9 Myths About Thanksgiving That Are Actually Problematic — And The Facts Behind Them

by Mika Doyle

Most people were likely taught similar versions of the Thanksgiving story when they were kids. The story is supposed to go something like this: The pilgrims sail to the New World and land on Plymouth Rock, where they struggle to learn how to survive on a land that's different from the one they left. Luckily, some kind Native Americans show them how to grow corn and help them build alliances with nearby tribes. With the help of the Native Americans like Tisquantum, who you might know as Squanto, the pilgrims learn to live in the New World, and they celebrate with a Thanksgiving Day feast that they share with their new Native American friends. Americans continue to celebrate that version of the story on the fourth Thursday of November as a national holiday.

But that version of the Thanksgiving story is mostly based on myth, according to National Geographic. There's very little historical record of the first Thanksgiving as Americans know it, says National Geographic, which is why Thanksgiving wasn't celebrated as a national holiday until 300 years after it was originally thought to have occurred; President Abraham Lincoln officially declared "a day of Thanksgiving" in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War.

What historians do know about the events surrounding the real Thanksgiving doesn't match up with the stories you heard as a kid. The tale of pilgrims sharing a celebratory meal with their Native American neighbors reflects a revisionist version of history that hides the truth behind what really happened all those years ago — a truth that can be somewhat harsh, but needs to be heard.

It is absolutely vital to debunk Thanksgiving myths because they perpetuate stereotypes about indigenous people in this country, contributing to their modern-day oppression. These are just nine of the myths about Thanksgiving you were told as a kid and what actually happened.

Myth 1: The Pilgrims Founded A Settlement on Plymouth Rock

According to the stories you heard in history class, the Mayflower sailed to the New World and started a new life on Plymouth Rock. What your teachers didn't tell you is that the Mayflower ended up in the wrong place, according to History. The settlers were supposed to go to Virginia, but they ended up in Massachusetts.

Not only that, Plymouth Rock originally wasn't unoccupied. Normally, when Europeans sailed to New England in the mid-1610s, it was so packed with Native American communities that there wasn't any room for new settlements, says National Geographic. But an epidemic — which is still unexplained to this day — wiped out the Native American coastal communities about three years earlier, so the settlers basically landed in a cemetery and immediately began raiding it for food and supplies, according to National Geographic.

Myth 2: The Settlers Were Called Pilgrims At All

When the pilgrims first arrived in New England, they were actually called Saints or Separatists, according to History. Coming to the New World wasn't entirely about religious freedom, says History, because the settlers had found that in Holland, where they were free to practice their religion without fear of persecution or violence. The so-called pilgrims actually came to the New World because they thought Holland's secular life with its "easygoing, cosmopolitan atmosphere" too seductive for their children, History reports. It was at the colony's bicentennial in 1820 when orator Daniel Webster used the term "Pilgrim Fathers," says History, that the settlers were officially called pilgrims.

Myth 3: Thanksgiving Was A Major Historical Event

Historians believe the "first" Thanksgiving in 1621 was just a regular English harvest celebration, which is why there's very little historical record of the event, according to National Geographic. The Thanksgiving Americans celebrate didn't even become a national holiday until President Lincoln declared it as one during the Civil War, says National Geographic.

Myth 4: The Pilgrims Invited The Native Americans To A Big Feast

While there's historical evidence that a feast was held in 1621, there's no evidence any Native Americans were invited, according to Fortune. If any Native Americans did attend, says Fortune, historians believe it's either because members of the Wampanoag tribe, who lived nearby, heard the settlers firing warning shots toward their tribe, or because the the Wampanoag leader was making a diplomatic visit to the settlers' village.

Myth 5: There Was A First Thanksgiving At All

There's no real evidence that the 1621 event with the Wampanoag tribe and the settlers that is commonly cited by myths is the first Thanksgiving anyway, according to ThoughtCo. Other historical records from the New World indicate there were other proclamations of "Thanksgiving" celebrating special harvests or events, with one dating back to 1541, says ThoughtCo.

Myth 6: The Pilgrims Were Nice To The Native Americans

The so-called pilgrims were super unprepared for life in New England, so they compensated by raiding the graves and storehouses of the same Native American tribe — the Wampanoags — they later asked for help, according to National Geographic. It's not really surprising relations between the pilgrims and the Wampanoags deteriorated soon after Thanksgiving, says Fortune, leading to the Pequot War.

Myth 7: The Pilgrims Were Also Super Nice to "Squanto"

Tisquantum, who is often referred to in Thanksgiving stories as Squanto, did a ton to help the Pilgrims, like translate for them, help them with trade and teach them how to plant corn, according to The New York Times. But what most kids don't learn in history class, says The New York Times, is that Tisquantum was captured by the English and sold into slavery in Spain. By the time he escaped and returned to the New World, his entire tribe had died of smallpox, The New York Times reports.

Myth 8: Thanksgiving Immediately Became An Annual Tradition

The 1621 event between the settlers and the Wampanoag tribe — which, again, may or may not have happened — was a one-time deal, according to Fortune, and relations between the pilgrims and Native Americans deteriorated shortly after. What is believed to be an annual tradition either didn't happen at all or ended after that "first" year. (Which, again, was probably not the "first" Thanksgiving.) A few years later, in 1637, the settlers attacked the Wampanoag tribe in retaliation for a murder the settlers believed the Wampanoag committed by burning a nearby Wampanoag village, says Fortune. The settlers killed around 500 Native Americans that day, and the governor of Plymouth reportedly wrote that every Thanksgiving Day would be in honor of that bloody "victory," Fortune reports.

Myth 9: Thanksgiving Was A Celebration Of People Coming Together

This is probably the biggest Thanksgiving myth of all. According to Business Insider, the nation likes to remember Thanksgiving as a peaceful harvest celebration that brought two communities together. But the reality is that relations between the Wampanoags and the Seperatists were tenuous at best, and if they did dine together, it might not have even been willingly; further, what followed that dinner was a few hundred years of violent colonization and oppression of Native people in what's now America, the effects of which are still visible to this day.

History classes have taught the same, sanitized version of the origin of Thanksgiving for decades. And while some might argue that protects children from difficult subjects, all it really does it spread misinformation and hides the colonizing past of this country. The more America knows about its past, the less likely it is to repeat it.