Teaching Now: Separating Myths from History

The first Thanksgiving 1621

This unit plan and teaching guide was developed by Dr. John Bickford, Professor of Social Studies/History Education at Eastern Illinois University and Editor-in-Chief of The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies, in collaboration with Citizen U. It presents a lesson plan with teaching notes targeted to early and upper elementary students.


Children—and adults!—will be shocked to learn most of their Thanksgiving facts are fables, not history. This short section details the stuff many folks don’t know and illustrates the pervasive, hidden nature of misinformation.

Names matter and some commonly used names are not appropriate. We wouldn’t call ourselves North Americans or Western Hemispherians because the first is too broad and the second is silly. The names Indian or Native American aren’t disrespectful or inaccurate, but the most respectful, most accurate names are those they—themselves—want to be called. The Wampanoag, or People of the Dawn, lived in what we call eastern Massachusetts today. And, the Wampanoag had the Narragansett, Abenaki, and lots of other Algonquian-speaking Indigenous tribes nearby.

The Wampanoag encountered one particular group of European colonists who had lots of different names. Religiously, the colonists were Puritans or, to use their favored term, Saints.1 Politically, they called themselves Separatists or Leideners (because these English colonists avoided religious persecution through escape to Leiden, Holland long before they came to North America sailing under the English flag). These folks—who did not call themselves Pilgrims—brought Strangers (i.e., these European laborers were half the colony) to work for but not socialize with, much less attend the same church as the Saints.

Plimoth (which only later became Plymouth) started with support from, not persecution by, the English king. The fur trade in Dutch New Amsterdam (later, Manhattan) was booming—beaver was bougie2 back then! The English King James, and later Charles, wanted a New World foothold for the fur trade. And that’s how the Saints (craving an isolated theocracy) and Strangers (seeking a fresh start) started an English colony in the late fall of 1620, just in time for horrible winter weather.

The land was not empty and the Wampanoag weren’t looking for friends. Many thriving Wampanoag villages were wiped out the few years prior when epidemics struck. Some Indigenous tribes, like the Patuxet, died out completely leaving abandoned villages, which colonists interpreted as divine providential gifts. Ousamequin, today known as Massasoit, was the grand sachem (intertribal chief) of all the Wampanoag. He feared death by disease but also from attack; the Narragansett, in particular, were interested in prized Wampanoag land! So, the Wampanoag were anxious, not strong, but also didn’t want the colony to become permanent. The Wampanoag couldn’t push out the colonists, which was soon halved by disease, starvation, winter cold, and foolish decisions by some folks inexperienced with extreme conditions and hard work.

Spring 1621 brought the Colonists hope and help, but the Wampanoag weren’t altruistic. Samoset arrived speaking a little English he had learned from traders, which must’ve surprised the Saints and Strangers alike. Samoset later returned with Massasoit and Tisquantum,3 who spoke fluent English (after being enslaved for years). Massasoit wanted protection, not necessarily friends. He and the colonists formed a military alliance. The Wampanoag gained English protection against the threatening Narragansett; the colonists gained a permanent settlement on Wampanoag land. It seemed like a win-win for folks benefitting from the pact, though the Narragansett, and other tribes, were not pleased. Tisquantum gave the colonists tips for farming, fishing, and hunting, which helped bring a bountiful harvest. This harvest then sparked the world’s most famous potluck, which was celebrated by both colonists and a party of Wampanoag. For more background, review The Treaty That Saved Plymouth Colony, a blog post from the Law Library of Congress.

Things seem serene if the story ends here, but wave after wave of colonists caused an increasing number of conflicts with Indigenous peoples. King Philip’s war, fought during 1675-76, ended with the colonists victorious and the Wampanoag and other Indigenous tribes from New England decimated.


Young children have precious little background in history, which grounds informed civic participation. Historical figures from distant eras are almost like aliens on another planet for early elementary and elementary students. Thanksgiving is one of the few historical topics touching American civics that young children are somewhat familiar with. The Thanksgiving story children hear, though, is more myth than history. But, as toddlers can learn to climb stairs with an adult’s guiding hand, elementary children of all grades can learn to engage in inquiry, construct understandings using evidence, and separate fiction from non-fiction.

Lots of curricular resources—textbooks, trade books, children’s literature, Charlie Brown’s movie—sanitize this history. Few primary sources (e.g., letters, diaries, etc.) survived because the folks trying not to die 400 years ago didn’t record much that lasted. But elementary students can wade into history using engaging books and accessible primary sources, like those from the Library of Congress.

This unit provides age-appropriate texts and discipline-specific tasks for young children to read, write, and think about the history of folks we anachronistically call Pilgrims in a place we often misspell. By shining a light in the dark spaces of an oft-told fable, young children learn to untangle and discard the misinformation. This skill is needed for democratic participation, now more than ever.

To get kids to read carefully and closely, provide lots of age-appropriate content. To maintain students’ curiosity, select secondary source texts that differ in important, surprising ways. This way, students can trace convergences and divergences just like taste-testing different ice cream flavors to determine what they’re made of.

Primary sources help students to dive deeper into the inquiry process. Like telling students what they’re about to eat prepares them for new and different foods, each primary source has specific background information, presented as pre-reading, to guide close reading. Thinking prompts then guide inquiry and assist students as they make direct text-to-text connections. A class of 1st graders spent more than a week on a lesson with many of the same sources used in the set, Primary Source Learning: The Pilgrims, the Wampanoag & the First Thanksgiving. You can find details here.4

To conclude the inquiry, students should be able to demonstrate and connect what they have learned as well as take part in informed action and dialogue. Referencing credible evidence to support a claim, as well as identifying and appropriately attributing misinformation, are bedrock for effective civic participation. Scrutinizing a source’s credibility is desperately needed now more than ever. Encourage students to use all possible resources, including their previous writing and past primary and secondary readings. Like a Lego edifice, great writing is a combination of lots of important smaller ideas woven together. Finally, tasking students with communicating evidence-based conclusions situates them in a position of authority. Empowering young student learners to engage in informed dialogue is at the heart of civics education.


