Tim Walch, an archives and museum consultant, is the former director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, and a contributor to George Mason University's History News Network. Walch spoke to the Trib regarding the misconceptions surrounding the origins of Thanksgiving.
Q: Is it accurate to label Thanksgiving a holiday that's shrouded in myth?
A: I think that one of the challenges here is, of course, there is very little documentation (of what occurred). This is one of the earliest holidays (but) I don't think that when the first Thanksgiving took place they thought of it as a holiday. It's grown in both myth and fact, but it really was a simple meal to recognize the end of harvest. Thanksgiving wasn't established as a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln did so during the Civil War.
Q: As far as we know, what happened on the first Thanksgiving?
A: Well, we know it took place over several days and they served venison and mutton.
Q: No turkey? No stuffing?
A: No turkey, no stuffing, no crazy relatives, no kids spilling orange pop. The Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony did share a meal with the Wampanoag Indians in the autumn of 1621. What we know about that comes from the journal of (Plymouth Colony governor) Edward Winslow, and what we know is precious little because he didn't see this as some sort of great event. He just noted that the colonists had a four-day feast with Chief Massasoit and 90 of his men.
Q: Did he indicate what prompted the feast?
A: Winslow didn't speak to it, and there is no corresponding Native American document.
Q: Was it an overtly religious event?
A: The Pilgrims were a religious people and saw, in everyday life and every activity, the hand of God. So in that sense, the fact they weren't at war with the Massasoit (and) the harvest had been good was something they would have given thanks for. But it was not perceived as something necessarily ordained by God. There was no sense that (the Pilgrims) needed to either convert the Indians or share their bounty with them as a gesture of Christian belief.
Q: So apparently everyone just sat down at the table and enjoyed the meal?
A: The Pilgrims and the Indians didn't sit at tables. They didn't pass the serving dishes. It's more likely that they put the food on any available flat surface — boxes, benches, tree stumps — and meals were consumed whenever someone was hungry. They didn't use plates or utensils, either. The colonists and the Indians usually ate with their hands.
Q: Do you think that there probably are more misconceptions about Thanksgiving than any other holiday?
A: I think that's probably true, but we often take stories from the past and create a certain amount of myth about them.
The Pilgrims and Native Americans were sharing in a feast after a good harvest without any notion that it was going to become some sort of grand festival or the holiday that it is today. The idea was to share what you have with others.
We are carrying on that noble spirit and that noble purpose today. Ultimately, I think that's more important than having an absolutely accurate (record) of what foods were served or who spilled the gravy.
Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or firstname.lastname@example.org).