Thanksgiving History From America’s Hometown

Plymouth, Massachusetts, America’s Hometown if you go by what is written on the local police cars, is a town alive with Thanksgiving history. Images of  great feasts with pilgrims and natives celebrating together over a harvest are common in pageants across the country telling the “Thanksgiving Story” in schools and churches. For those who grew up and still live in Plymouth, and for anyone who cares to listen when they go to visit the town and the many attractions dedicated to the story of the settlers  and  the Wanpanoag tribe over the entire length of their interactions, the story is a little different. It is not quite as “Norman Rockwell” a picture as is generally painted, but that has never been a priority for Plymouth natives. They would rather get it right.

From a young age, school children in Plymouth are made aware of the history of the town. Field trips to the Mayflower II, to the Plymouth Rock, and to Plimoth Plantation become yearly events. As workers at these sites are not guides, but “interpreters” of the past, they are not allowed to break character even for a moment. From a young age, residents learn about the past by interacting with it. One resident, now grown, recalled a field trip to the Plantation where he thought he might trick the interpreter into breaking character by mentioning the obviously modern fire extinguisher inside the door to their home, which was required by state law to be there. Instead, he was treated to a foul concoction from the herbalist to cure him of whatever it was that was causing those visions of metal cans that weren’t there. His teacher played along and required him to take the remedy.  For the “pilgrim” side living back then, the educational experience is about immersion. When it comes to the Thanksgiving story, and the tale of the first celebration, however, they tell a somewhat different tale than standard fare, even the “official version” printed every year despite the facts available to every Massachusetts school student.

The first Thanksgiving, according to most accounts, took place a year after the arrival of the Mayflower, in 1621. The story goes that the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe got together to celebrate the harvest. In truth, there were no native guests in the village in 1621, and there was no feast. After a year of hardship and nearly losing a corn crop, rain came which saved some of the harvest, and a day of humiliation and prayer was called. There was no great celebration, and a large part of the contact between the Wampanoag and the settlers was through a native man named Squanto who had learned the language from previous traders. He was sent as an emissary because of his language skills, and because the relationship between the Wampanoag and pilgrims was not secure or at all trusting, and Squanto was not a Wampanoag. The day did not resemble in any way the festival of Thanksgiving envisioned by Abraham Lincoln when he made it a national holiday. A celebration somewhat closer to the imaginary story of the day did come a couple of years later when many of the Wampanoag came and feasted with the settlers over demonstrations of strength and weapons skills, but even that is not the harvest feast that most of the country is sold on surrounding Thanksgiving. It still represented an establishment of ties and an improvement in relations between the groups at the time. In truth, the natives did offer methods of improving the harvest for the pilgrims, including using fish for fertilizer and effective choices for crops. There are, as with any history lesson, elements of truth in every story.

On the Wampanoag side of the Plimoth Plantation, the interpreters wear historical costumes, but speak with a current perspective. They are happy to speculate about the motivations of their ancestors or the events of that time. They will happily teach the skills they have to any who want to learn. They, like most native Americans, however, are keenly aware of the way history is in the hands of the conquerors, and will talk to you about the history between the first Thanksgiving and now just as quickly. As is the case with most of the unique exhibits in “America’s Hometown,” the tone is not about preaching, or pointing fingers, but about getting to the truth in our history. Every Thanksgiving in Plymouth, there is a protest in Plymouth called the National Day of Mourning, staged by the United American Indians of New England. It is not a protest against Thanksgiving, but an attempt to “correct our history” according to organizers, about the real nature of the relationship between colonists and natives in the country.  There are speakers and peaceful rallies, and then ends with a meal for the community run by volunteers. On a holiday that is built on a myth, some feel it is important to point out some of the actual truths. For them, it is not about undermining the holiday that Thanksgiving has become, but about living with the reality of our past at the same time.

Plymouth residents grow up with an intimate knowledge of the history and reality of the times as they were in contrast with the stories that most of the country tells. They are, aside from being a bit odd and proud of that fact, a well-adjusted group with as much of a passion for the truth of their history as many have for the fiction. A view of Thanksgiving history through the eyes of  America’s Hometown” suggests that maybe more of the country might just still be able to celebrate the holiday with just as much joy even if they were burdened with a little bit more of the actual truth of things.

By Jim Malone


Image courtesy of BCrosby – Flickr License

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