Rethinking Thanksgiving History

Most of us are familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving back in 1621: We can picture a group of weary European colonists in Plymouth, Massachusetts, celebrating a successful harvest with Native Americans, who had taught them the planting methods that made it possible for them to survive.


But so much of the other historical details of that day seem be overshadowed in the pursuit of our modern idea of Thanksgiving. If you’re looking for a little reminder about the origins of the holiday, maybe some tidbits to share with your kids while peeling potatoes for mashing or during your dinner, Kris Bordessa, author of Great Colonial America Projects shares some insights here about the Thanksgiving holiday.



Where did the idea of a day thanks come from? In other words, it sounds like both the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims already had a tradition of setting aside a day—or days—to give thanks.

The idea of giving thanks isn't exclusive to the Native Americans and the Pilgrims.  It's been pretty common throughout history for people to celebrate the harvest. I think the coming together of the natives and the Pilgrims was a similar sort of celebration, but one that was also meant to build good will between the two groups. The Pilgrims and Native Americans certainly didn't call their celebration "Thanksgiving" - that's a newer term.


Most kids in school are taught that the Indian Squanto helped the pilgrims learn how to grow corn, is there more to that story?

I suspect that the story we tell is a bit simplified. Was it just Squanto? Did he actually offer a lesson? Or did the Native Americans pass their knowledge about surviving in this new world, sometimes unknowingly? Many gardeners do use a planting method called "The Three Sisters" that has roots in Native America. With this method, corn is planted in a mound. As it gains height, bean and squash seeds are added. The squash seeds grow into plants that shade the ground and keep down the weeds; the beans climb up the corn stalks for support.


There’s no record of what exactly the pilgrims and the Native Americans ate on that first Thanksgiving in 1621, but if you had to make an educated guess, what would you say—should we be eating deer instead of turkey?

The first Thanksgiving featured food that was grown, caught, harvested, or hunted by the attendees. Dried berries, maize, fish, and wild game were likely a part of the feast. Pumpkin pie? Probably not!

While the idea of hosting a large meal and serving food that was procured in such a manner seems ludicrous today, we really should learn a lesson from this. Pumpkin from a can, turkeys shipped across the country from huge processing plants, and cranberries served in regions where cranberries don't grow is simply not sustainable. The native Americans knew this. If there's one lesson that I wish the Pilgrims had taken away from their interaction with the native people, this is it.


Usually we think of pumpkin pie and Thanksgiving as synonymous, but the first Pilgrims had little sugar at the time and no oven, would they even have had sweets as part of their celebration?

The Pilgrims would have used communal ovens for baking, but their baked goods were likely limited to breads rather than the sweet treats we serve today.


For parents who want to explain the original Thanksgiving holiday to their children, are there a few things you’d suggest they make sure to point out?

I remember crafting black construction paper hats with tin foil buckles in grammar school. This is a modernization of the Pilgrims and their attire. Sure, they dressed in a more somber manner than we do, but black is a very hard color to achieve using natural dyes -and that's the only source of dye that was available during colonial times. Colonists lucky enough to have black clothing reserved it for Sunday church services and special occasions. During the rest of the week, Pilgrims were more likely to be found in earth tones. And buckles? Those would have been pretty hard to come by, too.


How do you celebrate Thanksgiving at your house? Will you be having pumpkin pie? Turkey?

I don't live near any of my extended family, so it's generally a small affair. Some years we do it all up with the modern traditional feast - turkey and cranberries and pumpkin pie. Other years, my kids will request something less traditional. We've even been known to have homemade pizza for Thanksgiving! For us, it's not so much about the type of food as it is a chance to enjoy each other's company and be thankful for each other.



You can read more about myths and misconceptions about Thanksgiving (forget the black construction paper hat!). And for historical details about who attended the first Thanksgiving, visit the Pilgrim Hall Museum. For more from Kris Bordessa, you can visit her blog, Attainable Sustainable.




Kristen J. Gough is the Global Cuisines & Kids Editor for Wandering Educators. She shares her family's adventurous food experiences--and recipes--at



The First Thanksgiving by Brownscomb, credit: 



Comments (1)

  • Kerry Dexter

    7 years 6 months ago

    I have Kris Bordessa's book Great Colonial America Projects, and it makes fun and interesting reading for adults as well as kids. lovely to see her interviewed here. good questions, good answers. thanks, Kristen and Kris -- and happy Thanksgiving.


    Kerry Dexter

    Music Editor,

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