Guest Blog: What Students Did and Didn’t learn about the “First Thanksgiving”

Thanksgiving is coming soon. The story of “The First Thanksgiving” is taught in virtually every grade from preschool through high school. Why? What is it about this story that makes it so prevalent? How accurate is the story that is taught?

These were the questions that drove an in-class exercise in UNH’s Fall 2017 ANTH 500: Peoples and Cultures of North America. Students worked in groups. They had to start by thinking back on what they learned about the story of “The First Thanksgiving” in school. Next, they had to identify core aspects/tenants of this story they learned (and/or reenacted) in school and then research the actual historical record behind what they learned and compare and evaluate how closely or not closely the story they learned matches the historical record and contemporary indigenous knowledge about the “First Thanksgiving” (note, all student research was done online, informally, using various web-based information).

This Guest Blog entry, then, presents highlights from the results of this course exercise as well as offers readers some websites for further research.

What Students Learned (and Did) About the Story of “The First Thanksgiving” in School

Group Response Highlight 1:

  • Half of the class dressed up as settlers and the other half dressed up as “Indians”
  • Crafts: out of paper we made Pilgrim hats and feathers, made cornucopia
  • School plays about the first thanksgiving. Students were assigned “Indian” or Pilgrim
  • Our thanksgiving feast, everyone brought something from home: turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans
  • When the settlers landed it was peaceful, the Native Americans welcomed them
  • Teacher brought in a Cornucopia with different foods in it

Group Response Highlight 2:

In school, we learned that the Pilgrims sailed from England, fleeing religious persecution. Upon their arrival where they landed on the Plymouth rock, they were helped by Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe. The Wampanoag supposedly were very amiable towards the Pilgrims, teaching them how to utilize resources. They were taught to fish, hunt game, and plant squash and corn. The Wampanoag tribe was also said to have protected the new settlers from dangerous neighboring tribes. With the help of the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims were able to establish their colony and as a result of this, they celebrated a plentiful harvest with the tribe in 1621, which was the first Thanksgiving.

Group Response Highlight 3:

  • The meeting between the pilgrims and Native Americans was harmonious
  • Squanto spoke English and greeted the Pilgrims and was friendly to them and taught them how to plant different foods
  • Plymouth rock marks the location where the first colonists landed in America
  • The story of the first Thanksgiving tells us that the pilgrims and the Native Americans ate turkey and stuffing and all the food we continue to eat today
  • Pilgrims wore black and white clothing with buckle hats

Group Response Highlight 4:

  • Time Frame
    • We were taught that Thanksgiving happened in November.
  • Food
    • We learned in school that there was a big feast with the Natives and colonists. We learned that natives contributed corn and the natives grew beans and squash and brought it. For some reason we were taught that there was a turkey and lots of delicious food like cranberries and gravy for all to share and gather for dinner around a large table.
  • Friendship
    • We learned in school that the Natives and Colonists were friends, and gave thanks over the thanksgiving meal. We learned that the natives helped the colonists, as they were struggling to grow crops and survive.
    • Native Americans were protecting the colonist and trying to help them adjust to the new world
  • Cornucopias
    • We learned in school that cornucopias were a sign of friendship and peace.
  • Participants
    • We learned in school that Native Americans and Pilgrims attended the meal. It was never specified which tribes attended. It was never specified how many of each group attended; it seemed as if there was an equal amount of participants from each group.

Comparing the “Story” with the Historical Record and Contemporary Indigenous Knowledge

On the Idea that Native Americans and Pilgrims were Friends

Group Response Highlight 1:

Before the Pilgrims arrived, the Wampanoag and other regional indigenous groups had suffered from a small pox epidemic and lost many people. When the Pilgrims came, they worked together with them for survival out of necessity to live. On top of that, the Pilgrims were stealing Native American’s corn.

Group Response Highlight 2:

Shortly after the Pilgrims arrived, they found a Wampanoag village and raided the fields and homes. They took all of the corn and anything they could find that would help them survive. The Wampanoags and the Pilgrims were often at odds.

