Mythology is a powerful practice, and we employ it at every level: national, cultural, familial and personal. We collectively construct narratives that do more to promote an idea than they do to serve the facts of history. As such, Thanksgiving is one of the greatest of America’s historical myths, and as we approach another, I thought I’d try to do history a service and promote facts over ideas.

Step 1: The Setup

What we learn as children is generally something like this: English people being persecuted for their religious beliefs (aka Pilgrims) fled England for the New World. They got here, suffered mightily through a harsh New England winter but found some friendly Indians with whom they shared a glorious god-fearing feast and gave thanks for all their bounty. Yes, we can all get along, so long as there’s enough turkey to go around. If you’ve forgotten this version, here’s a helpful video reminder.

Step 2: Before The Pilgrims Even Arrived

Excerpted from First Genocide, Then Lie About It: Why I Hate Thanksgiving (by Mitchel Cohen). The entire piece is worth reading.

The Jamestown colony was established in Virginia in 1607, inside the territory of an Indian confederacy, led by the chief, Powhatan. Powhatan watched the English settle on his people’s land, but did not attack. And the English began starving. Some of them ran away and joined the Indians, where they would at least be fed. Indeed, throughout colonial times tens of thousands of indentured servants, prisoners and slaves — from Wales and Scotland as well as from Africa — ran away to live in Indian communities, intermarry, and raise their children there.

In the summer of 1610 the governor of Jamestown colony asked Powhatan to return the runaways, who were living fully among the Indians. Powhatan left the choice to those who ran away, and none wanted to go back. The governor of Jamestown then sent soldiers to take revenge. They descended on an Indian community, killed 15 or 16 Indians, burned the houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the female leader of the tribe and her children into boats, then ended up throwing the children overboard and shooting out their brains in the water. The female leader was later taken off the boat and stabbed to death.

By 1621, the atrocities committed by the English had grown, and word spread throughout the Indian villages. The Indians fought back, and killed 347 colonists. From then on it was total war. Not able to enslave the Indians the English aristocracy decided to exterminate them.

And then the Pilgrims arrived.

Yeah, so how many of us heard this story before? Let’s continue, shall we?

Step 3: Who Were These Pilgrims, And What Did They Eat, Really?

Last week I met Scott Berkun at the Web 2.0 Expo. I just found this 2007 post on his website which debunks a number of Thanksgiving myths.

Highlights for me:

  • There was no turkey, mashed potato, nor was there pecan pie!!
  • The pilgrims were not Puritans
  • The most important appetizer for Thanksgiving might have been smallpox

Step 4: Wait, Abe Lincoln Is Responsible For Thanksgiving?

Yep, honest Abe established the holiday in the midst of the Civil War, a few hundred years after Pilgrim-time. From The Institute For Southern Studies:

Lincoln was inspired by a series of editorials and letters written by Sarah Josepha Hale, the New England editor of the hugely influential magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. Though like earlier presidents he initially resisted Hale’s appeals, Lincoln eventually embraced the idea of creating a national Thanksgiving holiday as a day of unity amid the strife of the war.

Step 5: Remember What History Is

Back when Tavis Smiley had an NPR show, he did an entire episodes on missing history. In this segment, he interviews Howard Zinn about the history of native people in the Americas and what we never hear. It’s a great interview and a fitting way to head into this “traditional” “American” holiday.

Happy Thankstaking.

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