The First Thanksgiving

American history is filled with epic stories, memorable tales to promote the American spirit and teach the shared values of our nation. Some of these stories are true, others a complete fabrication. Most are based on actual events yet omit a few key details. The first Thanksgiving is one of those famous accounts, historically accurate to a point, yet incomplete. 

The main beats of the story are known to anyone who grew up in the USA. Settlers of the Plymouth Colony, the Pilgrims, had a rough start in the New World. Of the 100 passengers from the Mayflower who founded the village, only half lived a year in America. Their first winter was bitter, cold, and cruel. 50 of them died before spring. They feared they might not survive another winter until they met Squanto. Squanto was a Native of one local tribe. He taught the white folks to grow corn and catch fish. With his help, they learned to store their goods to endure the colder seasons of the region. The chief from another local tribe brought supplies to the new villagers to help them build their town and extra food when provisions sent from England were insufficient. After the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest, four women prepared a feast so the town could rejoice and be thankful for their bounty. They returned the generosity of the neighboring tribe by inviting them to dine with the townsfolk.
image courtesy of History Channel 

All of which is true. Except there are some key details missing, starting with Squanto whose real name was Tisquantum. They shortened his name as a way to mock him. Tisquantum was the lone survivor of his tribe – the rest had died from an epidemic disease. The land chosen by the Pilgrims to build their village was home to Tisquantum’s tribe, abandoned when they perished. While Tisquantum helped the Pilgrims learn to survive, he fell ill a year later and passed away. Despite receiving help from Tisquantum and the tribal leader Massasoit, the friendly relationship between the Wampanoags soured over time. Indigenous culture was incompatible with the strict puritan religious values professed by the Pilgrims. The European immigrants saw the local tribes as savage people who should assimilate and convert religions, or be banished. Soon the there would be a war between the colonists and the Natives. Finally, the Plymouth Plantation continued to struggle economically after their first feast. Many of the founders left to start their own settlements elsewhere in the colony. Eventually, the smaller Plymouth Colony was absorbed by the larger Massachusetts Colony. 

The tragic bits from the legend of the first Thanksgiving have become footnotes to the historical record. We remember the highlights and retell the sanitized version. Yet the parts we edit out of the story are still important. The fragile truce between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags provides context to King Phillip’s War 50 years after the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth. The way the settlers treated Tisquantum reflects the way white people exploited Native Americans like Pocahontas and Sacagawea to further their own interests. Their tension was a precursor to the India Wars against Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse or the Apache US conflict against Geronimo. 

The whole story might not be a happy story, yet to fully understand history we need to know the sections left out by elementary historians. We need to see the ugly alongside the beautiful. Hopefully we learn from the worst of our stories so we are not doomed to repeat our mistakes. 

When we talk about our firsts, there will be a lot of bumbling errors. Often our folly makes those events memorable. Like my first Thanksgiving outside of my parent’s place. 

At the end of the summer of ’99, Travis, Shane, and I moved to Nampa and rented an off campus apartment so Travis didn’t have to spend his senior year living in a dorm room. Autumn came. None of us had the time or finances to travel back to Seattle for Thanksgiving; it was the first we would experience the holiday without our families. Along with our mutual friend Nick, we devised a plan to celebrate on our own. We brainstormed the menu, listing off the traditional foods our families served every year and created a shopping list. We went to the grocery store as a team and filled a cart with festive ingredients and split the bill four ways. We divided the cooking duties and prepared the meal as close to what our families served as we were able. We invited Travis and Nick’s girlfriends to join us and set our table for six. 

The happy version of this experience is a success story. We came, we saw, we conquered. It’s a tale of friends coming together to replicate a family event in the dearth of actual family. If I ended the story there, all of it would be true, but it wouldn’t be complete. Our dinner wasn’t super smooth. Shane used a full ten pound bag of spuds for his mashed potatoes, the finished product didn’t even fit in the biggest bowl we had. The turkey was a little dry and overcooked. I burnt the rolls. Still, we dined as if it as the finest meal ever prepared. Most of the dishes we cooked were completely consumed, with one exception: the cranberry sauce.
image courtesy of 12 Tomatoes 

 As we cleared the table of dirty dishes and empty platters, we discovered the cranberries still standing in the shape of the can it came in, untouched with a clean spoon sitting next to it. The four of us questioned each other – why didn’t anyone eat the cranberry sauce? Turns out, none of us liked cranberry sauce, neither did our two guests. Why did we buy it and serve it? Turns out it was something each of our families served every year so we included it because we thought it’s something needed. However, we never took the time to ask if any of us would eat it. We just assumed everyone else liked it. 

When I tell people the story of my first Thanksgiving on my own, I always talk about the cranberry sauce. Our mistake is an object lesson of the dangers of making assumptions. It’s a reminder of the value of getting complete input from invested parties before taking action. It’s an example of how the way things have always been done isn’t the way it must be done. And it makes me laugh every time I recall the dumbfounded looks on our faces as we realized the error of our ways. 

America looks to the Pilgrims as their epic first Thanksgiving. I recall the cranberry sauce for my own epic first Thanksgiving. 

I have a feeling there are going to be a lot of first Thanksgivings this year. More people will be staying home, less travelling to visit extended families. Dining room tables will be missing settings for cousins, aunts, and uncles. Meals will feed five instead of twenty-five. Several brave chefs will be baking a turkey for the first time on their own. Many Americans will be eating their first Thanksgiving meal not prepared by their parents or not hosted at their grandparents. 2020 is there year several of us will just hibernate. 

We know because we’re one of those families. Annie has always celebrated Thanksgiving at her grandma’s house with her siblings, large extended family, plus everyone’s spouses and kids. I’ve joined her the last couple years as a buffet of food is spread out in the kitchen, soda is stocked in the cooler on the side porch, football plays on the TV in the living room, and kids run wild and free through the woods behind their house. Grandma canceled Thanksgiving this year because of the pandemic and Annie’s numerous relatives are adopting alternate plans. We are staying at our farm and cooking our own holiday meal for the first time ever. 

Look, I know 2020 has sucked. It’s been a rough time for a lot of people. Lonely holidays absent the family who typically populate our memories are not the ideal end caps to a rotten year. However, your revised holiday doesn’t have to match the dismal spirit of the year though. Sure, it won’t be perfect, but it shouldn’t be terrible either. 

Embrace the mistakes because there will be mistakes. Hopefully, you learn from your errors. The Pilgrim’s mistreatment of Tisquantum should teach us that generosity often comes from places we don’t deserve. Their crumbling relationship with the Wampanoags is a warning against burning bridges. On a less destructive scale, my untouched cranberry sauce is a lesson to do better research before taking action. Sometimes, the bad parts of our stories make us cringe, other times they make us laugh. Either way, they should remain a part of our stories. 

Firsts are memorable for a reason. Make yours epic. America’s first Thanksgiving is the stuff of legends because of the lessons it teaches about survival, charity, and gratitude. My first Thanksgiving in Nampa is a personal legend because we were young, dumb, and trying to figure out how to survive on our own. If this is your first Thanksgiving removed from your usual traditional family gatherings, you have the opportunity to make it legendary too. Perhaps you might begin a new tradition to follow for years to come.

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