Thanksgiving and Pilgrim Myths

by Dave Weller

I am a direct descendant of William Bradford, a leader of the Pilgrim settlers, who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower in 1620. He was Plymouth Colony’s longest serving governor. In learning more about him and his fellow settlers, I’ve come across many “facts” and stories about the Pilgrims that aren’t as accurate as we may have thought. As we celebrate Thanksgiving here in the United States, I hope you find some of them interesting.

Myth – Pilgrims Dressed in Black and Wore Big Buckles

Not only did they not dress in black, they did not wear those funny buckles, weird shoes, or black steeple hats. Inventories of Pilgrim’s estates show items such as red waistcoats, green gowns, violet cloaks, red caps, and a violet coats. Black and white clothing was usually worn on Sundays and formal occasions. Buckles came into fashion in the late 1600’s, and the blunderbuss gun, which is often depicted, was mainly used to control crowds. It wasn’t a hunting rifle.

Myth – The Pilgrims Landed on Plymouth Rock

According to the Pilgrim Hall Museum:

“There are no contemporary references to the Pilgrims’ landing on a rock at Plymouth. There are two primary sources written by the Pilgrims themselves describing the landing in Plymouth in 1620, William Bradford’s journal Of Plymouth Plantation and the 1622 book popularly known as Mourt’s Relation. Both simply say that the Pilgrims landed. Neither mentions any rocks in their account of the landing. The first references to Plymouth Rock are found over 100 years after the actual landing.”

There is very little factual data that supports the story that Plymouth Rock was the spot on which the Mayflower passengers set foot in Plymouth. There is one slender thread which, cannot entirely be dismissed. In 1741, a ninety-five year old man asked to be taken for what he thought might be his last look at a specific granite boulder on the beach in Plymouth. Before a small gathering of people, he identified a rock, directly below Cole’s Hill, as that which was the very spot “which had received the footsteps of our fathers on their first arrival.” He had been told this by his father.

In actuality, Plymouth was not the first spot the Pilgrims went ashore. They first stepped foot on land at the tip of Cape Cod. In 1620, they signed the Mayflower Compact in Provincetown harbor, agreeing to settle and build a self-governing community, and then came ashore on the west end. Although the Pilgrims did not start their colony at Provincetown, they remained in its harbor and explored its shore for a month before moving on to Plymouth.

Myth – The Mayflower Passengers Were Mostly Old Men

The oldest Mayflower passenger was 57. Only five of the 104 passengers were over 50, and only fourteen were over 40. About 60 passengers were between 20 and 40 years old, with an average age of about 32. At least 30 were under the age of 17. As for a gender breakdown, there were 51 men, 22 boys, 20 women, and 11 girls. The oldest Mayflower passenger still alive to partake in the first thanksgiving was William Brewster, at the age of 54. William Bradford was only 31.

Myth – The Mayflower Passengers were Puritans

Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England, while Separatists wanted to separate entirely from it. Mayflower passengers (those belonging to the Pilgrim’s church) are properly classified as Separatists. Some Pilgrims (“strangers”) came to America in search of riches, others (“saints”) came for religious reasons.

Puritans came to America starting in about 1629, and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony under the leadership of Governor John Winthrop. They came strictly in search of religious freedom. After the English civil war, Puritan and Pilgrim-Separatist movements became indistinguishable, though they and their descendants tended to keep to separate Colonies even into the 1690s, primarily because of differing Church-State views rather than differing religious views.

Myth – The Pilgrims Were Celebrating a Great Harvest

Actually, the harvest of 1621, wasn’t great at all. The barley, wheat, and peas the Pilgrims brought with them from England had failed. Fortunately, the corn did well enough that they were able to double their weekly food rations. The Pilgrims were very happy to be alive. 47 of them died the previous winter – almost half of their colony.

Myth – The Pilgrims Ate Turkey

So how close was the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving feast to ours? They didn’t have corn on the cob, apples, pears, potatoes or even cranberries. No one knows if they had turkey, although they were used to eating turkey. The only food we know they had for sure was deer, but they also probably ate beans, squash, corn and fish. (And they didn’t eat with a fork – they didn’t have forks back then.)

Myth – The Pilgrims Watched Football

Even though they were in a celebratory mood, do you think they could handle watching the Lions? :-)

The first official Thanksgiving Proclamation made in America was issued by the Continental Congress in 1777. Six national Proclamations of Thanksgiving were issued in the first 30 years. President George Washington issued two, President John Adams issued two and President James Madison issued two. After 1815, no more Thanksgiving Proclamations were issued until the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a Federal holiday as a “prayerful day of Thanksgiving” on the last Thursday in November. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939.

The Pilgrims, incidentally, didn’t become part of the holiday until late in the nineteenth century. Until then, Thanksgiving was simply a day of thanks, not a day to remember the Pilgrims.

Happy Thanksgiving!