The popular American image of the first Thanksgiving looks a bit like a United Methodist potluck — 17th-century style.
We imagine Pilgrims in funny hats and American Indians in feathery headdresses solemnly bowing their heads in gratitude for God’s bounty before sharing heaping plates of potatoes, corn and, of course, turkey.
It’s a picturesque tableau. And just about everything about it is wrong.
What many Americans call the first Thanksgiving began with a misunderstanding and grew into a myth.
With this year marking the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in present-day Massachusetts and a renewed focus on U.S. and church racial history, it’s worth exploring both the good — and the bad — of how a U.S. tradition developed.
“Because Thanksgiving is really a national observance, not a directly religious one, it is a splendid occasion to reflect on the actual history of America, not the sentimentalized version,” said the Rev. William B. Lawrence. He is former dean and professor emeritus of American church history at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.
The Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin, a district superintendent of Lakota heritage, has written about Thanksgiving’s history from a Native perspective.
“Thanksgiving is a universal idea, and cultures around the world have festivals related to the harvest season in which they give thanks to the Creator for the provision of food,” she said. “So I would never say, ‘Don’t have it.’ But I would say: Remember the primary focus, which is thanking God.”
The first thing to know is that the Native American people at the famous feast weren’t nameless supporting players. They were the Wampanoag people, a nation consisting of multiple tribes in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They had been holding celebrations of thanksgiving long before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.
The second thing to know is that the Pilgrims never called it Thanksgiving.
For Pilgrims, Thanksgiving meant a somber time of fasting and prayer. But on that fall day in 1621, the people of Plymouth Colony weren't engaged in an act of piety but of partying. They were rejoicing together after a successful harvest and hunt by firing guns for target practice, among other noisy recreation.
In short, there was a whole lot of shooting going on. Wampanoag tradition holds that Ousamequin, their Massasoit or leader, showed up with some 90 warriors not because they were invited but because they thought the Pilgrims — their new allies — were under attack.
There was likely tension. The Wampanoag warriors far outnumbered the Pilgrims present. Yet diplomacy triumphed. What followed was a three-day feast where the Wampanoag provided five deer and the Pilgrims provided fowl and entertainment.
The menu may have included wild turkey, various kinds of seafood and the Wampanoag dish called "nasaump," cornmeal mixed with vegetables and meat. Nobody passed the potatoes, which were not yet a staple much beyond their native South America.
The celebrants’ fashion also did not quite match your typical Thanksgiving figurines. The Wampanoag people did not wear large headdresses nor did Pilgrim hats have buckles.
The gathering was pleasant enough that a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote about it in a letter back to England. Still, no one suggested holding an annual shindig. Winslow’s brief account described most of what historians know about the feast; Wampanoag tradition tells the rest.
The Wampanoag-Pilgrim alliance was uneasy from the get-go, borne of desperation on both sides.
The Pilgrims’ troubles are better known. Separatists from the Church of England, they crossed the Atlantic to worship and live free of the harassment, fines and jail-time they had experienced in England and the uneasiness they felt in Holland. The Pilgrims planned to settle in present-day New York but poor winds forced them to land much further north just as winter was settling in.
Of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers, only 52 survived the first year.
What they didn’t know was the seemingly abandoned village where they took shelter had been emptied not by choice but by disease. In the years before the Pilgrims stepped ashore, a plague — likely brought by European sailors — had devastated the Wampanoag people.
Squanto, the friendly Native American whom kids learn about in school, spoke English because after Spanish sailors kidnapped him and sold him into slavery, he made his way back home with English help. When he returned to his Wampanoag village, his family and everyone else he knew were dead from the contagion. The Pilgrims settled in what had been his hometown.
Ousamequin — faced with depleted manpower and hostilities with other Indigenous nations — negotiated a mutual-defense treaty with the people of Plymouth in March 1621.
The time of interracial harmony proved short-lived. Plymouth’s population grew with the arrival of more English, and Puritans established their own New England colonies. Together, these settlers made war on their Indigenous neighbors, seizing their land and selling captives into slavery. The once persecuted became persecutors.
In fact, New Englanders marked two bloody victories over Native peoples with Thanksgiving — the prayer-and-fasting kind. During the second occasion in 1676, the people of Plymouth also mounted the head of Pumetacom, Ousamequin’s son, on a pike.
The Massasoit Pumetacom, called King Philip by the English, tried to resist the settlers’ relentless expansion. What became known as King Philip’s War resulted in the loss of some 40% of the region’s Native population, who fought on both sides of the conflict.
But the Wampanoag people managed to survive — demonstrating the kind of grit Americans consider part of their national character.
This year, The United Methodist Church’s Native American International Caucus took up the cause of their descendants, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, in a land dispute with the U.S. government. In June, a federal judge ruled in the tribe’s favor.
Nevertheless, the 17th-century slaughter changed the population of New England. That three-day feast in 1621 remained largely forgotten for more than 200 years.
Enter the Rev. Alexander Young, a New England-born Unitarian pastor with an interest in all things Pilgrim. By Young’s day, Thanksgiving harvest festivals had become quite common in New England. When Young compiled Pilgrim documents in 1841, he included the text of Winslow’s letter — with an added footnote calling the description “The First Thanksgiving.”
The label stuck.
Another New Englander with a passion for historic preservation took the concept beyond regional custom.
Sarah Josepha Hale was something like the Martha Stewart of the mid-1800s. She edited Godey’s Lady's Book, a magazine that included poetry, short stories and advice for maintaining home and family. Hale also wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
But perhaps her most notable contribution was using the magazine to push for a national Thanksgiving holiday. Politicians largely ignored her requests until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln signed “A National Day of Thanksgiving and Praise” in the middle of the Civil War. Her letter to Lincoln is often cited as a factor in the president’s decision.
“Hale’s domestic holiday has been pretty static even through periods of social upheaval and gender-role transformation,” said Anne Wills, chair and professor of religious studies at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina.
Wills, whose research interests include American civic myths, said even without the story of “the first Thanksgiving,” something like it would have been invented.
“It’s a very good example of ‘myth,’ since the story we tell is so incommensurate with what facts we know,” Wills said by email.
“We need Thanksgiving to feel both blessed and generous, even if our day-to-day experience and/or actions don’t match those feelings.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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