Thanksgiving Myths vs. Reality

By Diane Haddad Premium

The millions of Americans who descend from Mayflower passengers probably grew up learning a romanticized pop-culture version of their ancestors’ Thanksgiving celebration in 1621.

However, historians including James W. Baker, formerly with Plimoth Plantation, and Timothy Walch, director of the Herbert Hoover Library, spend this time of year explaining why the tall black construction paper hat you made for your third-grade holiday pageant was all wrong.

Read: Genealogy Tips for Tracing Your Colonial and Early American Ancestors

Myth: The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.

Reality: The Pilgrims landed first at the tip of Cape Cod. Later, they moved on to Plymouth. No one knows whether they actually stepped onto what we call Plymouth Rock—it wasn’t identified as such until 1741, when a 94-year-old man said his father had once pointed it out to him.

Myth: The Pilgrims were, well, pilgrims.

Reality: A “pilgrim” makes a journey for religious purposes. According to Plimoth Plantation staff, though, most of the Mayflower Pilgrims actually traveled for economic reasons.

Myth: The Pilgrims were Puritans.

Reality: Most of the Mayflower Pilgrims were Separatists, wanting nothing to do with the Church of England. The Puritans, who believed the Church of England should reform, began arriving about 10 years later and settled in Boston.

Myth: At their first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims dressed in black and white and hats with big buckles, and the Indians wore feather headdresses.

Reality: The photo above shows the Force School celebrating Pilgrim Day in 1920. However, the costumes are not accurate. The Pilgrims wore white, beige, black, green and brown. It was difficult to dye clothes black, and people didn’t wear buckles until later in the 17th century. The Wampanoag Indians wore deerskin garments, but not feather headdresses.

Myth: The Pilgrims and Indians ate turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes at their Thanksgiving feast.

Reality: Edward Winslow, a Pilgrim who later became governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote that the group feasted on venison and “wild fowl” (possibly ducks, geese or turkey). The settlers could’ve had corn and fruit, but wouldn’t have had potatoes, or sugar for cranberry sauce. Learn more about what was on the menu for the first Thanksgiving.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2009 issue of Family Tree Magazine. All images and photos in this article courtesy of the Library of Congress.