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The real history of American thanksgivings

The real history of American thanksgivings

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By Karla K. Bruno

The First Official Thanksgiving, a new PBS documentary that debuts Oct. 27 on WCVE television, highlights ritual and tradition in American life, from the 17th century to today. The film offers evidence that the story of the Pilgrim’s having the first Thanksgiving is more myth than historical fact.

Each religious denomination in America also had (and still has) some form of thanksgiving in its rituals. The Pilgrims of Plymouth were not unique in that sense. Virginia Indians and Catholics were offering thanksgiving in the New World before the Pilgrims ever landed.

So, how did Americans come to learn and see the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving as being first?

America’s founding fathers would declare days of public thanksgiving and prayer as a spontaneous and singular gesture. Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison all made official proclamations of this sort.

Then, no official proclamations were made between 1815 and 1862.

It was President Lincoln who in 1863 and 1864 set the “third Thursday in November” as the standard for future Thanksgiving proclamations. Subsequent presidents took the banner and carried it forward.


If you read the presidential proclamations in order, starting with Lincoln, you see that the proclamations closer to 1864 are general and do not reference customs or tradition. As the years go by and generations pass away, the presidential proclamations start citing “custom.” It is likely the word “custom” refers to Lincoln’s setting the date.

Although Presidents Harding and Coolidge reference early annual days of thanksgiving, and President Hoover makes vague references to a “first harvest” in his 1931 proclamation, no presidential proclamation on Thanksgiving directly references the Pilgrims until President Roosevelt in 1939.

By that time, school textbooks, citing the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving, had been in use since the early 20th century.

During the early 20th century, Lyon Tyler and historians all over the United States were noting and fighting rampant bias in school textbooks — books that ignored or dismissed Southern contributions to American history.

Textbooks were exclusively produced in the Northeast in those days and Northern bias was clear, and not just to Southern sympathizers.

In this context the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving was born.


School children for several generations read in their textbooks — and teachers accepted it as truth because it came from a textbook — that the Pilgrims were first in just about everything. They were the first English settlers, the first to have self-governance, the first to have Thanksgiving — all false claims.

Textbook copywriters reduced Jamestown history to John Smith and Pocahontas stories, even though historians, being fully acquainted with the documentary evidence of Jamestown, were well aware of the more complex truth.

These misconceptions still hold today, though the archaeological digs at Historic Jamestowne, the ease of finding information on the internet, and the annual First Thanksgiving Festival held at Berkeley Plantation are fast righting the wrongs of past textbook tales.

The good news: what we learn in school sticks with us forever. If we teach our students to read broadly and think deeply about history, relying on a variety of primary sources and not on textbooks, we may succeed in eliminating historical myths from our collective consciousness.

Karla K. Bruno is the author of the forthcoming book “William and Mary and Tyler, Too: a biography of Lyon G. Tyler,” an educator, and a former interpreter at Historic Jamestowne.

President Hoover makes vague references to a “first harvest” in his 1931 proclamation, but no presidential proclamation on Thanksgiving directly references the Pilgrims until President Roosevelt in 1939.


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