passengers and crew—there were about 30 crew members—spent 66 tough, nearly unbearable days on the tiny ship, often amid terrible storms and big terrifying waves. The ship was 80 feet long and 24 feet wide (in comparison, a tennis court is 78 feet long and 36 feet wide).

Rough seas for the Mayflower.

One terrifying storm cracked a massive wood beam that supported the ship’s frame. This had the potential to leave the ship stuck drifting at sea. Fortunately, the passengers had in their supplies and equipment a large iron screw mechanism that they used to help raise the beam back into place. In another storm, a young passenger was swept off the deck. He was saved only because he had the presence of mind to grab one of the ship’s lines so he could be pulled back on deck. One crew member, who had taunted the passengers over their seasickness, died during the voyage—the passengers saw this as a sign from God, the sailor’s punishment for being so cruel.

Passengers were required to spend most of their time in a deck below. They squeezed into thin-walled, cramped great cabins with low ceilings (you had to hunker down if you were more than five feet tall). Each passenger had living space about the size of today’s single bed, if that.

Imagine the body smells—no deodorant, no clean clothes, no showers or baths. Imagine the lack of privacy when it came time to do your personal business. Imagine weathering bad storms, not knowing if the old clinker of a ship would sink at any moment. Imagine the snoring at night. Imagine…well, you get the point.

It wasn’t a fun trip. Lousy food. Poor water. Short tempers. The supplies of vegetables and fruit soon gave out, resulting in a lack of vitamin C and then scurvy. Gums bled. Teeth fell out. Breaths stank. Colds, fevers and coughs were easily passed around due to the cramped quarters. Soon, everyone was sick. All in all, a trip you wouldn’t want to make, never, ever.

When they reached America and finally stepped on shore, this on Nov. 13, 1620, the first thing some of them did was consume raw blue mussels abundant along the shoals during low tide. They must have sighed with great relief—finally, finally fresh food—oh, joy!

And then, their hungers satisfied, the violent vomiting and diarrhea set in from shellfish poisoning.

Imagine that, too. You somehow manage to survive more than two horrible months on the dreadful ocean and the first thing you eat on shore is so toxic you feel like you want to die. This, by the way, is one of those stories you don’t hear in school.

Another usually untold story relates to the makeup of the passengers. There were 50 men, 19 women and 33 young adults and children. Most Americans today believe they were all Pilgrims. However, only 41 were. The rest were what the Pilgrims called the “Strangers”—non-members of the Pilgrims’ religious sect: hired hands, farmers, servants, and children, four of whom were indentured servants, given over to the Pilgrims by their parents before the Mayflower set sail.

The Pilgrim’s religious sect believed its congregation should be separate from the Church of England, thus the basic reason for seeking refuge in the New World. Back home in Europe, they were threatened by jail time or worse (and, in fact, William Brewster once was jailed for his religious beliefs). The Pilgrims were the first refugees to step on our soil—and, comparing the trials and tribulations of today’s refugees seeking to enter the U.S., they didn’t have to do complicated legal wrangling or sneak in by digging a hole under a border wall.

Many Americans believe the first landing was at Plymouth. It wasn’t. The first on-shore steps—the place of the eating of the blue mussels—happened at what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. It was in there, too, in a lower deck of the Mayflower, that 41 adult males signed the Mayflower Compact, a document of about 200 words. This was the earliest document that called for self-governance in America even though, under the terms of the compact, they would remain loyal to England’s King James.

Today, Americans generally believe—if they know about it at all—that the Mayflower Compact originated because all of the settlers were in gentlemanly accord on governance issues. The truth is, the Pilgrims drafted the document because the Strangers were ready to revolt and go out on their own. The Strangers were angry because the Mayflower had sailed beyond the jurisdiction of where the colony was supposed to be located. The Pilgrims saw that splitting up the small number of colonists would likely have ended in disaster; the larger number of 102 at least gave hope for success. So Pilgrim leaders drafted the Mayflower Compact as a way to quell the conflict and maintain peace.

Signing of the Mayflower Compact. From Library of Congress.

A month later, the Mayflower arrived at a settlement site the voyagers named Plimouth (the spelling later become “Plymouth”) after the port city from where they sailed away from England. Plymouth was the wrong place, however. The colonists had a patent to settle at the Hudson River near Manhattan, which was part of the Colony of Virginia at the time. They missed the mark due to irascible winds, storms and dangerous shoals. Nonetheless, the ship’s commander decided the passengers were too sick and frail to sail on to the site where they were supposed to settle, so, in essence, he announced to them, “This is it, folks, all out”—my words, not his, but the sentiment is the same: Like it or not, here’s where we stop!

Myth has it that the colonists stepped upon Plymouth Rock as they disembarked. There is, however, no historical accounts or facts that back up this long-held assumption.

Myth has it that the Pilgrims took their first steps on land on top of Plymouth Rock. There are no historical accounts or facts to back up this assumption.

Another typically untold story is the tragic circumstance through which the Pilgrims and Strangers were lucky enough to settle on land previously cleared by Native Americans. Upon the Mayflower’s arrival in the Plymouth bay, there were no natives to be seen in the area, only mysterious scatterings of bleached human skulls and bones. Regardless of the carnage that appeared to have taken place there in the not-so-distant past, the Pilgrims considered the vacant land to be a miracle, a true gift from God.

Unbeknown to the Mayflower voyagers, the new homeland was littered with the aftermath of a holocaust. Large numbers of natives—thousands upon thousands, possibly 90 percent of them—died from 1616 to 1619 along the Atlantic seaboard from what is believed to be bubonic plague brought ashore by European fishermen.

Many of us, by the way, incorrectly think only a few Europeans visited America prior to the Mayflower’s arrival. In reality, an estimated 300 ships a year fished for cod off the northern East Coast. Sailors often visited natives to trade and mingle. Such interactions didn’t always turn out well for the natives. Case in point: the bubonic epidemic for which the natives had no antibodies. As the plague progressed along the coast, so many natives died that no one—like those at the site of the new colony—was left to bury the dead.

The first year for the settlers was nearly disastrous. Half of the 102 colonists died from sickness and malnutrition. Many survivors were left like Priscilla Mullins. One day her parents and brother were alive, and then they were dead, leaving her in an untamed land with little hope of returning to the civilization of Europe.

Miles Standish (left) looks on as Priscilla Mullins and John Alden are on their bridal procession.

Priscilla’s dire situation, I imagine, helped in her decision to marry John Alden. A marriage of convenience, perhaps, no doubt? It’s hard to say. Today, Priscilla and John are probably the most well-known of the colonists, thanks to a narrative poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, published in 1858 by one of their descendants, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose works are still studied today in colleges. In the poem, Miles Standish asks John Alden to speak on Standish’s behalf to the single Priscilla. He does and Priscilla replied, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” So he did and they married. A good lesson for all of us: Never ask anyone else to proclaim your love to another!

Anyway, the Thanksgiving story that we hold near and dear today is true in some ways and pure fiction in other ways. Parts of the modern story were created by marketing experts who saw ideal opportunities for selling more food, merchandise, cars, and other retail products during the Thanksgiving holiday.

One part of today’s telling of the colonists’ story is true. Some natives did help the colonists at times, showing them, for example, how to cultivate corn, catch fish, remove sap from maple trees, and avoid poisonous plants. Even with the help, it was still definitely touch and go for the settlers. They had to rely on their own initiative, their rapidly developing skills, hard work, luck, and, as they believed, the intervention of God

Many of the colonists had to develop new skills to meet the challenging intricacies of farming and building shelters. William Mullins—Priscilla’s father—may have been somewhat unprepared. He was a shoemaker by trade.  He brought along 126 pairs of shoes and 13 pairs of boots—the sign of a true entrepreneur when it came to retail merchandising. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to wear out even one pair on the soil of the New World. He died within four months of reaching America.

