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

The Mayflower replica in Plymouth, Massachusetts

Thanksgiving is upon us. 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 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.

Without fully grasping the gist of her statement, we headed across the road toward the monument that houses the famous rock where the first Americans 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.

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 "friendly Indians" were actually just so emaciated and weak from the smallpox they had contracted from previous European visitors that they had no strength to fight off the Pilgrims, 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 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

However, these indigenous inhabitants had not been 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. Bon appétit!