Boiled Eagles, US Military Victories and the Real History of Thanksgiving

Smells like ... victory. (National Archives)

We all know the story taught by primary schools in America has been, to put it mildly, embellished. The story of the pilgrims, the native tribes and the eventual first Thanksgiving may not have been an outright lie, but like a historical game of "telephone," the facts got distorted along the way.

Truth be told, it didn't need to be.

The real story of how the English settlers met and interacted with local tribes is way more interesting than how your school probably taught it. From the moment a man named Samoset first greeted the colonists by asking for beer in perfect English until the American South began to see pumpkin pie as an act of northern aggression, Thanksgiving has never been what your fifth-grade teacher made it out to be.

Thanks, Mrs. Clark.

The colonization of North America was BYOB. Apparently. (National Archives)

First of all, the menu was drastically different. I don't know how sweet potatoes (introduced to North America in the mid-1700s), cranberry sauce (first turned into a sauce in 1670) or green bean casserole (created by the Campbell's soup company in 1955) made it onto our traditional Thanksgiving table, but I give thanks for mashed potatoes making the cut, despite not being introduced to the colonies until 1750.

The real menu was better in some ways, worse in others.

Only two documents detailing the menu survive from 1621. They mention "waterfowl," which likely means ducks, geese and/or swans were the bird of the day. In the traditional style of terrible English cooking, they were all likely boiled at the first Thanksgiving and perhaps turned into pies.

Since the Wampanoag were a coastal people, it's likely that mussels, dried fish, lobsters and maybe even seals were included in the feast. Those early documents also say that venison and "Indian corn" were served at the first adult's table.

Another bird likely served at the first Thanksgiving was the eagle, but you can't have the earliest American settlers boiling the symbol of the United States as part of Thanksgiving’s origin story. Killing bald eagles for food (or any reason) is also illegal.

Pictured: forbidden fruit. (Andy Morffew)

The first Thanksgiving was actually not really celebrated as a regular national holiday until the Civil War, and even then, there was a lot of contention surrounding where and when that Thanksgiving actually happened. Before then, a national day of giving thanks was declared by the president of the United States.

What can be considered the first U.S. Thanksgiving holiday came in 1777, as a celebration for the Continental Army's surprise victory against the British at the Battle of Saratoga. At the request of the Continental Congress, George Washington declared the day in December of that year. Given everything we know about the father of our country, rum was probably served.

What does George Washington order for the table? Shots. (John Trumbull)

Read: How to Celebrate July 4th Like the Founding Fathers

In April 1789, Washington became the first president of the United States, and by October, he declared Nov. 26 to be the country's first Thanksgiving Day to celebrate God's assistance in the war for independence. He would declare another in 1795, during his second term.

Future presidents adopted the right to declare days of Thanksgiving. James Madison declared a national Thanksgiving to recognize the end of the War of 1812. By 1846, a movement of Americans began to call for a permanent national Thanksgiving holiday, a movement that didn't catch on until a large part of the country was trying not to be part of the country.

In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. It was a means of thanking the almighty for what success that Union cause saw as the war began to turn in its favor. He was also grateful that foreign powers had not intervened for the southern cause.

The new holiday took the place of Evacuation Day, which was celebrated nationally despite not being an actual recognized holiday. It began as a local celebration of the British evacuation from Manhattan Island.

But even though Thanksgiving was a holiday intended to bring Americans together, it initially ignited a culture war before Lincoln even made it a holiday. One of the staple foods of the movement to create the new holiday was pumpkin pie, a New England tradition. Southerners saw pumpkin pie as an act of aggression to impart northern values on the South.

If you think America is currently more divided than ever, wait until you hear about how pumpkin pie was a step toward Civil War. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

After the war, President Ulysses S. Grant made Thanksgiving a national holiday for Washington but left it to governors to declare the holidays in their states. Few former Confederates forgot the North's pumpkin-pie aggression, and many refused to acknowledge it. It took a long time for Thanksgiving to catch on. Still, U.S. presidents would declare the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving year after year.

What finally bridged the divide between North and South on Thanksgiving Day? Football. Although the Green Bay Packers wouldn't be founded until 1919 and the Detroit Lions wouldn't appear until 1929, it was high school and college football rivalries toward the end of November that finally made the South give in to giving thanks. That tradition brings us together to this day. 

Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few. (Mike Morbeck)

In 1941, Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt finally signed Thanksgiving Day into law, making it a federal holiday on the last Thursday in November. The legislation contained no specific mention of football, pumpkin pie or boiled eagles.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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