When millions of Americans sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, they will retell the story of peaceable Pilgrims gathering with their Native American neighbors to enjoy the bounty of a fruitful harvest.
There’s only one problem, said Florida State University’s Allen Morris Associate Professor of History Andrew K. Frank. That famous first Thanksgiving feast is a myth.
“Historically, there was really no first Thanksgiving,” Frank said. “There were regional days of thanks in the colonial past, and they told their own localized stories, but the classic first Thanksgiving story is largely an invention.”
In 17th century Massachusetts, early colonists adopted a story that broadly mirrors the contemporary Thanksgiving tale. They used the story of a neighborly banquet with Native Americans to frame the customs of their own annual day of thanks.
However, Virginians at the time were telling a different story entirely. Their moment of thanks and appreciation was tethered to the story of Pocahontas and the Englishman John Smith.
Elsewhere, various stories of colonial and Native fellowship were used as founding myths for regionalized days of thanks and reflection. These parables, said Frank, provided frameworks of tradition for colonial days of thanksgiving, but they have very little to do with the holiday we now celebrate every fourth Thursday of November.
“Asking about the first Thanksgiving is a bit like asking about the first Easter Bunny,” Frank said. “There was never one Thanksgiving moment that inspired the national holiday. Instead there were regional traditions, normally connected to the harvest, that began to emerge in the 17th century.”
Hundreds of years after these provincial customs first appeared, President Lincoln called for the first national day of thanksgiving. His motivations had little to do with Pilgrims or Pocahontas; his aim was to encourage a day of appreciation and comity between the North and the South and to lay the groundwork for reunification after the bloody Civil War.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Thanksgiving an official federal holiday to be observed the fourth Thursday of November. By formally enshrining the holiday, Frank said, Roosevelt was engaging in a canny piece of statesmanship.
“By picking a particular Thursday every year and putting it on the national calendar, Roosevelt was doing the work of nation building,” he said. “Scholars argue that to be a nation, citizens have to imagine themselves as being part of one big community that shares a collective past, true or otherwise. Thanksgiving helps to serve that function.”
While the founding story of Thanksgiving now exists as a fixture of our national mythology, Frank said the tale of Pilgrims and Native Americans can promote a narrow, exclusionary understanding of American history.
For one, the widespread acceptance of a regional Massachusetts fable as the definitive Thanksgiving story ignores the tapestry of other colonial stories that inspired days of communion and gratitude.
“There were many historical moments when people came together and broke proverbial bread,” Frank said. “The fact that we’ve chosen to latch onto this Massachusetts story gives us a false sense that Massachusetts is the origin of the United States.”
More importantly, Frank said, the story of Thanksgiving tends to sanitize the fraught, often violent relationship between the colonists and Native Americans.
While there were intermittent episodes of harmony between Native Americans and their new colonial neighbors, these periods always occurred against a backdrop of conquest and colonization.
“The idea that things were really peaceful and nice for such a long period of time is totally misguided,” Frank said. “People have begun to use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to realize that these stories gloss over what many would consider a history of genocide. The holiday allows people to stuff their faces in really wonderful ways, but at the same time we know these stories hide a pretty traumatic history.”
Frank said he believes Thanksgiving would be just as meaningful without invented folk tales of fictional feasts.
“It’s frustrating when the holiday is reduced to a third grade play with construction paper Pilgrim hats,” he said. “I think we could have Thanksgiving without the fake story behind it all. Lincoln’s idea of taking a moment to think about what we do have, rather than what we fear, is enough, and I don’t feel like we need Puritans to teach us how to do that.”
Zachary Boehm is a writer for the office of communications at Florida State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org