Group Response Highlight 3:

The Pilgrims were not a poor group of religious refugees seeking shelter just anywhere. The Separatist Puritans believed in a completely scripture based religion, as those scriptures were the direct word of God, and rejected any religious practice that did not have scriptural justification, such as Christmas, Easter, Saint’s Holidays, and The Book of Common Prayer. They held the belief that they were the only religiously correct group and therefore needed to come to America to build their “Shining city on a hill” and engage in God’s Holy Kingdom. This belief made them feel entitled to the land in America that they believed was overrun by “heathen” Natives that did not prescribe to anything close to their religion; they had no qualms about forcing Native Americans off of their land and taking it forcefully. They had no desire for a state of free expression of religion or way of life for anyone but themselves, and were therefore natural enemies of the Natives that would later take pity on them and help them to survive.

Although we are taught in school that the Native Americans and Pilgrims were brought together by friendship, they actually became acquaintances due to the severity of their mutual needs. Given their religious beliefs as Separatist Puritans, the pilgrims viewed the tribal people as uncivilized, savage heathens. Therefore, smallpox plagues that wiped out a mass number of Native Americans, heavily destroying their societal structure, were seen as an act from God.

Group Response Highlight 4:

The somewhat amicable relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans was short-lived. Between 1630 and 1642, thousands of English settlers flooded into New England, bringing their epidemic diseases (e.g., smallpox) with them. After these diseases wiped out the majority of Native Americans in the region, and as English colonists encroached on Native lands, war erupted in 1637 and again in 1675.

On Squanto

Group Response Highlight 1:

His name was not really even Squanto. His name was Tisquantum, and in 1614 an Englishman kidnapped and shipped him off to Spain to sell as a slave. Tisquantum managed to escape to England, and eventually make his way back to present day Massachusetts. 

Group Response Highlight 2:

Squanto spoke English because he had been kidnapped by the English and he was brought to Spain and England where he learned English. Also, Samoset had learned English from contact with English fishermen. Many believe that he thought the Mayflower was another fishing vessel. This shows that this was not the first time the Native Americans had met Europeans. Also, the meeting was not as harmonious as the story taught in schools. When Samoset arrived the Pilgrims were weary of him, and kept a guard on him when he stayed the night in their village. It is unclear how much they helped the pilgrims learn about the land, but they did introduce them to corn. The pilgrims did not discover corn on their own. Additionally, Samoset and Squanto really came to the village to let them know that the great sachem of the Wampanoag named Massasoit was nearby and wanted to meet the Pilgrims. Massasoit did come with his men, and at first both groups were reluctant, but they eventually met and exchanged gifts and entertainment.

Group Response Highlight 3:

The story of how Squanto came to learn English and interpret for the Pilgrims during their struggles is not a joyful one. Squanto was kidnapped from his tribe and taken to England when he was a young teenager. He then learned how to speak English in order to plan his return to America and his escape from the English. Once he returned home to America, he found that every member of his tribe had been killed by the Colonists or by diseases. Devastated, he was taken in by the Wampanoag tribe and began his new purpose in life. Only once he found that the Colonists were struggling so much did he interpret for them and assist them in what is traditionally known as the first Thanksgiving. This goes to show that Squanto’s interactions with the British Colonists were not all good ones as the common story learned in schools informs.

On the Meal of the First Thanksgiving

Group Response Highlight 1:

While growing up we are all told of this first thanksgiving and how it set the standard for all thanksgivings to follow, with a plentiful bounty of Turkey, corn, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. While there was a great feast for all involved, it was not the menu that we see today, or that we were taught was there on the first thanksgiving. While turkey was a plentiful source of food for the New Englanders at the time, it was not the main course of the meal like it is today, if it made the spread at all. It’s more likely that the hunters came back with an assortment of duck, geese, and turkey. It is also known that the Native American tribe, the Wampanoag, brought 5 deer to add to the feast, adding venison to the menu. This is something we never learned about while growing up, it was always nothing but turkey when in reality turkey was just one of many meat options at the first Thanksgiving. The second mainstay of childhood education on thanksgiving is corn. Corn was a main crop of the Native People in this area, and it was featured at the first thanksgiving, though it was not eaten off the cob like we are led to believe. At the time it was more likely for the people to remove the kernels from the cob and ground them into a cornmeal to serve with the meal. Other vegetables would have been onions, beans, lettuce, cabbage and carrots, many of which are still main pieces in a thanksgiving dinner. The main food that is totally missed in today’s thanksgiving from the first thanksgiving is seafood. Seafood was a major piece of the Native American diet and the first thanksgiving heavily featured mussels, lobsters, bass and oysters. However, in the opposite movement, there were definitely no mashed potatoes at the first thanksgiving even though they are now one of the most common plates in a thanksgiving meal. At the time however, potatoes had just recently spread from South America to Europe and had not yet gained the popularity to be brought on the voyage to the new world. Last but not least, the desserts. The pilgrims were running out of sugar and had no flour or butter or even an oven to bake a pie. Though they did eat pumpkin, hollowing them out then re-filling with honey, milk and spices to create a custard inside. Then once full they would put the whole thing into the coals of a fire to cook.

