This is a Story About the Story We Tell About the First Thanksgiving Story


Every year around this time, curmudgeonly historians, like myself, inspire deep eye rolls all over the country. We do this by reminding everyone that Thanksgiving as we practice it didn’t actually happen the way we are taught. We are often drawing from James Loewen, author of the great book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. I’m a big fan! But there are many others who are dedicated to getting the history of that era right.

We perform this peculiar ritual because we, as historians, believe that it is important to understand the truth of our history. It is important to understand the complexities of the world that gave birth to our own. Many dynamics were at play that contributed to the success and influence of the Plymouth Colony: that the settlers were not monolithic theocrats, that there were secular members who debated the validity of the contracts binding them; the fact that most of the indigenous population had died off, leaving an existing farming infrastructure behind; that Tisquantum (Squanto) was there and, fortuitously, had spent time in England; that the Wampanoag Tribe didn’t “enforce” its borders. Many elements came together to bring English culture in contact with indigenous cultures. Our American culture emerged from complex interactions between many cultures, sharing knowledge and practices, conducting trade and, yes, fighting bloody wars.

Most historians believe that if we understand the complexities and even the brutal inhumanity of which we are the benefactors, then maybe, just maybe, we might be able to navigate ourselves through our own historical complexities with more reason and greater humility. There is much to learn from a critical analysis of the many and varied examples of human decency, frailty, and barbarism that is the woven tapestry of our past. An honest and valid exposition of our real history can help us maximize our own potential for human decency, shore up our own frailties and, hopefully, mitigate our own human barbarism. This is the historian’s mission, and we take this great, humanizing principle seriously.

So please don’t roll your eyes when your cousin, the history major, tries to clarify the details about the first Thanksgiving. Yes, she’s annoying, but she means well. Just smile and nod and enjoy your sweet potatoes with the little marshmallows.

I admit that I’m just as enamored with telling the story of the real “Thanksgiving” as any history buff. However, I’m a sociologist. My approach to history is a little different. I’m interested in the history of ideas, and how those ideas shape our existing social constructs and, in turn, shape the knowledge that guides our interactions and our identities. So, for me and social historians in my little corner of the academic world, the story we tell, teach and reproduce of the First Thanksgiving is just as important as the historical reality. In this case, the story is especially valuable because it so dramatically contradicts the historical reality.

Why do we, as a society, insist on perpetuating this story in our schools, in our media, and in our family traditions? What can the story tell us about who we are, what we believe and what we aspire to?

In a way, we can look at social groups as storytelling structures. Storytelling is what makes the human species distinct and, arguably, the driving biological force on the planet at this point. Stories serve the function of elaborating and perpetuating the norms and values that bind us to our culture and incorporate us into our social groups. A faithful recitation and embrace of our social stories serve as the bedrock to who we are as individuals, our identities. So the stories we tell become constructs of social memory. They define who we are collectively and influence who we should be as individuals.

To serve this function, the accuracy of the story is not as important as is the thematic content of the story. The underlying themes of the story, through mimetic recitation, become guiding values of the group–of the nation in this case.

So what are the underlying themes of the Thanksgiving Day story? As reproduced through family tradition and reinforced in school plays, media specials on television and other ritual performances, the Thanksgiving story is one of overcoming adversity through faith and community, but it is also a story of charity and openness, neighborliness and, dare I say, multi-culturalism. It is the story of different groups, coming together, sharing their bounty and interacting with each other in peace as equals despite their differences.

The truth of this story is impossibly complex and the outcomes were certainly not so idyllic. However, the themes that our culture has decided to pass on to our children and to our grandchildren is one of humanity, of finding and embracing the human core between those who appear to be very different in look and custom.

This is the story we tell ourselves of who we were, who we are, and who we would like to be as a society. It is a story of the values we hold dear in individuals. That it’s an inaccurate story is just exactly the point. Of all the lessons that could have been gleaned from the actual event, or that we chose to commemorate that event in this particular way and no other, is revealing of the values we embrace. That the story’s true genesis is in the 1830s as the challenges of running a unified and expanding nation were growing, and its formalization as a national holiday at the height of the Civil War is, perhaps, no accident. In such times of uncertainty, of painful growth, of fracture, stories of overcoming adversity, of unity and inclusion have a clear appeal.

American history is not pretty, nor is it entirely ugly. It’s complex, fraught with stories that range the full spectrum of human incivility, suffering, apathy, courage, perseverance, and grandeur. The stories we use to make sense of this cauldron reflect our cultural aspirations. At this time when so many in our society seem intent on promoting a counternarrative of closure, insularity, and xenophobia it’s good to be reminded that, despite the travails of our history, we as a culture, as a collective social entity, have always had higher aspirations that really are humane and noble.

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