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How to Tell the Thanksgiving Story on Its 400th Anniversary

Scholars are unraveling the myths surrounding the 1621 feast, which found the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag cementing a newly established alliance.

If not for a few lines written by English colonist Edward Winslow, the uniquely American holiday of Thanksgiving might never have made it to the dining room table. A celebration of family, food and football, the tradition of a festive, harvest-time meal evolved from a letter penned by the esteemed settler about an obscure event held in the fall of 1621 at Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.

Four hundred years later, the so-called first Thanksgiving is undergoing a reassessment. Museums and historic sites in Plymouth and around the country are telling a more nuanced story about the origins of the holiday—one that goes far beyond the lasting legend of smiling Pilgrims and Wampanoag people happily enjoying a big meal together.

Instead of perpetuating this myth, institutions like Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall Museum and Plimoth Patuxet Museums (formerly Plimoth Plantation) are acknowledging just how little information about the gathering survives, in addition to exploring the layered, devastating ramifications of the ostensibly festive feast. The new dialogue more carefully examines the complicated relationship between early English settlers and the Wampanoag, who’d lived in the coastal community they called Patuxet for some 10,000 years by the time of the three-day celebration—probably held in late September or early October, after the crops were brought in.

“It wasn’t even called Thanksgiving back then,” says Darius Coombs, cultural and outreach coordinator for the Cape Cod–based Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “The Pilgrims had a large harvest that first year. So they have a feast. [Wampanoag leader Massasoit, or Ousamequin] shows up with about 90 of his men, and they bring five deer with them. They never ever mention turkey at that feast.”