Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: The Multiple “First” Thanksgivings

Written By: Tracy - Nov• 13•17

We all know the story of the first American Thanksgiving, when in 1598, the Spanish under Juan de Oñate reached the Rio Grande and held a party because: Yay! We survived crossing a desert with no water!


Or maybe on December 4, 1619, when settlers arrived along the James River in Virginia and hit their knees to thank God they were finally off that boat.

That’s not what you learned in school, either?

The fact is, the calendar is littered with “First Thanksgivings.” In the early days of settlement, there were a lot of private companies forming colonial settlements in North America.

So why is our cultural memory one of Puritan pilgrims and a turkey? Probably because that particular Thanksgiving narrative fit the needs of the people who created it.

Throughout the world, there has been a longstanding practice of setting aside a day to give thanks. “It’s been a good harvest. Let’s take tomorrow off to give thanks.”

This is the tradition the Puritans were following when they held their day of thanksgiving.

Even during the American Revolution, the Continental Congress set aside a day of thanksgiving. And in 1777, George Washington observed a day of thanksgiving to celebrate his victory at the battle of Saratoga. These days were probably more about prayer than pudding.

In 1863, prompted by a campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale (who also wrote Mary Had A Little Lamb), Abraham Lincolon made Thanksgiving a national holiday.

So how did Puritans and turkeys come to dominate the Thanksgiving narrative?

My research was inconclusive, but my theory is that we can thank the same people who gave us the “Washington could not tell a lie about chopping down his father’s cherry tree,” story.

These are simple, moralistic stories that are easy to teach to kids. The story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving has people coming to America for a better life, seeking freedom to worship as they please. They are taught to survive by welcoming, friendly locals and they all come together as family to celebrate.

Compare this to the story of the Jamestown Settlement, which has people seeking gold, starvation and cannibalism. Even sanitized, it has fewer “American” morals.

And while the Pilgrim Thanksgiving narrative is more fairy tale than facts, that hardly matters when your kid is six. This is the same age when we still tell kids that Santa and the Easter Bunny are real.

We can probably wait until they are too old for Santa to teach them that the Europeans were douchy land-grabbers. They’re ready to believe it by then, anyway.

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