Once again, Thanksgiving is quickly approaching. Summer came and went, the leaves changed (in some areas, at least!), Halloween costumes are packed away, and now it’s the end of November. When many people think of Thanksgiving, they think of food and maybe even football, parades, or shopping. Needless to say, the holiday has changed a lot since its original allocation as a federal holiday by President Abraham Lincoln. Aside from the food and family, we also have the well-known story from 1621 – you know, the happy one in which Pilgrims land in America, make friends with the Native Americans, and they all feast together. At this point, it’s widely known that this story is problematic and erases some very important context about the suffering of Native Americans endured at the hands of colonists. So, what’s the truth about Thanksgiving? Did they even really eat turkey? Keep reading below to find facts and myths about the holiday!
A Grade Ahead has Pre-K, Kindergarten, and all grades through high school, so we know that a child’s understanding of historical context is not one-size-fits-all. Being conscious of history’s injustices while still enjoying a day of thanks is entirely doable – and we’re here to help you work through the murky waters of Thanksgiving.
And don’t worry – we didn’t forget about the young ones! Keep reading after our fact or fiction section for some tips on how to teach younger children about this holiday while encouraging a grateful attitude.
Fact or Fiction? Find out the truth about Thanksgiving!
#1: The Pilgrims on the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock and were the first settlers of the New World. – FICTION!
The Mayflower is often referenced as the ship that brought first group of colonists to come and call America home. However, there are problems with this misconception. First, the land that the Pilgrims settled on was land that had been home to Native American tribes for… ever. Tribes had the land settled for centuries.
In addition to this, they were not the first European settlers. St. Augustine in Florida, and Virginia’s Roanoke and Jamestown colonies all preceded the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims.
#2: Squanto helped the Pilgrims. – FACT!
Squanto and members of the Wampanoag tribe aided the Pilgrims once they went ashore. In kindness, those who lived on the land taught the newcomers how to survive with their new environment. Many of the Pilgrims were weak from the brutal journey and the brutal winter, so Squanto and the others very well may have ensured the survival of the rest.
Squanto also helped the pilgrims form an alliance with the local Wampanoag tribe. This was another key to the pilgrim’s survival. We know that Squanto spoke English, but there’s a fact that isn’t mentioned much: he knew English because he was kidnapped and sold as a slave. Six years after his capture, he escaped and returned to North America.
#3 The Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to a meal. – (KIND OF) FACT!
After a successful harvest, the Pilgrims celebrated and shot guns in exuberance. Unsure of the commotion and its meaning, the nearby Wampanoag tribe went to the village with about 90 men. After showing up, they were invited to stay and celebrate.
The first Thanksgiving could have gone a lot differently.
#4: They ate Turkey at the first feast. – FICTION (probably)!
The only food we are certain that the Pilgrims and Wampanoags feasted on was deer. In fact, when the tribe of Wampanoag men arrived in the village, there was not enough food for all to partake. As an act of goodwill in tune with the Natives’ cultural importance of sharing, the Wampanoags hunted deer for the feast.
They did apparently go “fowling” before the celebration, but that was most likely for water fowl like duck.
#5: The story of Thanksgiving is based on first-hand accounts. – FACT!
While the Thanksgiving story has certainly morphed, it did originate from the written records of Edward Winslow and William Bradford. However, neither account is detailed enough to support the current tale that says the Pilgrims shared a meal with the Native Americans to thank them for help.
Read Edward Winslow’s first-hand account:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” – Edward Winslow
#6: The 1621 celebration started a yearly tradition. – FICTION!
There are two myths included in this one statement: first, that there were no yearly celebrations of thanks before this date, and second, that there were annual holidays after this date. Let’s dive into both of these.
First, the Wampanoag tribe had already held yearly celebrations of thanks. In many other tribes and native cultures, there are more than one celebration per year intended for giving thanks. The concept of the 1621 feast was not new. A day of gratuity has roots much deeper than the Mayflower.
As for the misconception that the 1621 feast started a yearly tradition, it’s simply a false assumption. While the 1621 Thanksgiving may have had some good intentions, future ones did not have this type of goodwill involved. The next well-documented Thanksgiving occurred in 1673 – when the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared an official Thanksgiving celebration after the slaying of a few hundred Native Americans of the Pequot tribe.
