A Real History of Thanksgiving
This month has been all about pumpkins and Thanksgiving, chez Food Historian. I have done my "As American as Pumpkin Pie" talk several times in the last few weeks. If you missed it, you can catch a recording, and the recipe for Lydia Maria Child's 1832 Pumpkin Pie here. I've also been doing a lot of media interviews about Thanksgiving, including for National Geographic and USA Today. And of course, my goal is always to try to debunk the mythology of the 19th century concept of Thanksgiving, which is rooted, wittingly or not, in white supremacy, Christian supremacy, and the supremacy of New England culture.
Food historian Andrew F. Smith in the Association for the Study of Food and Culture Facebook page posted earlier this week about Thanksgiving. He writes:
Sorry to report that the "Pilgrims" had nothing to do with Thanksgiving; it's all a made up story.
Days of thanksgiving were frequently celebrated in colonial America– particularly in New England. These thanksgivings were usually declared in response to local events, such as surviving a long trip, military victories, good harvests, or providential rainfalls. These were solemn religious occasions spent in prayer, and little evidence has surfaced suggesting that a formal meal was part of the thanksgiving observance: only two records mention food, and they’re unusual. Thanksgiving dinners were well established by the American War for Independence (1776-1783). To celebrate the victory at Saratoga in 1777, the Continental Congress declared a day of thanksgiving. Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier, noted in his journal that for this celebration, “Each man was given half a gill of rice and a tablespoonful of vinegar.” More sumptuous fare appeared in 1779 descriptions of thanksgiving meals. In one, a goose was served; in the other, venison, goose and pigeons were served along with a plethora of side dishes and deserts.
In New England, the thanksgiving dinner became particularly significant event by the late eighteenth century. A participant in a 1784 thanksgiving meal in Norwich, Connecticut, proclaimed: “What a sight of pigs and geese and turkeys and fowls and sheep must be slaughtered to gratify the voraciousness of a single day.” William Bentley, the pastor of the East Church in Salem, Massachusetts, reported in 1806, that, “A Thanksgiving is not complete without a turkey. It is rare to find any other dishes but such as turkies & fowls afford before the pastry on such days & puddings are much less used than formerly.” Bentley’s description suggests that a two-course meal —the first consisting of turkey and perhaps other meat dishes, and the second, of dessert. This pattern was common during the early nineteenth century and these traditions were long maintained.
The first association between the Pilgrims and thanksgiving appeared in 1841, when Alexander Young published a copy of a letter written by Edward Winslow, dated December 11, 1621, to a friend in England. It described a three-day fall event, the dates of which were not cited. In this letter, Winslow writes:
Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner re[j]oice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They four in one day k[i]lled as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governor and upon the Captain and others.
You will note that there is NO statement that this was a “thanksgiving.”
In a footnote to the 1841 reprint of the letter, Alexander Young claimed that the event described by Winslow “was the first thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England. On this occasion they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison.” However, Winslow did not use the word thanksgiving to describe this or any other event in the fall of 1621. The Puritans made no subsequent mention of this event and it was not remembered or observed in later years by the Pilgrims or Puritans. The feast described by Winslow makes no mention of prayer and it does include many secular elements: the Puritans would not have considered this a thanksgiving.
However, the idea that the 1621 event at Plimoth Plantation was the “First Thanksgiving” was picked up by others, and by the mid-nineteenth century it was generally believed in New England that the Pilgrims had invented thanksgiving in America. Of course, Jamestown, settled in 1607, observed many days of thanksgiving years before the Pilgrims landed at Plimoth Plantation, and a plaque in Jamestown marks the purported site of the real “First Thanksgiving,” but factual knowledge was unable to stop the fakelore of the Pilgrim connection with thanksgiving from spreading.
The driving force behind making thanksgiving a national holiday in the United States was Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale commenced her campaign to create a national thanksgiving holiday in 1846. For the next seventeen years, she wrote annually to members of Congress, prominent individuals, and the governors of every state and territory, requesting each to proclaim a common thanksgiving day. In an age before word processors, typewriters, or mass media, this was a difficult campaign to wage.
Hale believed that a thanksgiving holiday would help bind the United States together. She came close to success in 1859 when thirty states and three territories observed thanksgiving on the third Thursday of November. During the Civil War, she was unable to communicate with many Southern states, so rather then request each state, she approach President Lincoln, asking for thanksgiving to be designated a national holiday. A few months after the North’s military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863, Hale achieved success: Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national day of thanksgiving, and the holiday has been celebrate ever since in the United States.
