Pilgrim story doesn't quite match reality, but was likely a 'harvest feast'
The story of the first Thanksgiving among the Pilgrims and Indians is one of our most endearing, and enduring, American stories.
The essence of it is even true.
Heather Rojo of Londonderry is secretary of the New Hampshire Mayflower Society, an organization of folks who can trace their ancestry to the 102 souls who came to the new world on a tiny wooden boat by that name.
About that first Thanksgiving dinner ... "Well, actually, that feast that we all think of wasn't really a Thanksgiving feast," Rojo said.
It was likely a "harvest home" feast, the sort that Europeans would have held in the fall to celebrate the harvest. And for those first Pilgrims, there was a lot to celebrate, she said.
Of the 102 who arrived in that November 1620, 50 had died in the first three months. But by the next summer, she said, "they had their harvest and realized that they were going to make it."
"So they got to the following fall, and they had an abundant crop, and they had learned what local things they could hunt and eat," she said. "I'm sure they were thankful, but they weren't participating in what we would call Thanksgiving. They were just doing what they would do in England, which is a harvest feast."
They would have eaten local game and seafood, Rojo said. However, "they didn't have any white flour, so there were probably no pies. No sugar, so they didn't have cranberry sauce."
And the Pilgrims, she said, "didn't dress with buckles on their hats."
Still, the heart of the story is true: "They were having this celebration, and the Indians heard about it and came over and were invited to participate."
About 90 Wampanoag Indians joined the feast - with only five adult Pilgrim women to manage it, Rojo said. "You think you have it bad on Thanksgiving."
Already an old tradition
Liz Charlebois is education director at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner and a member of the Abenaki nation.
The kind of harvest feast held in 1621 was a tradition among native peoples as well as Europeans, she said.
When museum visitors ask about that feast, Charlebois tells them it wasn't the same meal we have today.
"There very well could have been turkey there because turkey was a food source in this area, but more likely it would have been deer and moose and crops. Because the native people were farmers and they, in fact, taught the settlers how to farm," she said.
That part of the story, she said, "is not a myth."
"And in fact, without food from the native people, without this knowledge, the Pilgrims probably would have starved."
Harvest celebrations continued to be held throughout New England, Rojo said.
"Usually the local minister would make a proclamation and so each community would celebrate it on a different day," she said. "After the American Revolution, it was declared by state governors."
Then Sarah Josepha Hale of Newport, editor of a ladies magazine, took up the cause in the mid-1800s to make Thanksgiving a truly national holiday.
And in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation asking Americans to set aside the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving and to "fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it ... to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union."
But for many native people, Thanksgiving is not a cause for celebration, Charlebois said. "A lot of native people actually consider Thanksgiving a national day of mourning," she said. "Because shortly after this feast, there were massacres.
"And the relations between the Indians and the Pilgrims were very uneasy."
A good start
However, Rojo said, while relations between natives and newcomers were indeed troubled at settlements in Jamestown, Va., and on the North Shore of Massachusetts, the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Mass., initially got along with the local Wampanoags.
"They never warred; they never broke treaties," she said. "They had a peace that lasted more than 50 years."
Then, she said, "that original generation of (Pilgrims) ... passed away, and then the subsequent generations sort of had this feeling of entitlement to land expanding into the rest of New England. They kind of forgot."
Charlebois said for years her mother attended native protests around the holiday.
"To put it in perspective, it's basically that this is the land of the native people, and these others came across the ocean and basically started to encroach upon hunting grounds and fishing grounds, and not allowing native people to be on the land that had been theirs for thousands of years.
"So of course there was hostility. It's basically the same as someone moving into your house without your permission and then just taking everything. And wondering, 'Why are you upset?'"
Rojo didn't know she was a Mayflower descendent until about 15 years ago.
A history buff and genealogist, she was doing research and recognized the name Allerton in her family tree.
The Mayflower Society has a strict process to prove someone is descended from a Mayflower passenger, using birth, marriage and death records, Rojo said. By the time she was done, she could trace her ancestry to 12 of the 102.
Rojo started reading original journals written by some of the voyagers. "I wanted to know the real story," she said. "And a lot of it is really different from what we learned."
There are about 500 New Hampshire residents who belong to the state Mayflower Society. The group has chapters in every state and members in other nations, including Canada, Australia and England, Rojo said.
And, she said, "We have many members who are members of the Wampanoag nation. They were the ones who greeted the Pilgrims when they came."
The Mayflower Society is working with other groups on the 400th anniversary celebration of the Mayflower's arrival; the Wampanoag nation is also involved in the plans, Rojo said. Charlebois said there are hundreds of Indian tribes, "and they're all very different," with different languages and traditions on Thanksgiving.
"Native people are extremely adaptable, and some may actually be celebrating Thanksgiving," she said. "But there are those who don't."
Charlebois gets together with her family for dinner that day. But she said, "I don't claim this holiday as my own."
For Rojo, Thanksgiving has always been her favorite holiday, and it's even more meaningful since she learned of her Mayflower connections. "It's wonderful now to go to Plymouth and feel at home, like these are my family. You go to the graveyard and you see all the names.
"At the same time, I tell people all the time, 'It could be you, too. You just haven't discovered it yet.'"