Many Americans share the experience of learning a story about the first Thanksgiving that bears only a passing resemblance to the historical truth. The classic narrative might go as follows: a group of religious separatists called Pilgrims sailed to Cape Cod on board the Mayflower in 1620. They landed on a rock they quickly named for their city of departure in England, Plymouth, and wrote an egalitarian compact to govern their new colony. The Pilgrims proceeded to make friends with the native inhabitants of New England, including Squanto, who taught the settlers how to grow American crops and hunt and fish in the New World. To cement a bond of friendship, the Pilgrims decided to invite the Indians to a feast they called Thanksgiving with cooked turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and pumpkin pie.
In reality, the English dissidents on board the Mayflower called themselves "saints," not "pilgrims," and landed on a beach in Provincetown, not a rock in Plymouth. They had a tumultuous relationship with the native Wampanoag tribe marked by suspicion and accusations of theft on both sides. Tisquantum, the man called Squanto by the colonists, had been captured and made a slave by English traders years before, and returned to find his people almost entirely decimated by disease. He used his skills as a translator and expert hunter to gain favor with the English and helped them rebound from the disastrous winter of 1620, when about half of the colony died of starvation and disease.