Memory  /  Explainer

The Way American Kids Are Learning About the 'First Thanksgiving' Is Changing

"I look back now and realize I was teaching a lot of misconceptions."

The Thanksgiving story that American schoolkids have typically learned goes something like this: the holiday commemorates the way the pilgrims of Plymouth, Mass., fresh off the Mayflower, celebrated the harvest by enjoying a potluck-style dinner with their friendly Indian neighbors. In many classrooms, the youngest children may trace turkeys with their hands to mark a day for feasting, or dress up as pilgrims and Indians for Thanksgiving pageants. Older kids may study the reasons the pilgrims crossed the Atlantic and how their endurance fostered America’s founding values.

But, while the meal known as the First Thanksgiving did happen—scholars believe it took place at some point during the fall of 1621 in the recently-founded Plymouth colony—that story reflects neither the 17th century truth nor the 21st century understanding of it. Rather, the American public memory of Thanksgiving is a story about the 19th century.

What really happened back in the fall of 1621 is documented in only two primary sources from colonists’ perspectives. Edward Winslow’s account of the bountiful harvest and the three-day feast with the Wampanoag people runs a measly six sentences, and Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford’s later account is about the same length—evidence, argues historian Peter C. Mancall, that neither colonial leader considered the event worth more than a paragraph. As Plymouth became part of Massachusetts and Puritans gave way to the Founding Fathers, nobody thought much about that moment. When George Washington declared a national day of Thanksgiving in 1789, his proclamation of gratefulness made no mention of anything related to what happened in Plymouth. Then, around 1820, a Philadelphia antiquarian named Alexander Young found Winslow’s account. He republished it in his 1841 Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fatherswith a fateful footnote: “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England.”

In the years that followed, Godey’s Lady’s Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale—who might be thought of as the 19th century’s Martha Stewart—began advocating for the establishment of an annual national Thanksgiving holiday. When Bradford’s account of 1621 was rediscovered in the 1850s, the timing was fortuitous, as the divided nation hurtled toward Civil War. Hale’s message got through to Abraham Lincoln, and in 1863, with the war underway, he issued the proclamation she’d wanted, arguing that Americans should “take some time for gratitude” in the midst of the bloodshed. Crucially, Hale’s campaign for the Thanksgiving holiday was explicitly linked to the story of Plymouth.