Group Response Highlight 2:

When thinking of Thanksgiving, the average person thinks of all the delicious food that is usually cooked and served. Turkey, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and many other dishes vary among what is typically served. This is what I, and I’m sure many others believe, was the same meal served the day of the first Thanksgiving. If one were to actually create a historically accurate meal, it would be drastically different. A historically accurate meal would include foods like; duck, venison, mussels, clams, fish, corn, squash, and an assortment of other foods found in the area/region. The foods we have come to know and love on this holiday are modernized to suit our wants in taste and are served because we were taught that is what the meal consisted of.

Group Response Highlight 3:

The first Thanksgiving meal was not eaten at a table as the standard story suggests. Instead, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans—who outnumbered the Pilgrims by roughly 38 individuals—ate their food around fire pits while squatting or sitting on the ground. Since forks did not arrive until the late 17th Century, the feasters would have eaten with their hands.

On the Pilgrims Appearance

Group Response Highlight 1:

Pilgrims dressed in a variety of colorful pieces of clothing ranging from red to violet. Women often wore a long off-white short sleeve undergarment with ribbon tied at the collar and cuffs, and a dress consisting of two parts, the bodice and skirt which ranged in color. Women also wore waist fastened petticoats, occasionally a cloak, and their hair was always tied back tightly under a hat. Men often wore a long off-white shirt with a collar underneath a doublet which is a long sleeve with broad padded shoulders, buttoned down the front. They wore drawers for the lower body and knee length stockings made of wool, along with leather boots. Younger children typically wore gowns which consisted of a full length skirt with a long sleeve shirt. The older boys and girls wore smaller versions of men’s and women’s clothing.

On Thanksgiving as a Holiday

Group Response Highlight 1:

The first Thanksgiving was not labeled as “Thanksgiving,” and, instead of being celebrated on one day, the feast was actually a three-day event which was similar to “a traditional English harvest festival.” Additionally, the celebration most likely did not occur in November; while the precise date remains unknown, it may have taken place in September or early October 1621 following the autumn harvest of the colonists’ 20-acre crops, which consisted of squash, corn, beans, peas, and barley.

Group Response Highlight 2:

The Pilgrims did not introduce the Native Americans to the tradition. The indigenous peoples of the region had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries. Our modern celebrations date back only to 1863 when President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a holiday and note until the 1890s did the Pilgrims get included in the tradition.

Group Response Highlight 3:

Long before the first recorded Thanksgiving between the pilgrims and the Native Americans, these two groups and many others had celebrated the end of the harvest season with gatherings and feasts.

Group Response Highlight 4:

Since 1970, some Native Americans and supporters of Native Americans have gathered at Cole’s Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock on the Thanksgiving Holiday to celebrate instead the National Day of Mourning, in protest of a long history of genocide, land-theft, and treaty violation; as well as the racism and oppression that continue to disadvantage native peoples in the present.

Further Learning Resources

http://oyate.org/index.php/resources/43-resources/thanksgiving

http://nmai.si.edu/sites/1/files/pdf/education/thanksgiving_poster.pdf

http://nmai.si.edu/sites/1/files/pdf/education/NMAI_Harvest_Study_Guide.pdf

https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/events/uncovering-true-history-thanksgiving/

Contributing Students: A. Adhikari, B. Adams, J. Bamforth, B. Bikombe, E. Bruton, A. Cable, A. Cambell, G. Gould, N. Gradijan, A. Hines, P. Hudson, C. Jackson, J. Kinslow, S. Lake, M. Lepore, J. Mousseau, K. Mastrogiacomo, K. McKenna, J. McMullen, N. Moody, N. Nilsen, R. Nixon, T. Pedtke, G. Razzaboni, K. Sato, A. Stefanski, E. Swenson, J. Velasquez, Z. Wallace, M. Wirtz, Z. Zeng.

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