The name “Thanksgiving” wasn’t used by the Pilgrims as we use it today to mark the annual holiday. They believed a thanksgiving was a time of devotion and spiritual thought. In the 170 years after the Pilgrims’ arrival, there were often festivals of harvest in the fall throughout the American territories. The concept of an official Thanksgiving celebration originated in 1789 with a proclamation by George Washington. After that, a designated day of thanksgiving was honored on and off until it became a federal holiday during the Civil War. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists celebrated their first harvest with feasting that probably took place in late September or October rather than late November. The event was also a celebration to give thanks that they survived their first year in the New World. Within that first year, half of the colonists had perished from disease and malnutrition. That included 78 percent of the women.

This First Thanksgiving—as we call it today—was a three-day event. The local sachem (it’s a native name for “leader”) Massasoit and 90 to 100 members of the Pokanoket, a local tribe that in 1621 began interacting with the colonists, participated in the celebration. Historians are unsure why the natives were in the area. Massasoit’s village was a three-day walk away. The end of the harvest season may have been a time when he and his group made rounds to visit other native tribes; and, perhaps since they were already in the area, they were invited to the colonists’ festivities. Regardless, the natives didn’t come merely for a single dinner. They showed up with five freshly killed deer and intended to stick around for a while.

There were no pumpkin pies since the colonists didn’t have butter, wheat flour or a stove to cook in. They didn’t have potatoes, either; spuds weren’t available to them back then. It would be years before white potatoes, which originated in South American, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, reached Plymouth. Sweet cranberry sauce likely wasn’t on the menu since local cranberries were used more for tart garnish. It would be another 50 years before an English writer described boiling cranberries and sugar into a sweet, delectable sauce. Nor did the colonists and natives have forks. Forks didn’t show up in the colony for another seven decades. So it was fingers and knives to eat with.

In addition to the deer, the menu may have consisted of ducks and geese—they were plentiful at that time of the year in the nearby bay—and squash, beans, corn, barley, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, leeks, lettuce, parsnips, and beans from the harvest, as well as striped bass, cod and bluefish. It’s possible, too, that the menu included native wild plants: Jerusalem artichokes, grapes, walnuts, chestnuts, and garlic. There may also have been lobster, seal and swans on the menu. Every history book and account that I’ve read about the menu seems to have its own version of what was or wasn’t served.

It was a big chore to prepare food for the approximate 150 diners—the surviving colonists and the approximate 100 natives. Only four married women were still alive by then, so they likely had help from children, servants and unmarried men. And perhaps some natives. I’ve wondered about what was recorded from back then about “unmarried” men helping with the dinner. What about the married guys? The image in my mind: The married guys were lounging around smoking big cigars, drinking beer—of course, yes, my over-wild imagination. It was the culture at the time (and often even now) that food preparation was woman’s work.

Were turkeys on the menu? Historians are divided over whether they were. Some say nay. Others say yes. Most admit no one knows for certain.

Many Americans believe turkeys were served at the First Thanksgiving. That may have or may not have been the case.

Wild turkeys, though, were definitely available to the Plymouth settlers. It was a common bird in the New World and a popular one that could be domesticated. Many decades later, Benjamin Franklin called the turkey a “a true original native of America” and “a bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who would presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.” (Just a fun aside here: Regardless of common American lore, Franklin did not campaign for the turkey to become our national symbol. Instead, he wanted an image of Moses extending his hand over the sea, commanding it to overwhelm the pharaoh in an open chariot. Franklin’s proposed motto was “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”)

Today, some Americans think turkeys were unknown to the Pilgrims and Europe prior to the arrival of the Mayflower. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The conquistadors, after they arrived in the 1500s in Mexico, found that natives of Central America had domesticated turkeys. Turkeys were then imported to Spain and, by the 1520s, had become a regular food for Christmas meals in England.

The turkey gained popularity in the United States thanks to a writer and editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of the Mary Had A Little Lamb nursery rhyme. She thought we needed a national holiday to unify the nation; the day, she believed, should also have religious overtones.

Sarah Josepha Hale, the lady largely responsible for the Thanksgiving holiday. She lobbied five presidents before Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a federal Thanksgiving Day.

In 1827, she published a novel, Northwood; Or Life North and South, Showing the True Character of Both, that introduced the idyllic Thanksgiving table, with turkey as its star cuisine. She wrote: “[It] is considered as an appropriate tribute of gratitude to God to set apart one day of Thanksgiving in each year; and autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude.”

