Not the First Thanksgiving

traditional first thanksgiving
The traditional view of the first happy thanksgiving feast. It looks rather balmy for the 1621 winter in Plymouth.

Now that there are only Thanksgiving leftovers and guests have gone home and others are traveling longer distances home, we can think about this holiday.

I see more articles and posts the past few years about teaching kids the “real story of the first Thanksgiving. ” That’s not the story I was given as a child many decades ago or the version we drew pictures of and did plays about in elementary school.

We think of the Thanksgiving services in Plymouth in 1621 as “the first thanksgiving” but thanksgivings were routine in what became the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607, and the first permanent settlement of Jamestown held a thanksgiving in 1610.

The winter of 1620 was particularly brutal in New England and would end up killing almost half of the Pilgrims. Those colonists knew they needed a better relationship with the Wampanoag Indian tribe on whose territory they had settled.

The Wampanoags did teach the Pilgrims survival skills about New World fishing, planting, and hunting. The next winter they were much better prepared and so they did invite the Indians to share in their food at this end of harvest, get-ready-for-winter time.

Apparently, as accounted by attendee Edward Winslow, there were 90 Indians and 53 Pilgrims at the feast which went on for three days. (Is that why we make Thanksgiving a three-day event now? Probably not.)

You may have heard that the menu wasn’t quite the one we know today. Goose, corn, lobster, venison, ham, clams, berries, fruits, pumpkin, and squash were served. William Bradford noted that, “besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.” Skip the stuffing, marshmallows on sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce.  Our modern fixation on the turkey didn’t really take hold until the 1800s as part of the Thanksgiving dinner.

According to Historic Contact: Indian People and Colonists in Today’s Northeastern United States, authorities in Plymouth began asserting control over “most aspects of Wampanoag life,” as settlers increasingly took more land as their own.

Tragically, after only a few years the Native American population in New England was hit very hard by diseases the colonists brought to the New World that the natives had no resistance to and this continued into the 1620s. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History estimated disease had already reduced the Native American population in New England by as much as 90% from 1616 to 1619, and indigenous people continued to die from what the colonists called “Indian fever.”

For some colonists in New England, Thanksgiving was a religious holiday. That goes back to Puritan traditions when it was a period of prayer, fasting, and giving thanks to God. There wasn’t a fixed day on the calendar and it varied by the colony.

Over the years, the relationship between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag fell apart. As the number of colonists arriving moved into the thousands, resources around Plymouth started to become more precious. The colonists did not rely on the Indians for help.

Wampanoag war
War with the Wampanoag

The new chief of the Wampanoag tribe was Metacomet (also known as “King Philip” and the son of Massasoit who the first colonists knew) and he waged war with the colonists after some of his men were murdered.

For the colonists, it would truly become a war with the Indians in 1675. Hostages were taken by the Indians and held for ransom. Springfield, Massachusets would be burned to the ground. The Colonists made some alliances with other tribes, such as the Mohegans and the Pequots, and the Wampanoag formed alliances with others too.

Metacomet was shot, beheaded and his head displayed on a stick in Plymouth for 25 years. The remainder of his tribe, if not killed, were sold into slavery in the West Indies.

Historians calculate that nearly 30% of the English population and half of the Native Americans were wiped out during these wars.

It was in the middle of another war – the American Civil War – that President Abraham Lincoln (prompted by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale) proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November 1863.

In 1939 November had five Thursdays and President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke tradition by making the fourth Thursday as Thanksgiving. The country was still in the midst of The Great Depression and FDR thought an earlier Thanksgiving would also give merchants a longer period to sell goods before Christmas.

In 1941, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution fixing the traditional last-Thursday date for the holiday beginning in 1942, but then in December of that year, the Senate passed an amendment to the resolution that split the difference by requiring that Thanksgiving be observed annually on the fourth Thursday of November. That would usually be the last Thursday, but in two years out of seven, on average, it would be the next to last. FDR signed this bill and the date of Thanksgiving became federal law.



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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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