Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The First Thanksgiving: Separating Fact from Legend

Chances are, what you learned in grade school about the first Thanksgiving was a lot like the painting above: a group of very religious people called Pilgrims had a communal meal to celebrate their bountiful harvest, and shared it with a few Indians* in feathered headdresses.  But if you dig into the real history of the first Thanksgiving, it wasn't quite like that.  First of all, the "First Thanksgiving" wasn't really the first day day set aside for giving thanks in the North American colonies.  There were probably earlier thanksgiving observances in the Virginia colonies, as well as the French and Spanish colonies.  However, the celebration by the Pilgrims of Plymouth was a primary inspiration for the modern Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, so it's interesting to look at what really happened.  It turns out the real occasion didn't resemble the traditional images of Thanksgiving very much at all.

The people we call Pilgrims actually called themselves Separatists, because they believed in separating completely from the Church of England (unlike Puritans, who wanted to purify the church from within).  They weren't commonly called Pilgrims until the 1700's.  They were persecuted in England, so they fled to Holland for several years before sailing for the New World.  When they arrived in what's now Massachusetts in November 1620, they were amazed to find cleared fields among the forests.  They settled in one of them, and named it Plymouth.  In fact, the site was cleared because just a few years earlier it had been a Wampanoag village called Patuxet, which was abandoned after a plague killed most of its residents.  In the winter of 1620-21, it became the site of another tragedy, when nearly half the Pilgrims died of sickness and starvation.

This bleak story began to brighten the next March, when the Pilgrims were visited by Wampanoags named Samoset and Tisquantum, who walked into their village and started speaking English.  Tisquantum--better known as Squanto--was an amazing man.  He had grown up in Patuxet, on the very site where the Pilgrims had settled. He had been captured years before by English fisherman, and was brought Spain as a slave.  He escaped to England, and, in hopes of returning home, befriended some Englishmen who planned to colonize the New World.  Eventually, he joined their expedition and returned to New England.  Arriving the year before the Pilgrims landed, he found his old village inhabited only by skeletons. Devastated, he made his way to another Wampanoag village, the home of the powerful chief Massasoit.  After the pilgrims settled in his old village of Patuxet, Squanto went to live with them.  He showed them how to grow corn and catch fish, and arranged an alliance between the Pilgrims and Massasoit.  Massasoit's people were badly weakened by Europeans diseases, and they needed the Pilgrims' guns and cannons to defend themselves against the Narraganset tribe to the west.

The Pilgrims had an excellent harvest with Squanto's help, and as the next winter approached, they had plenty to eat.  Overjoyed at their change of fortune, they decided to celebrate in the fall of 1621.  One of the only descriptions of this celebration was written by a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow:
"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
This wasn't just a meal--it was a three day festival.  And there were almost twice as many Wampanoag as Pilgrims.  Some historians think the Wampanoag heard the Pilgrims' guns, and came with warriors in case they needed to help their new allies.  Others think the Pilgrims fired their guns after the Wampanoag showed up, to show they could defend themselves if the uneasy alliance fell through.  In any case, the festival stayed peaceful, if not overly friendly, and the Indians contributed to the feast with five deer.

This festival wasn't much like the traditional images of the first Thanksgiving.  First, nobody knows if turkey was on the menu.  Cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie certainly weren't, because those recipes hadn't been invented yet.  The Wampanoag certainly didn't wear feathered headdresses--that was the style among plains Indians out west, not New England tribes. And the Pilgrims didn't dress in black--that was dreamed up by artists later on.  Finally, the Pilgrims didn't think of the event as a traditional thanksgiving observance. Both the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags probably thought of the event as a harvest festival, a tradition with a long history in both cultures.  The pilgrims did observe days called thanksgivings (with a small t), but these were unscheduled days of prayer and fasting that were declared after fortunate events.  Two years later, Governor William Bradford declared a thanksgiving for the end of a drought, and it was a solemn affair, not like the earlier festival.

Unfortunately, the brief moment of peace at the first Thanksgiving didn't last.  Squanto had his own agenda, and he became a source of tension between the Pilgrims and Massasoit.  He died of a fever in 1622. The relationship between Pilgrims and natives soured by the late 1630's, and turned into all out war in the 1670's.  When the colonists won, they declared a day of thanksgiving that certainly didn't include any feasting with the Wampanoag.

In later years, Pilgrims and Puritans in New England continued to observe solemn, unscheduled thanksgivings, although they grew less stern as attitudes loosened in the 1700's. Eventually, the custom spread beyond New England, and the first few presidents sometimes declared national days of thanksgiving (though Jefferson declined to do so, believing it would violate the separation of church and state).  Presidents after Madison stopped making these proclamations, but in 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of a magazine called Godey's Lady's Book, convinced Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.  Lincoln hoped the new holiday would help unify a country torn apart by the Civil War.  Many of Ms. Godey's recipes became standard Thanksgiving dishes.  Around the same time, some of the original Pilgrims' writings were rediscovered, sparking a great deal of popular interest in their story.  By the late 1800's, people were associating Thanksgiving with the pilgrims, and the story of the Pilgrims and Indians sitting down for a communal turkey dinner began to take hold.  This was a time when immigrants were pouring from many different countries, and the story of Thanksgiving became a way of assimilating many cultures into a distinctly American tradition (other countries have Thanksgiving holidays, but they're based on different traditions). In 1941, Congress established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, to be observed on the 4th Thursday of November.

As much as the image of the first Thanksgiving differs from the real thing, there's no doubt the Pilgrims had a great deal to be thankful for.  Massosoit had given them food, and Squanto had helped them feed themselves.  They could expect their second winter to be far better than that first, lethal one.  The Pilgrims were celebrating the fact that, for the first time, they could reasonably expect to survive, and perhaps even prosper, in the New World.  Things didn't turn out so well for the Wampanoag, many of whom still observe a day of mourning on Thanksgiving.  Like many other holidays, Thanksgiving can be controversial, even today.

Of course, we librarians try not to take sides in controversies.  We help people look past spin and legend to find facts, and we carry materials on all sides of controversial issues.  We're here to help our patrons exercise their freedom to decide for themselves what to think. As for this librarian, I'm thankful for that freedom, and for the privilege of helping preserve it.

Happy Thanksgiving to Everyone!

Recommended Resources:

1621 : a new look at Thanksgiving / Catherine O'Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac with Plimoth Plantation ; photographs by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson.  This young adult book is an excellent source-for adults as well as teenagers-for learning about the first Thanksgiving.

Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower.  An A&E video, available for streaming through Access Video on Demand.  Call the Reference Department at 876-5861 for login information

Mayflower : the Pilgrims and their legacy / Nathaniel Philbrick.

The Thanksgiving ceremony : new traditions for America's family feast / Edward Bleier.

The First Thanksgiving.  Elizabeth Armstrong. Christian Science Monitor. 2002 

Plimoth Plantation Website: Article about Thanksgiving 

Pilgrim Hall Museum 

* I'm using the term Indians instead of Native Americans, because that seems to be the way most of them refer to themselves.  

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