Talkin’ Turkey: What Travel Taught Us About the First Thanksgiving

The Mayflower replica in Plymouth, Massachusetts
The Mayflower replica in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Thanksgiving is upon us again. Cue the pictures of cheery Pilgrims supping with the friendly natives and images of The Mayflower triumphantly landing at Plymouth Rock.

Ah yes, all of that happy history we were taught as baby boomer children… and almost none of it is true.

We were not on a quest for truth when we made our pilgrimage to Plymouth, Massachusetts, just taking in a little history, but once we were there, a little digging certainly opened our eyes.

The first hint that our 1960s grade school instruction may have been a tad embellished came when we hit the visitor center to ask for directions to Plymouth Rock. “Hope you guys brought a magnifying glass,” snarked the lady behind the desk as she pointed down the road.

The Plymouth Rock monument

Without fully grasping the gist of her statement, we headed across the road toward the monument that houses the famous rock where America’s first colonists landed.

Giddy with the exhilaration that can only come from setting one’s eyes on a truly epic piece of history, we leaned over the rail and peered down into the hole where Plymouth Rock is displayed.

Plymouth Rock - it's TINY!
The thing is tiny. At best one pilgrim could “land” on this pebble.

On closer inspection, turns out almost everything we were taught while we were drawing turkeys using the outlines of our hands was a complete fairy tale. The actual first Americans, the”friendly Indians” from those stories, were simply so emaciated and weak from the smallpox they had contracted from previous European visitors that they had no strength to fight off the invaders who were busy digging up their graves, raiding their food supplies, and commandeering their fishing and hunting grounds.

Wait a minute, previous visitors? Yup, the Pilgrims were no where near the first settlers in America. The Spanish arrived in the South and West over one hundred years earlier, and other Europeans had been tromping around New England stealing food and spreading disease for decades, centuries if you count the Vikings.

So at Plymouth a few leaders of the depleted remnants of the local tribe of Wampanoag people decided to employ the old “if we can’t beat them, join them” strategy in the hopes of surviving. Not quite the gracious “hey, welcome to America, here let us show you how to grow corn and eat turkey” that we were fed as youngsters.

Plaque commemorating the National Day of Mourning
Plaque commemorating the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Furthermore, this was the Mayflower Pilgrims’ second encounter with natives. The first time around wasn’t even remotely friendly. The Mayflower first landed on the tip of Cape Cod, where Provincetown is today.

There’s even a huge monument marking the landing.

Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts
Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts

However, these indigenous inhabitants had not been nearly wiped out by viral onslaughts from previous pioneers and were not real big on having their buried food stores dug up and stolen, so they were decidedly unfriendly and sent the Pilgrims packing.

Hold on just a dad-blame second there, what do you mean first landed? Everyone knows the Pilgrims first set foot on North America at Plymouth! We’ve seen the pictures.

There they are, stepping out of the boat right onto Plymouth Rock.

Wrong, fact is there wasn’t even such a thing as Plymouth Rock until over a century after the Mayflower’s landing. It wasn’t until 1741, 121 years after the Mayflower, that 94-year-old Thomas Faunce claimed he knew the exact rock that the Pilgrims first trod upon.

A few years later, in 1774, the townsfolk decided that the rock should be moved to the town meeting hall.

But for some reason the good people of Plymouth decided that only half of the rock needed to be relocated, so they split it in two. Over the next century, the rock was moved hither and yon, and chunks were hacked off of it for shows and souvenirs. Ultimately in 1880, with only about 1/3 of it remaining, the famous stone was returned to its original spot on the waterfront in Plymouth and the number 1620 carved into it.

Over the years the lore has been woven into the Thanksgiving story until it became more legend than history. But feel free to share this real tale around the holiday table, it’s got to be better than talking about politics.

Bon appétit!

David & Veronica,

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10 thoughts on “Talkin’ Turkey: What Travel Taught Us About the First Thanksgiving”

  1. Gysynester blog is so wonderful and very helpful It gives much information of all world tours and tips. This guidance helps everyone who wants to travel in any other place of world. Thanks

  2. Thanks for the history lesson. The more actual facts that are uncovered the more I feel we can learn from our mistakes. Let’s hope we always remember and can grow to be a more kind, tolerant and inclusive country.

  3. Very interesting post. As a Canadian, I had no idea that the Native Americans actually mourn the American Thanksgiving. We had a lot of bad things done to the Aboriginals here in Canada as well. As recently as the 1960’s when native children were ripped from their homes and put into Residential (boarding) Schools where they had to learn English and forget about their native culture. Hopefully, the worst is now behind us and we can live together in peace. Yes, I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one…

  4. As long as we’re setting history straight, another fascinating book is “1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann. There is a chapter about the indigenous people who lived in New England before the Pilgrims and who, as you learned, were already decimated by European diseases well before the Pilgrims arrived. As for the Pilgrims’ vaunted search for religious freedom, they were about as tolerant as the Taliban once they were in charge. And so it goes….

  5. We were amazed at it too. I was expecting a huge rock at water’s edge where the pilgrims docked their boat. Not exactly one of the seven wonders. 😉

  6. Hope you’ve read the book Mayflower. It is gruesome but true story of some of my ancestors behavior. (I’ll admit though, the first generation was okay, it was the kids that were bad. And Secodly, I hope you toured Plymouth Plantation. Much more tasteful and true to life than the Plymouth crap shops.

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