Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Busted: Thanksgiving Myths

Historical myths, commonly believed to by truth by large majorities of the population, have long been the bane of historians and scholars. Today, we will do some myth busting of our own when we uncover the truth behind Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is one of the myths that historians constantly fight over, and as with most of history, the truth is not so black and white (just as the Pilgrims didn’t just wear black and white clothing).

So let’s examine some commonly held to ‘facts’ about the First Thanksgiving:

Myth #1: The Pilgrims came to the new world seeking religious freedom. The Separatists (A Puritan Sect) came from Holland to find religious freedom. Many students fail to realize that only about 1/3 of the travelers on the Mayflower were Separatists, while the rest were hired by a London stock company who paid for the voyage.

Myth #2: English-speaking Squanto saved the day! Squanto (his name was actually Tisquantum) was an invaluable resource to the settlers at Plymouth. However, what students may not know is that in 1614 Squanto was captured and sold into slavery in Malage, Spain. He eventually escaped to England, and returned to Massachusetts in 1619, where his entire village had been wiped out by disease. It was then that he joined the settlers.

Myth #3: The First Thanksgiving was held by the Puritans in 1621, during which the Pilgrims and Indians sat down to a great feast! This part is probably the most contentious issue between historians regarding Thanksgiving. Some argue that the first Thanksgiving was held in Virginia or Texas, while others credit much of the happenings to the Native Americans, who commonly held Harvest Feasts. We know they did celebrate the harvest with feast, and certainly gave thanks for their bounty. It is also important to note this feast wasn’t celebrated each year from 1621 to today. So how did we come to celebrate Thanksgiving each year? This is where it gets especially tricky, because while Pres. George Washington set aside a few days for a national thanksgiving for the Constitution, the modern holiday as we know it didn’t come around until the Civil War when Pres. Lincoln, attempting to renew patriotism, declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. In fact, the Plymouth Colonists weren’t commonly known as ‘The Pilgrims’ until the 1870s.

Historical myths are valuable teaching opportunities and can allow you to discuss with your students the phenomena of myths. In the end, we can only glean so much information from primary sources, and there will always be unanswered questions in history. So in the past, the solution to this lack of information has often been inference, assumptions, and occasionally make believe. This is coupled the idea of ‘positive spin.’ There has been a long standing tradition, which we are slowing moving away from, of idolizing our forebears, making their motives and actions pure (and in most cases simple), as well as leaving out any unsavory details. But they were human, just like us, with human foibles, motives, and imperfections.

So how do students find the truth? There is no formula. Even historians and scholars who disprove myths can get it wrong, compensating for historical inaccuracies by going too far in the opposite direction. The best thing a student can do is to look at the evidence, and come to their own conclusions. By taking into account the historical context and culture of the time, students can find their own truths in history.

So share the myths of Thanksgiving with students, and see if they can point out the real facts of the story. If not, have them research the real history Thanksgiving, or another historical myth, and present their findings to the class. And as always, encourage your students to question what they know, and how they know, and verify information based on the facts available, rather than just conjecture or hearsay.

If you will be in area of the National Constitution Center between November 27 and 29, stop in for Thanksgiving: America’s Homecoming, to celebrate with special activities, free with museum admission.

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