Smith outlines a good argument. Days of thanksgiving were common throughout early American history, could be declared at any time of year, and were usually not associated with feasting. When they were, it was often after the fall harvest, as the "original" 1621 version. Harvest feasts are very English, so it makes sense that the Separatists (what the Pilgrims were actually called) would celebrate a successful harvest after so devastating a winter with a feast. Harvest Home, or Ingathering, is an ancient tradition in the British Isles. It also makes sense that traditionally British foodways, such as eating sour fruits with wild game birds (turkey and cranberry sauce, anyone?), pies, gravy, and mashed root vegetables, would make their way onto New England harvest dinner tables.
But days of thanksgiving were also declared for far darker reasons, including the "victory" in May, 1637 known today as the Pequot Massacre. The idea that our modern Thanksgiving stems from the celebration of that massacre is making the rounds of the internet lately, and while the connection is not direct, it's not as indirect as Snopes makes it out to be.
Although, as Smith notes, Sarah Josepha Hale was the driving force behind our modern celebrations, whatever her intentions, the subtext of a distinctly British, New England tradition being sanctified by national authority to be celebrated throughout the land definitely fit with the driving cultural force of the 19th century - that White, Protestant, Yankee/English culture was superior to all others. It's no surprise that Thanksgiving finally became a national holiday in 1863 - the midst of the American Civil War. It's also no surprise that the mythology of the peaceful, helpful Indians was becoming part of our national conversation just as millions of Indigenous people were being forcibly removed from their lands and treaties violated right and left by the federal government notably during the "Plains Wars" of the mid and late 19th century. The Great Plains were some of the last areas of the United States to be colonized by Europeans, and so their Indigenous peoples were some of the last to be forcibly removed. It's also why most portrayals of Indians in Thanksgiving imagery depict them in the garb of Northern Plains Indians, which is substantially different from how Native peoples in the Northeast dressed historically.
This c. 1920 postcard is a classic example of how Thanksgiving mythology is perpetuated. A "Pilgrim" (They didn't dress like that either) sits with his gun over a freshly killed turkey. In the background, a giant pumpkin pie halos him. Behind the pumpkin, lurks a Native man dressed in Plains Indian clothing, his intentions unknown.
By framing Indigenous people as complicit in their own destruction, Europeans could justify land theft (they weren't "using" it anyway!), genocide ("Kill the Indian, save the man"), and breaking countless treaties that legally have the same standing as the Constitution (you can't stop progress!). This is also why, for many Indigenous people, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning.
A lot of people still celebrate Thanksgiving, and since the holiday in the modern era is much more focused on food and family, I think that's a good thing. However, it's important to understand what Thanksgiving myths are out there and why and to not perpetuated them. And it's equally important to support Indigenous people - emotionally, politically, and financially - as we celebrate. If you want to decolonize your Thanksgiving by educating yourself further, check out last year's post with a list of resources. The amazing film Gather is now available on Netflix and is fantastic. It would make a wonderful post-Thanksgiving-dinner watch with friends and family.
Taking tangible actions is also important. You can support Indigenous food producers as you plan meals all year round, not just at Thanksgiving. You can support Indigenous people in their efforts to prevent oil and natural gas pipelines from violating treaties and polluting or utterly destroying the last vestiges of important ecological landscapes (which, newsflash, helps the whole planet). You can support the land back movement, which focuses on returning public lands acquired through treaty violations back to Indigenous ownership and/or stewardship. Especially since Indigenous people are generally much better at managing public lands than state and federal organizations. You can donate to legal aid organizations that help Indigenous people and tribes protect their individual and collective rights. And finally, you can push back against stereotypes of Indigenous people and Thanksgiving alike. Like my friend whose kindergartener came home with a Thanksgiving worksheet featuring stereotypical depictions of Pilgrims and Indians, who sent her teacher this amazing resource put together by the Native American Services department of Oklahoma City Public Schools on how to interpret Thanksgiving for children in a way that does not erase Indigenous people or perpetuate harmful myths.
American history is messy. And that scares a lot of people. But history is complicated, and by better understanding it, we can better understand how we got to where we are today, and whether or not we should do anything to change or fix it. So this Thanksgiving, don't buy the same old stories you grew up with. They're myths for a reason, and we can challenge those reasons, because they suck.
And if you don't want to make a Thanksgiving meal that puts New England foodways on a pedestal, feel free to skip the turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed root vegetables, pumpkin pie, and anything else you don't like but always feel obligated to eat. Make your own traditions, and celebrate your own, local harvest season with foods that reflect your family and your geography, without the guilt. Throw off the tyranny of "tradition." Life's too short for bad meals and bad history.
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.