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The Real Thanksgiving
By Tom Purcell


November 20, 2006

"A myth! What do you mean America's Thanksgiving holiday is based on a myth!"

"The Christian Science Monitor published a detailed report on it. They found that the holiday has two distinct histories ­ one real, the other made up. We celebrate the made-up version."

"Made up!"

"Yep. Everything historians know about the first Thanksgiving is based on the accounts of two colonists: Governor William Bradford and a fellow named Edward Winslow."

"Go on."

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Anti Immigration 1620
Artist Jeff Parker, Florida Today
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"In 1621, Winslow wrote a letter to a friend. He said that after a plentiful harvest, the 52 remaining colonists decided to feast. The governor sent out four men to hunt for fowl. Ninety Native Americans, the Wampanoags, also joined in; they contributed five deer. The colonists and Wampanoags feasted for three days."

"They ate deer meat on Thanksgiving?"

"In 1641, Governor Bradford wrote a book about the history of the Plymouth settlement. In it, he also described the first Thanksgiving. But the British stole his book during the Revolutionary War. It didn't turn up until the late1800's ­ after America's Thanksgiving tradition was already formed."

"The lousy Brits. So what do we know about the first Thanksgiving?"

"Well, it was nothing like it has been presented. For starters, the pilgrims didn't eat turkey. The 'fowl' Winslow described in his letter were probably geese or duck."

"Thanksgiving duck?"

"Yeah, and there was no cranberry sauce. The colonists didn't begin boiling berries with sugar until 1671."

"What are you going to tell me next? That there weren't any mashed potatoes or stuffing or pies for dessert!"

"Funny you mention that. White and sweet potatoes weren't yet available to the colonists. There wasn't bread yet, either ­ they had no ovens. And though pumpkins were available, it's doubtful they had the butter and wheat flour they needed to make pie crust."

"Oh, brother. Then what did they eat?"

"They ate what was available then. In addition to the fowl, their meal probably included grapes, plums, flint corn and sea food ­ you know, lobster, crab and mussels."

"Lobster, crab and mussels! Who the heck catered the first Thanksgiving, Long John Silvers! If what you say is true, why does our Thanksgiving celebration differ so much from the first one?"

"The reason dates back to the 19th century. Back then there was no official Thanksgiving holiday and if people celebrated it, they did so in a private and solemn manner. A woman named Sarah Josepha Hale changed that."

"Who was she?"

"Hale was editor of a popular lady's magazine. She wrote editorials promoting an official Thanksgiving holiday. In 1858, she petitioned the president to declare it a national holiday. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln did just that."

"But how did we get our facts so wrong about the first Thanksgiving?"

"Well, Hale also published numerous recipes for turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce pumpkin pie, etc. She idealized the first Thanksgiving and the foods and traditions she promoted are the very same ones we now associate with our Thanksgiving feast."

"And most of what we do on Thanksgiving ­ and much of what we eat ­ has nothing to do with what really happened during the first Thanksgiving, when the colonists supposedly 'broke bread' with the Native Americans?"

"Yes, that is correct. The relationship between Native Americans and the colonists was complex and not always pleasant. In fact, in the coming decades after more colonists arrived and pushed the Native Americans westward, the two factions would soon find themselves in a bloody war."

"Boy, you sure know how to cheer a fellow up in time for the holidays."

"But we should be cheerful. Regardless of how our Thanksgiving tradition was formed ­ regardless of what is fact and what is myth -- we have an incredible abundance of blessings to be thankful for. That's what the day is really about ­ celebrating our prosperity, our freedoms, and so the many young men and women who are serving the rest of us to protect our freedoms."

"Now that's something to be thankful for."

"Yes it is. Happy Thanksgiving."



©2006 Tom Purcell
Tom Purcell's weekly political humor column runs in papers and Web sites across America.
Contact him at or visit his Web site at
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Cagle Cartoons, Inc.

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