The Pilgrims At Plymouth: Not What You Think

Caleb Johnson eats his Thanksgiving turkey just like most other Americans, but he knows things most folks don't know about that first celebration at Plymouth.

Johnson, a Portland native, lives in Vancouver, Clark County, and is the Intranet coordinator for a high-tech company. More to the point, he is a descendant of several people who came over on the Mayflower, including Myles Standish, Priscilla Mullins and John Alden.

He started tracking down his roots while in high school - not that long ago, since he's 23 - and the result of his work has been praised by historians and quoted in newspapers.

I came across his Web site,, and we exchanged some e-mail about the Pilgrims.

Here are some things to chew on along with your turkey.

The Pilgrims did have a feast in 1621, but it did not become a tradition. The Pilgrims "did not celebrate Thanksgiving the next year, or any year thereafter, though some of their descendants later made a `Forefather's Day' that usually occurred on Dec. 21 or 22.

"Abraham Lincoln finally made it a national holiday with his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation.

"Today, our Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November. This was set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941), who changed it from Abraham Lincoln's designation as the last Thursday in November (which occasionally could end up being the fifth Thursday, and hence too close to Christmas for businesses).

"But the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving began at some unknown date between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, most likely in very early October."

The first "Thanksgiving" was a community event, not a family gathering.

The Plymouth colonists were separatists, not Puritans. They wanted separation from the Church of England, but were not as socially strict as the Puritans, who formed other colonies.

The separatists believed God decided before creation who would be saved and who damned, and there wasn't anything a person could do to change his fate.

There were a few Pilgrims who had criminal records, but they weren't the religious ones.

Pilgrims did not all wear black and white clothing with big buckles. Buckles wouldn't come into fashion for many years, and Pilgrims often wore "red, earthy greens, browns, blues, violets and grays, in addition to black and white."

The feast included venison, fish, waterfowl and yes, turkey, but there were no potatoes or yams. The Pilgrims did not have whipped cream, but in any case they wouldn't have had pumpkin pie on which to put it, though they may have had pumpkin pudding.

And though they may not have eaten it during that first celebration, the Pilgrims "were also known to have occasionally eaten eagles (which "tasted like mutton," according to Edward Winslow in 1623). Definitely un-American.

The Pilgrims didn't displace any Indians, because the tribe that had occupied the land that became Plymouth, the Patuxet tribe, died out. They died a few years before the colony was established, apparently of smallpox contracted from Europeans who had mapped the coast.

Tisquantum (Squanto), who was a Patuxet, survived because he'd been sold into slavery in Spain and was not returned to Plymouth until after his people had died.

It is true that Indians kept the Pilgrims from starving that first winter.

Now that you know some of the real story, you might want to check out Johnson's Web site for more detail.

Johnson says, "Anyone who takes the time to read William Bradford's widely available and semi-classic work, `Of Plymouth Plantation,' realizes that almost everything they are taught about the Pilgrims in school is inaccurate."

Those errors persist because the Pilgrims are not revisited in later education, so adults are stuck with a childhood version of the story.

"I have no problems with symbolic representations, so long as the symbolism is recognized as such and not misinterpreted as a factual representation," Johnson says.

I asked how he plans to spend this day, and he said his research will have no effect on his plans. "I plan to spend my Thanksgiving just like most everyone else, with my family at a table with some turkey!"

Jerry Large's column appears Sundays and Thursdays in the Scene section of The Seattle Times. You can reach him c/o The Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Phone: 206-464-3346. Fax: 206-464-2261. E-mail: