Thanksgiving is red headed step child of holidays. It is a holiday that, in principal, celebrates all that is good and holy about humanity. In reality it is a celebration of a day that, within a century, led to the subjugation and murder of millions of people. As you can clearly see one does not blend well with the other. There is some good news though. Despite what you read on Facebook, the original Pilgrim Separatists, or whack job religious fundamentalists (depending on your point of view), did not kill the first Native Americans they met. In fact when Squanto, the liaison between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims, died he was eulogized by William Bradford, the Pilgirms’ governor, with these words, “Here Squanto fell ill of Indian fever, bleeding much at the nose, which the Indians take as a symptom of death, and within a few days he died. He begged the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishman’s God in heaven, and bequeathed several of his things to his English friends, as remembrances. His death was a great loss.” Of course part of his conversion was probably due to the fact that the Wampanoag considered him a traitor, many historians believe he was poisoned by his own people, and even went so far as to assign him a second (a/k/a assistant) for his dealings with the Pilgrims. That was, pretty much, unheard of for Indians.
While historians, those pesky people with a stick in their butt, point out that there were Thanksgiving celebrations prior to the one in Plymouth, they completely miss the point. It doesn’t matter if some Spanish soldiers survived in Florida for a while. What matters is that the Pilgrims stuck around and became an integral part of the developing nation. In fact their wildly conservative, separatist, views still underpin much of our nation’s beliefs, for good or ill.
So we look to the winter of 1621 as the beginning of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving at Plymouth
In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers—an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith and other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World. After a treacherous and uncomfortable crossing that lasted 66 days, they dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims, as they are now commonly known, began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth.
Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring. In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English. Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years and tragically remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.
In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the historic banquet’s exact menu, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. Because the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of 1621, the meal did not feature pies, cakes or other desserts, which have become a hallmark of contemporary celebrations.
I should note that wild dogs were plentiful back then. They are what Lewis and Clark would subsist on many years later.
So, obviously, the original Thanksgiving feast was different than the one you are going to see today.
Oh well, as long as we’re here, let’s take a look at how Thanksgiving changed over those early years.
The Pilgrims set ground at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620. Their first winter was devastating. At the beginning of the following fall, they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower. But the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. And the remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast – including 91 natives who had helped the Pilgrims survive their first year. It is believed that the Pilgrims would not have made it through the year without the help of the natives. The feast was more of a traditional English harvest festival than a true “thanksgiving” observance. It lasted three days.
Governor William Bradford sent “four men fowling” after wild ducks and geese. It is not certain that wild turkey was part of their feast. However, it is certain that they had venison. The term “turkey” was used by the Pilgrims to mean any sort of wild fowl.
Another modern staple at almost every Thanksgiving table is pumpkin pie. But it is unlikely that the first feast included that treat. The supply of flour had been long diminished, so there was no bread or pastries of any kind. However, they did eat boiled pumpkin, and they produced a type of fried bread from their corn crop. There was also no milk, cider, potatoes, or butter. There was no domestic cattle for dairy products, and the newly-discovered potato was still considered by many Europeans to be poisonous. But the feast did include fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison, and plums.
This “thanksgiving” feast was not repeated the following year. Many years passed before the event was repeated. It wasn’t until June of 1676 that another Day of thanksgiving was proclaimed. On June 20 of that year the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks for the good fortune that had seen their community securely established. By unanimous vote they instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim June 29 as a day of thanksgiving. It is notable that this thanksgiving celebration probably did not include Native Americans, as the celebration was meant partly to be in recognition of the colonists’ recent victory over the “heathen natives,” (see the proclamation). By then, it had become apparent to the settlers that the natives were a hindrance to their quest for more land, so the good will they shared at the first feast had long been lost. A hundred years later, in October of 1777 all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration. It also commemorated the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga. But it was a one-time affair.
Yeah, a mere 55 years after that first harvest the Indians had gone from “Saviors and Protectors” to “Heathen Savages” and were fair game for being murdered by the nice people who claimed that killing savages, and anything else they could think of, was “(an) acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.”
Their words, not mine.
In any case fast forward to 1863. The nation was embroiled in a very uncivil war and President Lincoln was looking for anything positive he could share with a torn country. He, like the four previous presidents, had received a letter from Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer who appeared in Boston Ladies’ Magazine, asking him to nationalize the holiday. Unlike the previous four, he did. He declared the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving. That went along fine until Franklin D. Roosevelt noted that some Novembers had five Thursdays, and no one did any Christmas shopping until after the holiday, so he declared that the fourth Thursday of November would be Thanksgiving, with hilarious results.
Some people claimed that the true holiday was the Republican one (Lincoln’s) and others held firm to the new proclamation and others still, Hi Texas!, claimed them both as national holidays. Finally in 1941, realizing that the country had more pressing issues, Congress declared the fourth Thursday as the national holiday and then told everyone to shut the f*** up.
Simply put, every Thanksgiving – excluding the one where Squanto and Bradford gutted some deer – has been marred by controversy and/or violence.
Which, given the historical precedents, makes perfect sense.
Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG (FOX! Sports) every Friday around 9:10 AM.