Thanksgiving’s History: A Short Review

Consistent with Thanksgiving’s history, this year, 2020, hasn’t been one to rave about. Thanksgiving is about remembering that things could be worse and that we should be thankful that we are here. This year, we’ve survived  a contested national election, an epidemic, and harsh responses by government to the epidemic. COVID-19 took many lives and many small businesses  lost their customers and disappeared.  Children stayed home during lockdowns and spent a school year outside the classroom. But we’re still here, and looking forward. We are thankful.

According to current rules we’ll have fewer large capacity feasts and massive parades this year. People are beginning to ignore rules, but everyone still is aware of the dangers of contracting the virus.

About ten year’s ago in a year full of feasts, parades and football, I published a brief history of Thanksgiving for northernneck.com, a local on-line newspaper. The following is what I wrote then.  History doesn’t change: Thanksgiving has always been about people recognizing that things may be tough, but we’ve survived.

Thanksgiving’s History

Historians believe that the first Thanksgiving by Europeans in North America took place in Florida in 1513, when Juan Ponce de Leon landed on the coast.  He claimed the land for Spain and offered a prayer of thanks for safe passage. Later, on September 8, 1565 Spanish settlers in Saint Augustine, Florida, sang hymns of thanks, celebrated Mass, and fed themselves and local Indians with food from ships—hardtack, beans and wine.

Native Americans celebrated Thanksgiving festivals for many centuries before the arrival of Europeans.  Thanksgiving’s history for English-speaking Europeans began in Virginia on September 4, 1619 at Berkeley Plantation. There thirty-eight settlers, all men, gave thanks and proclaimed that thereafter the day of the ship’s arrival would be observed as a religious day of Thanksgiving.  In Massachusetts, Plymouth’s first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a harvest feast, and involved the Wampanoag Indians. The menu is uncertain, but foods available included wild fowl and venison.

Jamestown Interpreter Baking Fish over                                  Open Fire

The 1621 Pilgrim feast wasn’t repeated, but Thanksgiving’s history progressed. Over the years New England developed an annual tradition of thanksgiving prayers after the harvest.  In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom and by the middle of the 19th century many other states did the same.  In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November.  Since then every President has issued an annual Thanksgiving proclamation.

Thanksgiving: An Official Legal Holiday

Finally, in 1941 Congress established Thanksgiving as an official national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.  World War II raged, and President Roosevelt delivered a famous speech celebrating four freedoms:  for speech and worship, and from want and fear.  Norman Rockwell created four paintings commemorating the speech.   He depicted “Freedom from Want” as a family Thanksgiving feast of roast turkey.

Four Freedoms

The Norman Rockwell paintings were published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1943.  The Treasury Department toured the paintings around the country, selling over $130 million in war bonds.

Thanksgiving today is a secular holiday, characterized by parades, football games and turkey dinners. The Friday after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday or the official start of the retail Christmas season.

Thanksgiving Parade

Thanksgiving dinner normally consists of roast turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. The National Turkey Federation estimated that about 46 million turkeys were consumed by Americans last year at Thanksgiving.  Cranberry sauce is a very American tradition. The cranberry is one of only three fruits—the others are blueberries and concord grapes—to be native to American soil.

Thanksgiving Feast

A Thanksgiving Story

Aside from the old question, “Why did the turkey cross the road?”  (Answer: it was the chicken’s day off), there are many turkey tales.

A pro football team once finished daily practice, when a large turkey strutted onto the field. While the players gazed in amazement, the turkey walked up to the head coach and demanded a tryout.   Everyone stared in silence as the turkey caught pass after pass and ran right through the defensive line.  When the turkey returned to the sidelines, the coach shouted, “You’re terrific!!! Sign up for the season, and I’ll see to it that you get a huge bonus.”  “Forget the bonus, the turkey said, “All I want to know is, does the season go past Thanksgiving Day?”

