The Truth About the First Thanksgiving

This week millions of kindergarteners dressed in paper Pilgrim hats or Indian headdresses. They learned how these English adventurers came over on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom, and in 1620 at Plymouth Rock, gave birth to the American experiment. They also learned of friendly Native Americans like Squanto who cheerfully helped the settlers.

It’s all a nice story. But according to the research of James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, the facts may be a mite different.

For instance, the passengers of the Mayflower were not the first settlers in the New World. Obviously, people had lived here for about 12,000 years—likely much longer.

Yeah, but weren’t they the first non-Native group? Nope. In 1526, nearly 100 years before the Pilgrims set foot in Plymouth, Spaniard left African slaves in South Carolina when they abandoned a settlement.

Okay, then. The first European settlers.  Wrong again. You’ve heard of that group seeking religious freedom, right? The Spanish Jews who made their homes in what is now New Mexico in the late 1500s? Thanks to the Spanish, America now has horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs. None of these are native to the Western Hemisphere.

First English colonists? Remember Jamestown, Virginia, 1607? Sure, you do. But they don’t get much coverage in our history books. There, instead of friendly Squanto, the English took Indians prisoner, demanding they explain their farming techniques. Instead of a great shared feast, the Virginian English offered a toast to the friendship between them and two hundred Native Americans, only to have all the Indians drop dead from poisoning. These fools never farmed. They were too busy digging random holes in search of gold. They finally had to hire themselves out to the Native Americans as servants just to survive. Not exactly the story we want our five-year-olds re-enacting in November.

Okay, okay. So they weren’t actually the first. No. And they didn’t exactly carve a colony out of the wilderness. Likely due to European fisherman off the Massachusetts coast, diseases unfamiliar to the native population ravaged between 90 and 96 percent of them. Entire villages were deserted. According to Loewen,  the Pilgrims “chose Plymouth because of its beautiful cleared fields, recently planted in corn, and its useful harbor and ‘brook of fresh water.’ It was a lovely site for a town. Indeed, until the plague, it had been a town…”

 A few other misconceptions and I’ll finish with my myth-busting. First, out of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, only 35 were actually Pilgrims. Most were seeking their fortunes like real Americans.

Also, the kindly Squanto, who “mysteriously” knew English, may have learned it when he was kidnapped by an English slave trader in 1614 and sold into slavery in Malaga, Spain.

And, as a final insult, the Indians thought the Pilgrims stank. Since they thought it was unhealthy and immodest, the Pilgrims rarely washed and resisted poor Squanto’s efforts to teach them the benefits of a bath.

Wonder if they’ll act that out in kindergarten.

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