The True Story of Thanksgiving

By Zachary Boehm, FSU Communications

When millions of Americans sit down for Thanksgiving dinner this month, they will do so in remembrance 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 used the story of a neighborly banquet with Native Americans to frame the customs of their own annual day of thanks. However, Virginians were telling a story tethered to that 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.

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.”

It was President Abraham Lincoln who called for the first national day of giving thanks. Later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Thanksgiving an official federal holiday to be observed the fourth Thursday of November.

Jennie A. Borwnscombe’s “The First Thanksgiving
at Plymouth” (1914) depicts an idyllic scene of colonists and Native Americans gathered in friendship for a lavish meal. There’s only one problem: It’s a myth.
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 traditional Thanksgiving story ignores the tapestry of other colonial stories that inspired days of communion and gratitude, he said.

More importantly, 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 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. Frank 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.

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.”


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