Hale was one of the earliest trendsetters in our country’s history. She was editor of a popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, which, with a circulation of 150,000 in 1860, became the leading advocate for establishing Thanksgiving as an annual event. She published Thanksgiving recipes and menus in the magazine. She also wrote a dozen cookbooks. She petitioned five U.S. presidents to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Her successful pitch to Lincoln focused on the need to unite the country through a national holiday during the Civil War.

By the time Lincoln signed the proclamation to establish the holiday, the idea of Thanksgiving was already solidly planted, thanks to Hale, in the minds of homemakers throughout the nation. The Thanksgiving menu we think of today—roasted turkey stuffed with sage and other tasty ingredients, mashed potato dishes, and the like—was already established in their holiday menus because of Hale.

Today, about 88 percent of Americans eat 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving Day.

Historians believe those who attended the First Thanksgiving stood or sat on the ground because the colonist hadn’t made tables like the one shown in this painting. Nor were there white tablecloths. Smithsonian: Bettmann/Corbis

The Plymouth dining fare did not resemble what we think of today. There were no long tables covered with white tablecloths. The colonists’ had spent their precious time over the first year in farming and constructing shelters, and not making furniture for themselves. They and the natives stood, squatted or sat on the ground around campfires as meat cooked on wooden spits and stews simmered in pots.

Many modern Americans mentally view the Pilgrims as an austere, somber group of straight-back stature. That may be largely true—it’s a good PR image for the Pilgrims—but they also had ribald sides, too. A written description of the First Thanksgiving from a Pilgrim leader seems to describe a traditional English harvest festival that dated back to the Middle Ages: food, drink and games.

The colonists surely evoked God’s name and grace as they gave thanks. For Native Americans, giving thanks was an ongoing practice. Theirs was a daily routine of thankfulness. They offered a prayer or acknowledgement every time they hunted, fished or harvested a plant.

One of the likely features of the First Thanksgiving that normally isn’t thought about today is the countryside itself. Some of the surrounding Plymouth land looked barren due to previous native residents burning away vegetation to make room for crops.

But within short strolls of the new colony there were forested areas of oak, maple, hickory, birches, and other trees. These offered beautiful fall scenery unlike trees in England and Holland, from which the Pilgrims originated. Back there in civilization, typically cloudy days and warm nights resulted in muted, uninspired and bland fall colors. In contrast, fall days in the New World were sunny; nights, cool, a perfect condition for decreasing chlorophyll in leaves, allowing colorful pigments to emerge.

At the First Thanksgiving—I like to imagine—the forests were painted in fiery reds, lively amber, crimson and scarlet, russets, golden brown, and bright yellow. It would have been a visual feast for the new arrivals to America.

Now, as this year’s Thanksgiving approaches, it’s a good time to learn more about the First Thanksgiving and how a tiny group of brave people overcame the tough odds against them. Check out the resources that I listed below.

We should also give thanks for where we are, what we have and where we came from. And do as I did for myself: Learn about your family’s past.


Here are good resources to read (I used information from some of these to write this article):

–The nonfiction book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. It’s an entertaining account, accurate and in-depth. I highly recommend it.

Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, by William Bradford, a leader of the Plymouth colony. This is the most authoritative account of the Pilgrims and the early years of their colony.

From History.com: Thanksgiving 2019. An excellent article for learning about the history of the modern Thanksgiving.

How the turkey became Thanksgiving’s mascot.

From History.com: Colonists at the first Thanksgiving were mostly men because women had perished.

Smithsonian magazine: What was on the menu for the First Thanksgiving?

One thought on “Learn the real story of Thanksgiving

  1. T [1]hanks Gary– Just now had a chance to read this. Great reporting, upbeat and informative. Lots of stuff I hadn’t known before, and I, too, enjoy studying that era. I’ve reposted your piece to my Facebook page. It deserves a wide reading.

    And just for grins, attached is a poem I wrote many years ago, about John Billington, a real-life pilgrim kid who ran away to join the natives. Watch out, tall hats!

    Good job, and back at ya soon— B

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