The goodwill that had characterized the first thanksgiving feast was long gone as the colonists desired more land.
#7: Thanksgiving is a religious affair. – FACT AND FICTION (what?!)
The Thanksgiving credited with the origin story was actually a harvest celebration, not a religious affair. Many, today and in history, do interpret the holiday to mean giving thanks to a god or a higher power.
Plus, there are actual sacred days of giving thanks in many different faiths and religions, so we can’t say that Thanksgiving is not inspired by these.
However, the feast in 1621 was certainly not a religious affair. We know this because the types of celebration – feasting, dancing, singing, and playing – would not have been allowed if it were the Pilgrim’s religious thanksgiving!
BONUS FUN: Turkeys can’t fly. – FICTION!
Wild turkeys can fly! No one is quite sure about how this myth began, but wild turkeys do get airborne. In fact, they nest in trees at night, so they have to be able to fly to their roost! However, they’re not very fast and can’t go very high (which might have contributed to the myth).
Younger Children and The Truth About Thanksgiving
We know – the complex relationship between a food-filled holiday and historical context can be a lot of information! We understand that some of these facts can feel a bit heavy, especially for younger children. At A Grade Ahead, we know how to cater to young minds – just look at our Pre-K program – so we’ve compiled these tips and resources to help navigate the truth about Thanksgiving.
Connect it to something they do understand.
Many kids understand complex ideas more easily when it’s compared to something they have seen before. Think about if one of their kids’ shows have any similar themes, and try to connect it! Do your best, but don’t fret if they don’t understand every detail of this complex holiday at once.
Cater the truth about Thanksgiving to your child’s level of understanding.
Some ages are just too young to understand these dynamics, and that’s okay! Try reading responsible picture books to them, or if they can read on their own, try some short chapter books. (Bonus points if the book offers the lesser-told perspective of Native Americans.)
- If your children read independently, try Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving! The reading level is 3-5, but you can read aloud to your younger child if you think they’ll understand it!
- Advanced readers in grades 3-5 and students in grades 6-8 can enjoy this National Geographic nonfiction book called 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving.
- The interest level for Giving Thanks is K-6, but the reading level is listed as 3rd grade, so this could be one you enjoy reading aloud to both your younger and older children! The author is a Native American chief, and this book is often regarded as a great resource for multicultural reading.
- As for picture books, the market is plentiful! Ultimately, it’s your choice what you share with your children and how much truth about Thanksgiving is appropriate for their levels. For Pre-K and Kindergarten age, try a short book about thankfulness or setting aside differences. The Perfect Thanksgiving is a fun story about a girl realizing her perfect neighbors are much more similar to her own “imperfect” family – a great message of how people are just people, after all.
Check out some age-appropriate videos on YouTube Kids.
In times like these, technology can be your best friend. A quick search will yield many videos from reputable sources that will help your child uncover the truth about Thanksgiving.
- There’s one from the History channel here that might help preschoolers and kindergartners with the holiday. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of the more accurate videos appropriate for younger audiences.
- Or check out this quick, straightforward video that 1st – 4th graders may do better with! While not as fun, it’s quick and easy to understand.
- If you’ve got a toddler, and you’re not entirely sick of the Baby Shark song, try this Thanksgiving version!
Use this topic to encourage research and discussion about the truth about Thanksgiving.
Kids may have fun trying to find these facts, themselves, and may be able to understand it more.
- National Geographic Kids has a short but detailed article that is straightforward and easy for middle-aged students to read and understand.
- Check out Britannica Kids – a special encyclopedia made just for young, curious minds!
- This blog also has a great list of discussion questions to get your middle-to-upper grade children talking about different aspects of the history of this holiday.
History is not pretty – and definitely not as pretty as the story of the “first” Thanksgiving – but there is much for children to gain by seeking the truth about Thanksgiving. We hope that this round of Fact or Fiction helped you and your family. Hopefully, you learned more about this rich holiday and found some resources to use for your younger children!
Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for reading the truth about Thanksgiving! Did we miss anything? Did any of these facts surprise you?
Author: Brenna Waugaman, Curriculum Writer and Teacher at A Grade Ahead
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