Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Thanksgiving

Want to speak to the American A17ers today or tomorrow? Can’t because its Thanksgiving.

For a brief introduction to this series, see Easter


A day to celebrate the harvest of the year. It is celebrated in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands among others. North Americans will tell you that is origins surround the pilgrims who landed in Plymouth, MA[1] in 1621 but like most things in history, this isn’t really true. Actually the traditional story might just be bullshit.

Firstly, is it one 1 word or 2?

To someone who doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, the word itself feels strange as it feels like an unnatural joining of “thanks” and “giving”; like it should be written as two words and not one. But, it is one word, a noun that refers to both the act of expressing gratitude and the name of the celebration. Personally I’d prefer to see a space between “thanks” and “giving” and for all Americans to stop using the words “realtor” and “panties” because “realtor” is awkwardly too similar to “reality” and sounds like a He-Man villain. All hail REALTOR. And the word “panties” is just cringe.

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Thanksgiving

So, why does the United States make a big deal out of Thanksgiving?

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Thanksgiving

Branding – crafting the story of America.

What is the story?

In 1620 the Puritans founded a new colony based on religious and moral ideals. On the way they wrote the Mayflower Compact; the first written legal framework of the United States. These laws within were designed to be fairer than the laws of England.

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Thanksgiving

The use of “fair” is relative; for people of other faiths, or no faith or women, or well, anyone that wasn’t them, these ideals were not so “fair”.

This constitution is a big deal and really part of crafting the story of the United States. The take away message is that the United States was founded for righteous reasons, morals, ethics, a sense of fairness and freedom.

I think people often don’t sort of twig that there was earlier European settlements on the continent that pre-date the now famous Pilgrims.


Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Thanksgiving

The first settlement, in what is now the United States, was on Roanoke Island just off the coast of North Carolina[2] which was established by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585. It wasn’t a success; it ran low on supplies and had to be rescued.

Two years later, in 1587, another attempt was made by John White. He returned to England to bring back supplies for the colony, was interrupted by a war with Spain and when he finally came back in 1590 all the colonists had disappeared. All that remained was a carving of “CRO” on a tree and a sign that read “Croatoan”. Its not known what happened to them, what “Croatoan” means and it remains a creepy mystery to this day.

Successful Settlements

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Thanksgiving

Spurred on by the quest for gold, the Brits tried again and in 1607 Jamestown in present day Virginia[2] was founded. Virginia gets its name from the apparent virginity our queen at the time, Queen Elizabeth I. She wasn’t a virgin, but thats not important – we also had nation building to think of.

There was no gold but there was tobacco. Tobacco had been grown in Mexico for 1000 years but to Europeans it was new. Drugs are big business, they can be bought, sold and crucially taxed. Like me, King James thought smoking was disgusting but he couldn’t argue with the income. To farm the tobacco they used indentured servants, which are a bit like slaves only if they live long enough they are given some reward for their labour. Most didn’t live long enough and soon we stopped the pretence used slaves for labour.

This isn’t a story you’d want to celebrate; founding a country on greed and slavery. Its just not as pretty a picture is it? Better we find something else to build the image of a nation on instead.

The Puritans and Pilgrims

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Thanksgiving

So, on with the traditional story then. The early settlers at the colony in Plymouth, MA[1] were Puritans. They left England because they thought the newly formed Protestant church in England was still a little too Catholic. They didn’t refer to themselves as Puritans, they were Congregationalists but that name has too many syllables and we all know that Americans are lazy with syllables. Importantly, the Puritans had no desire to split from the Church of England.

An even more radical group are known as the Pilgrims. They had similar beliefs to the Puritans but wanted their congregations separated from the Church of England.

At any rate, they all had shit hats[3].

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Thanksgiving

Initially they fled England, setting off from Plymouth and heading for the Netherlands, and then set out for Jamestown, Virginia – y’know the tobacco rich slave labour town. But, their ship went off course and instead they landed somewhere else and they named it Plymouth. They could have called it anything, like Chazwazza for example, but no, they went with naming it after the place they set off from.

In England, the name “Plymouth” is so named because of its location on the mouth (the end) of the river Plym. We have other towns like Falmouth, Sidmouth and Yarmouth named from their locations on the end of rivers. This new Plymouth’s name doesn’t make as much sense. Chazwazza.

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Thanksgiving

They landed in late autumn and had had the good sense to not bring any food with them and so around half of them died. Had it not been for Squanto of the Patuxet tribe, they’d likely all have died. Squanto and Patuxet taught the settlers where and how to plant corn, catch fish and generally survive.

And you maybe wondering how they communicated. Well, they spoke English. Just like in Star Trek when they travel large distances away and arrive somewhere new to find everyone speaking English; Squanto spoke great English. He’d learned it in England and had been a translator on earlier English voyages to the new world. So that was handy.

The following year, after a successful harvest, the settlers and the Patuxet all came together and had the first Thanksgiving meal. Lovely.

Well, sort of…

If this first Thanksgiving meal did happen, it wasn’t very well documented. And its not quite how the Patuxet remember it.

The Thanksgiving meal story was perhaps made up by Abraham Lincoln as nice unity story to tell during the American Civil War when the north and south of the United States were anything but unified. It is a good story though. Sure, it hasn’t got any lightsabers or Force mind tricks, but neither did Rogue One and that worked out pretty good.

What might have happened?

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Thanksgiving

The leader of the settlers, John Carver made a treaty with chief Yellow Feather that said each side would protect the other from their enemies. Squanto and Patuxet where real and they likely helped out the settlers. And a harvest celebration meal probably also happened. The Patuxet likely weren’t invited.

It seems that during the harvest celebration the settlers made an awful lot of noise, which attracted the attention of the Patuxet. Apparently they made so much noise shooting guns and cannons that the Patuxet thought the settlers where under attack and so they gathered warriors and raced to Plymouth to engage with whatever they found.

And then they found a bunch of drunken Brits singing “you’re shit and you know you are” at each other. Like Wigan on a Friday night. And Saturday nights. And Thursday. Tuesday and Wednesday. Monday. And Sunday nights.

I once saw two women in Wigan, a mother and daughter, fist fighting in a pub, apparently jealousy over the same man, at 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon. The landlord told me it happened often. Anyways…

When the Patuxet arrived there was no invaders or attack; so they set up camp to keep an eye on the settlers to make sure everything was OK. At the time the settlers numbers where very low, 23 I think, the Patuxet had sent 90 warriors. The Patuxet warriors would have generally been in and around the settlers’ village at the time of the meal and celebrations, but as they recall, not a part of any meal or celebration.

Why do people eat turkeys at Thanksgiving?

No idea. No one really has any idea. Probably because it is what English people traditionally eat at such celebratory meals and turkeys are large birds so they can feed many people. Something I didn’t know is that wild turkeys can fly, its only farmed turkeys that can’t. So, I can’t just answer with “its the only thing they could catch”.

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Thanksgiving

Even if we can’t agree on the story of Thanksgiving; something we can agree on is that a meal together, with friends and family is nice. Except maybe the family part, that can be hell.

If you celebrate Thanksgiving today – enjoy! And if you don’t, happy Thursday!

  1. I can’t consistently spell Massachusetts, so I went with the abbreviation
  2. North Carolina and Virginia are easier to spell
  3. Seriously, no New Era snapbacks or what?

Also published on Medium.