There is no holiday more American than Thanksgiving — and perhaps none with origins so shrouded in comforting myths.
The story is simple enough. In 1620 a group of English Protestant dissenters known as Pilgrims arrived in what’s now Massachusetts to establish a settlement they called New Plymouth. The first winter was brutal, but by the following year they’d learned how to survive the unforgiving environment. When the harvest season of 1621 arrived, the Pilgrims gathered together with local Wampanoag Indians for a three-day feast, during which they may have eaten turkey.
Over time, this feast, described as “the first Thanksgiving,” became part of the nation’s founding narrative, though it was one among many days when colonists and their descendants offered thanks to God.
The peace wouldn’t last for long, and much of America’s early Colonial history centers on the eventual conflicts between the colonists and the Native Americans. But the traditional version ignores the real danger that emerged from two Englishmen – Thomas Morton and Ferdinando Gorges – who sought to undermine the legal basis for Puritan settlements throughout New England.
Over 200 years later, when President Abraham Lincoln declared the first federal day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War, it was a good moment for Americans to recall a time when disparate peoples could reach across the cultural divide. He was either unaware of – or conveniently ignored – the English schemers who tried to chase those Pilgrims and Puritans away.