Sunday, November 28th 2021   |

A Thanksgiving history primer

By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN

While most of us will celebrate this Thanksgiving Day with our respective family and friends enjoying festive repasts, watching football games, and sharing good times, there will also be much to consider about this uniquely American holiday. There are many myths that are associated with this holiday that have been steeped in our earliest schooling.

Colorful pumpkins decorated with handwritten words “‘tis the season to be thankful.” (Getty Images)

The story tells of the upright, proud Pilgrims who, after surviving that horrible first winter, befriended the ignorant heathen Indians and invited them to join in a feast of praise to their Creator. While that is a nice story to tell unsuspecting elementary school children, nothing could be farther from the truth. And so, it is, historically speaking, with a less-than-jaundiced eye that we should look to the real story behind Thanksgiving and touch on some of the more important events and people who have contributed to making it the holiday we have to celebrate today.

To begin with, we need to examine the religious group of conservatives that we have come to know as the Pilgrims. To hear the arguments advanced on their behalf, one would have to believe that they were persecuted by the Church of England and the British monarchy chiefly because of their religious beliefs. The Pilgrims who boarded the Mayflower in 1620 were indeed hounded by the Church and the King, but it was their deliberate announced intention to overthrow the government of Great Britain that brought about their difficulties. Indeed, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers actually did overthrow the British monarchy 29 years later, so keep in mind that many loyal British subjects considered the Pilgrims as little more than staunchly religious revolutionaries.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The attitude that the Pilgrims carried with them to the New World stemmed from their Puritan ethic that they belonged to a “Chosen Elect” designated by the Supreme Being. Being members of the elect elevated them above other British subjects who did not subscribe to their religious doctrines. As a result, when the Pilgrims left England, they did so with the clear goal of establishing a new “kingdom of God” in the New World. They believed it was their destiny to inherit the land from the Native Americans already living there.

By a fortuitous set of circumstances, the brave Pilgrim settlers were befriended by an English-speaking Native American, Squanto, a member of the Wampanoag tribe. Squanto’s story is an incredible story of good fortune, bad luck, and redemption. He was credited with teaching the mostly ill-begotten colonists with survival techniques that helped carry them through their first miserable and, for almost half of their number, deadly year. Squanto’s village was at one time on the very spot that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Fifteen years earlier a British explorer named John Weymouth had brought Squanto back to England, where he was taught English and educated in the ways of “civilized” man. Unfortunately, some years later, Squanto was captured by a slave ship and sold to the Spanish in the Caribbean. He managed to extricate himself from that horrible situation by the intervention of Captain Weymouth again, once he arrived in Spain. Squanto managed to pay his way back to his homeland along with another Native American who was living in England at that time, Samoset, just a few months short of the arrival of the Pilgrims.

“Interview of Samoset with the Pilgrims”, book engraving, 1853

It was the two of them –Squanto and Samoset – who chanced upon the hapless Pilgrims. Their ranks had already been decimated by disease and a lack of supplies and food. Squanto provided them with deer meat and beaver skins but, most importantly, showed them how to plant corn and other vegetables. He showed them the plants that could be utilized for medicinal benefits as well as familiarizing them with local poisonous ones. Over the course of several months with the Pilgrims, Squanto became an integral figure in the colony, helping to transform the colony from dirt-covered shanties into the round-roofed houses constructed from poles and flat sheets of wood known as wigwams. Many of the pictures that have been rendered to teach school children of the first Thanksgiving incorrectly show teepees (the constructs of the Great Plains Native Americans) as the type of structures favored by the New England Native Americans.

By the following summer, the Pilgrims had planted and harvested enough food to last throughout the harsh winter to come. The leader of the colonists, Captain Miles Standish, hoping to negotiate a treaty, but also as a measure of acknowledgment to his Native American benefactors, invited Squanto, Samoset, and the chief of the Wampanoags, Massasoit, to bring their families to a feast of thanks. What Standish could not have known was just how large a typical Wampanoag family was. When Massasoit and his party arrived at the Pilgrims’ colony, they numbered ninety-one, nearly double the amount of colonists. Governor William Bradford sent four men “fowling” for wild ducks, geese, and, perhaps, turkeys. For his part, Massasoit, recognizing how ill-prepared the Pilgrims were for the size of his assembly, ordered his men to return home and bring back more food. The Wampanoags who returned brought back five deer, fish, beans, squash, native fried cornbread, wild berries, and corn soup, the majority of the food consumed over the three-day festival. Thus, another myth is dispelled that the Pilgrims provided the larger part of the meals to be served.