 

Learning about American History

My granddaughter, a high school junior, plans to take a course in which she’ll be learning about American history this summer. Likely it will be a virtual course delivered by zoom over the computer.

I wonder what constitutes history to today’s teenagers. Personally I can remember the end of World War II and its aftermath. Parades marched down the main streets and veterans returned home with missing limbs.  I hid under my school desk in drills to protect me from a Russian nuclear attack. The Cuban missile crisis felt like the beginning of World War III and I remember the assassination of President Kennedy.

My own children have no living memory of any major war: World War II, Korea or Vietnam. They and their children know nothing about the gas shortages of the 1980s and Jimmy Carter’s inflation that destroyed our small community banks. They do know about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the destruction of the twin towers in 2001.  My grandchildren don’t even remember that.

What do they teach in American history courses in today’s high schools?  I hope they do a better job than they did when I went to school. But I know they won’t be teaching early history.  I was told this by quite a number of history teachers when I served as a docent at Jamestown Settlement, a historical museum that commemorates the first landing of three English ships in North America in 1607.

Peter Minuit Buying Manhattan: Learning Early New York City History

 

What I Learned about Early American History

Growing up in New York City, I began learning about American history in kindergarten and the first grade. For instance, I remember learning about three ships arriving at Jamestown and the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock. There, at Plymouth Rock, they apparently celebrated the first Thanksgiving.  I know we were shown a painting of Peter Minuit buying Manhattan Island from the Indians with twenty-four dollars in trinkets and a bottle of rum.

Look at the painting closely.  We can see that all of the Indians are covered head to toe in deerskins. Several wear elaborate feathered headdresses. An Indian woman wears a cotton print dress under her deerskin. We know that Western Indians in the nineteenth century dressed like that, but Manhattan Indians in the seventeenth century likely looked quite different.

No matter to the kindergartener.  We made deerskins to wear and feathered headdresses—all out of brown paper, colored and pasted together any way we liked.  I remember we also made pilgrim hats, but they were black and out of card board.  In comparison, it was much more fun to be an Indian; they got to prance around and make loud noises.

Whatever people learned in school, to most people the founding fathers fell out of the sky in powdered wigs and silk stockings. Therefore, the hundred and fifty years between Pocahontas and George Washington remain a blank.

American History and Genealogy

At Jamestown Settlement I met many genealogists, anxious to see if they had an ancestor on one of the first ships. Though they were interested in learning about American history, I had to tell them that those people were probably not people they’d want to meet.  My teachers never taught this in school, but the settlers came to fight and make fortunes. They fought with each other and the native tribes nearby, and most of them died early gruesome deaths from starvation, disease, warfare, and simply fighting with each other. These early sailors weren’t ancestors of anybody.

Descendants of Pocahontas (there are many) are generally not the genealogists; they know their family lines very clearly and don’t have to prove anything. While their “history” goes back to 10,000 B.C., they come to the museum to see history as relevant to today. They come to see the building of the country, from sailing up the rivers, establishing plantations, trading crops for credit, and developing a way for different people to live together.

About a third of the sailors on the three original ships “married” Indian women. The Indians helped to build James Fort, and Indian wives did most of the cooking. Indian-made cooking utensils have been found on the site of the original fort, and in the earliest days only the Indians would have known what was edible. The earliest surviving settlers learned a great deal from the Indians. If you date your family to seventeenth century Virginia, Pocahontas is probably your relative.

Some Perspective on Learning about Early History

Early history isn’t taught because little is known about it, and what’s written is partisan, controversial and probably incorrect.  We don’t learn about early American history in school, but where else can we learn about it?. Were the English barbarians, out to kill and rampage? Were the Indians savages, out to starve out the new arrivals? Didn’t they trade and learn from each other? How did they really build towns and colonies?

Let me end with a cartoon by James Stevenson (1966) from The New Yorker:

 

Learning about American History:  Indians and Settlers: Friends or Foes?

 

Cartoons don’t settle anything.  They just keep the arguments going.