Debunking 10 Popular Historical Myths That People Think Are Fact

A fanciful depiction of the first Thanksgiving ignores Massachuestts’ late fall climate, among other things. Library of Congress

The First Thanksgiving

After surviving a terrible first winter in the New World the Pilgrims, aided by the friendly Squanto and other members of the Wampanoag tribe, succeeded in producing a bountiful harvest and gave thanks in a mutual celebration which was the first Thanksgiving. Still celebrated with decorations including Pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses, this was the first time settlers in America paused to give thanks for the bountiful nature of their new home.

In fact by March of 1621 – only four about months after landing – of the 102 Pilgrims who went ashore in the New World only around 50 were still alive. Nearly half of the Mayflower’s crew had died as well. At the end of the first summer, these survivors participated in a Harvest Festival, joined by around 90 Wampanoags, and dined primarily on game and fish, since the few crops grown successfully that year had been stored against the approaching winter. Not until 1623, according to the records left by Pilgrim leaders, did an event described as a Thanksgiving celebration occur in Plymouth Colony.

Even then it was not the first in North America. Thanksgiving celebrations in Europe had been common and the earliest settlers in the New World brought the tradition with them. Celebrations labeled as Thanksgiving Day were present in the Jamestown settlement in Virginia in 1610, and evidence suggests similar events as early as 1607, the first year of the colony.

Another Virginia settlement, the short-lived Berkeley 100, was required by its charter to celebrate the day of their landing in the New World – on the north bank of the James River – as a day of Thanksgiving. The colony was abandoned due to the attacks of Natives only three years later.

Other Thanksgivings which predated the Pilgrims include those of Spanish settlers in St. Augustine and Texas. The debate over the first Thanksgiving was even addressed by President Kennedy when issuing his annual proclamation in 1963, just 17 days before his assassination, when he specified the holiday’s descent from celebrations in both Massachusetts and Virginia. Regardless, the traditions of the current holiday are evidently permanently attached to the poorly documented and nearly mythical day in the autumn of 1621, and so they shall probably ever remain.