The sources referenced here can be found in Primary Source Learning: The Pilgrims, the Wampanoag & the First Thanksgiving.


Day 1: Spark Inquiry 

Unraveling facts from fables provides a neat reason for kids to read closely, write with complexity, and think critically about the histories of those sitting on either side of the potluck table. (Fun fact: there was no table).

  • Do: Brainstorm to begin. Ask, “What do you know about Thanksgiving?”
    Consider: This question brings out lots of ideas, both accurate and inaccurate. Record students’ responses for them to enhance or adjust later.
  • Do: Read an out-of-print Thanksgiving-themed book (or three!) written below grade level that you preselected.
    Consider: Older books contain lots of misrepresentations, which is a great starting point because it confirms and adds to much of the ideas evoked during brainstorming. Books below grade level allow more students to easily follow along and eases the burden of re-reading. For example, you might have students read—or read to them—Susan Goodman’s (1999) Pilgrims of Plymouth, or another book that uses outdated or anachronistic terms like Indian and Pilgrim. Reading for comprehension is an important first step, even if more myths emerge.
  • Do: Have students read the book again.
    Consider: Re-reading helps students dig deeper, grasp more, and anticipate. During a second reading, have students list unknown and important words. Some words will be familiar, like turkey, but others will be fuzzy, like colony, or perhaps unfamiliar, like Plymouth. Integrating vocabulary into a social studies lesson helps students construct understandings, about history and words and how ideas change over time and more!
  • Do: As a class, chart a timeline of the history gathered from the student’s brainstorming list and the book they read.
    Consider: Creating a timeline provides students with a future opportunity to update that (outdated) history later as they learn exciting, new information that their parents won’t even know!
  • Do: Instruct students to ask family, friends, or neighbors about their understandings of the history of Thanksgiving.

Days 2-4: Deepen Inquiry 

Using Primary Source Learning: The Pilgrims, the Wampanoag & the First Thanksgiving, have students analyze the sources in sets (sources 1-2, 3-5, 6-8). After analyzing each set, work together as a class to amend the timeline, replacing myths with history and citing one or more sources that support each historical item.

  • Do: Ask students to provide ideas to add to the timeline they started to create about the history of Thanksgiving and re-save it.
  • Do: Next ask, “Try to guess which are myths and which are history!” Mark items on the timeline with an M an H.
    Consider: Eliciting students’ genuine curiosity is like sparking a fire. The sources and strategies are, to extend the metaphor, the firewood and tools needed to grow and sustain the fire.
  • Do: Direct students to complete the pre-readings and thinking prompts for sources 1-8 from Primary Source Learning: The Pilgrims, the Wampanoag & the First Thanksgiving.
    Consider: You may choose to have them use the See, Infer, Wonder graphic organizer to help them before responding to the thinking prompts. Alternatively, you may have them use the Draw and Tell graphic organizers (horizontal or vertical). Different graphic organizers provide multiple pathways for students to show what they learned; teachers can adjust them, as needed, for their students.

Days 5: Connect & Act

Students analyze a primary source developed several years after the first Thanksgiving and consider the importance of knowing history. Next, they evaluate whether or not the source reflects what they learned, then apply their learning by creating an amended or completely new source to reflect the historical record. Finally, they extend their learning by making connections to themselves.

  • Do: Review the amended timeline students helped to develop. Clear up any confusion by referencing the sources cited on the timeline.
  • Do: Instruct students to complete the pre-reading and thinking prompts for source 9 from Primary Source Learning: The Pilgrims, the Wampanoag & the First Thanksgiving.
  • Do: Direct students to share their seals and learnings with their friends and families.


Reading different books on the same topic provides new details because of authors’ distinct emphases. You may read the books in class or have them read them in the Library or at home. Students can use Draw and Tell graphic organizers (horizontal or vertical), to detail their learning. Then, have students build or amend their brainstorming list and historical timeline. Offer books with unique angles. To find the right book, teachers can find a list of books that feature different content at different reading here.5  You will also find a few examples below.

  • To teach about children’s daily chores and social and gender roles in colonial Plimoth, consider Kate Waters’s Sarah Morton’s Day (1989) or Samuel Eaton’s Day (1993). Students will also detect other things, like how Waters uses Plimoth and Wampanoag but Goodman uses Plymouth and Indian!
  • To feature religious persecution, the Separatists’ relocation to Holland, and the fur trade in age-appropriate ways, consider Catherine Grace and Margaret Bruchac’s (2001) 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving.

1 Saints certainly reveals much about how they saw themselves.

2 Bougie is a modern colloquialism roughly translated as Generation X’s “all the rage” or Baby Boomer’s “hip”.

3 Squanto is not a respectful abridgment of his name.

4 John H. Bickford (2021) First Graders’ Inquiry Into the Myths and History of Colonists and Wampanoags at Plimoth, The Social Studies, 112:2, 63-75, DOI: 10.1080/00377996.2020.1821346.

5 John H. Bickford & Cynthia W. Rich, (2015). Examining the historical representation of Thanksgiving within primary and intermediate children’s literature. Journal of Children’s Literature, 40(1), 5-21.

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