Gkullberg, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia>

While we may enjoy the pleasure of a big slice of pumpkin pie at our modern day Thanksgiving meals, the original Thanksgiving feast offered no such amenities. In fact the first cows were three years away from arriving in the colony and all dairy products had been exhausted by the time that the Wampanoags and Pilgrims sat down to eat. There was no cheese, no butter, no milk, and no baked goods. It is probable, however, that boiled pumpkin was consumed along with plums and some dried fruits. But, cranberries, the staple of traditional Thanksgiving fare, while in abundant supply in nearby bogs, were probably not consumed at the feast. Neither the Native Americans or Pilgrims had yet to find ways to make cranberries palatable. Wine rendered from native grapes was offered as a fitting libation for this festive dinner.

For three days the noble Pilgrims sat side by side with their Native American counterparts. The two ends of the large table were occupied by Miles Standish and Massasoit. The Pilgrim women for their part stood behind their men, waiting to eat after they had finished, as was their custom. For three days peace prevailed and a spirit of kinship existed between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. But the peace was not to last for long. As more and more English settlers came to Massachusetts in the ensuing years, the intolerance that was part of their Puritan ethic shone through in the way that they dealt with the religion of the Native Americans. The Pilgrims attempted to convert the heathens who had befriended them and those few who did not perish from English-borne disease that devastated their villages were deemed unworthy savages. Barely a generation later, the offspring of both the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims were killing each other in a conflict called King Phillip’s War. Many of Squanto’s people who survived the battles were ironically sold into slavery or forced to flee to French Canada.

It may also surprise many of the modern-day celebrants to learn that the first Thanksgiving feast held in 1621 was never repeated by the Pilgrims.   The custom of a Thanksgiving meal came to be an annual event in the colonies many years later, but each colony celebrated on a different day of the calendar. Following the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October, 1777, all the colonies took part in a celebratory dinner, but that was the only one of its kind. The Thirteen Colonies and, later, individual states continued to celebrate a day of thanksgiving whenever they wished.   The first President of the United States, George Washington, attempted to make November 26 as a national holiday. His efforts were rebuked by disenfranchised citizens.

Painting James Reid Lambdin – Richard’s Free Library, Newport, New Hampshire

It was the efforts of a lady editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, who publicly railed for a national day of Thanksgiving. As an editor of the Boston Ladies Magazine and later as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale championed the cause by writing personal letters to governors and presidents alike. It was Abraham Lincoln, the president who presided over our nation’s greatest conflict, who saw the underlying significance of declaring a national day of unity in the midst of discord. He admonished the American people to unite “with one heart and one voice” on the last Thursday in November, beginning in 1863. President Lincoln’s executive order urged prayers throughout the nation “to implore the imposition of the almighty…to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it…to full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

Since that time only one other president has attempted to trifle with the Thanksgiving Day holiday. President Franklin Roosevelt, attempting to boost the commercialism of the day into a longer Christmas shopping period, declared in 1939 that Thanksgiving Day would be moved to the third Thursday in November. Many states scoffed at the idea from its inception, refusing to change from their observation of Thanksgiving Day on the traditional fourth Thursday. Generally rebuffed, President Roosevelt was forced to change the national holiday back to its original designation just two years later in order to stifle the public clamor.

So, as we enjoy this Thanksgiving Day with our most significant cherished friends and family members, there are many lessons to be gleaned. The most important aspect of this thoroughly American holiday, though, is to give thanks to whatever deity we pray for bringing us to this season with health, happiness, and plenty. It is with that aim in mind and with the spirit of charity in our hearts that many Americans invite the less fortunate to dine with them at church or publicly-sponsored events for the hungry. The holiday icon of a cornucopia, or horn of plenty, has symbolized the abundance of the harvest for many years now. It is similar to the American heart in that it is best depicted as spilling forth, offering sustenance to any who yearn for its contents. Keep those thoughts in mind while enjoying your “Turkey Day” this year and the holiday will take on added meaning and special significance.



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