In my last post I noted that Americans have long been tempted to make up stuff about the First Thanksgiving.  This is true, in part, because so little evidence about the event has survived.  The only surviving firsthand account of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration comes from the pen of Pilgrim Edward Winslow, who wrote the following brief description in a letter to England not long afterward:

Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling; that so we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours.  They four, in one day, killed 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, Massasoyt, with some ninety 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.

These 115 words don’t give us a whole lot to go on, do they?  And yet Americans have constructed quite an elaborate edifice on this flimsy foundation.

In actuality, much of what might be called the “traditional” memory of the Pilgrim’s 1621 celebration dates from the late-nineteenth century.  This was a time when “television was called books,” to quote the grandfather in The Princess Bride, and no book was more successful in making the First Thanksgiving “come alive” than a best-selling historical novel by Jane Austin.

Jane G. Austin

Jane G. Austin

No, not Jane Austen, the early-nineteenth century British writer famous for novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.  I’m referring to Jane Austin (notice the different spelling of the last name), the late-nineteenth century American author of such literary classics as A Nameless Nobleman, Mrs. Beauchamp Brown, and Nantucket Scraps.  In 1889 this fifty-eight-year-old New England wife and mother penned Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, and in the process created a stereotypical view of the First Thanksgiving that has lasted for generations.

Austin promised her readers that they would “not be misled as to facts, though these be strung upon a slender thread of romance.”  In reality, romance dominates the plot, and as for the facts, well, let’s just say that they were few and far between.  Historical novels always involve some combination of fact and faction, but Austin embellished the historical record with a vengeance.  This was particularly true of her chapter on “The First Thanksgiving of New England,” where she had few known facts to constrain her and could let her imagination run wild.  My own (conservative) guess would be that 99 percent of the material in this chapter is pure invention.

To begin with, there is a pervasive romantic tension that reads like the script of a network soap opera.  In this one single chapter (out of forty) we learn that John Howland is interested in Elizabeth Tilley (and that both enjoy popcorn); that the widower Bradford has apparently been making eyes at Mary Chilton; that the widower Allerton has proposed unsuccessfully to Priscilla Mullins; that Priscilla only has eyes for John Alden, though he has yet to succumb to her “saucy” and “bewitching” glances; that Myles Standish is infatuated with Priscilla; and that Standish is secretly admired by Desire Minter, who has enlisted the aid of an Indian woman in brewing a love potion that will win his affections.  “Slender thread” indeed.

Significantly, Austin also creatively embellished Winslow’s skeletal description of the Pilgrims’ celebration.  She tells us which four men the governor sent hunting, who was dispatched to invite Massasoit, which three men welcomed the Indians when they arrived at sunrise on a Thursday morning, what Edward Winslow was doing at that precise moment (he was buttoning his doublet), and what Massasoit’s brother thought to himself as he marveled at the Pilgrims’ marksmanship.

As Austen tells the story, however, the Indians soon recede into the background, and this Victorian housewife reserves her most lavish detail for the imagined culinary accomplishments and domestic sensibilities of the Pilgrim womenfolk.  We read that “by noon the long tables were spread” in the most idyllic of settings, as “the thick yellow sunshine filtered through with just warmth enough for comfort, and the sighing southerly breeze brought wafts of perfume from the forest.”  The menu for the banquet would have done honor to a Boston hotel.  There were numerous enormous turkeys, of course (“more succulent” than “any I ever saw at home,” according to John Alden), perfectly complemented by Priscilla Alden’s beechnut stuffing.  But there was much, much more:

The oysters in the scallop shells were a singular success [the ladies had fried the oysters in a mixture of bread crumbs, spices, and wine, and placed a serving of the delicacy in a clamshell at each man’s place], and so were the mighty venison pasties, and the savory stew compounded of all that flies the air, and all that flies the hunter in Plymouth woods, no longer flying now but swimming in a glorious broth cunningly seasoned by Priscilla’s anxious hand, and thick bestead with dumplings of barley flour, light, toothsome, and satisfying.  Besides there were roasts of various kinds, and thin cakes of bread or manchets [loaves or rolls made from the finest wheat flour], and bowls of salad set off with wreaths of autumn leaves laid around them, and great baskets of grapes, white and purple, and of the native plum, so delicious when fully ripe in its three colors of black, white, and red.

Martha Stewart, meet Priscilla Alden.

You’ve got to give Austin credit for a lively imagination, and in truth, the problem with Standish of Standish doesn’t lie in its grandiose embellishment of the historical record, per se.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with historical fiction as long as we know that’s what we’re getting.  Austin was far from candid about the extent of her embellishment, however, and we can only wonder how long her nose grew when she promised her readers that they would “not be misled as to facts.”  What is certain is that the public adored how she made the past come alive.

Austin’s novel went through twenty-eight printings and has shaped popular memories of the First Thanksgiving ever since.  In 1897 the national magazine Ladies’ Home Journal drew heavily from Austin’s novel for an article titled “The First Thanksgiving Dinner.”  Only eight years after the publication of Standish of Standish, Austin’s fictional recreation was so widely accepted that the magazine repeated her details as unquestioned historical fact.

W.L. Taylor, 1897

W.L. Taylor, 1897

The Journal did add one important contribution to the story, however.  While Standish of Standish had included no illustrations, the magazine’s article was headed by a sketch from an artist named W. L. Taylor.  The drawing, widely reproduced and imitated, featured the now familiar portrayal of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag seated at a heavily-laden banquet table, the Indians obviously uncomfortable in such a formal setting, the Pilgrims—decked out in black suits, white lace collars, and high steepled hats—much more at ease.

The stereotype was now complete.



History is not the past itself, but only that tiny portion of the past that human beings remember.  I’ve shared in a previous post the memorable word picture that C. S. Lewis has given us to illustrate that distinction.  In his essay “Historicism,” Lewis concluded that even a single moment involves more than we could ever document, much less comprehend.  He then went on to define the past in this way:

The past . . . in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.  By far the greater part of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred. . . . At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of “history” falls off the world into total oblivion.

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God,” Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us.  Only “those things which are revealed belong to us.”  If the past is a domain that God has created, then Lewis’s metaphor drives home a discomfiting truth: The Lord has chosen to keep most of the past hidden from us.

This is not a limitation we are disposed to accept.  We chafe against it, and when it suits our purposes, we fill in the gaps in God’s revelation with a “past” of our own imagining.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about imagining what the past might have been like, of course.  The problem comes when we mistake this imagined past for reality.  To say that this happens all the time would be an understatement.  Typically, only a portion of popular memory of the past is firmly grounded in historical evidence.  The other part—often the more entertaining part—consists of stuff somebody made up.

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Americans have long struggled with the temptation to make up stuff about the First Thanksgiving.  That is because we have loaded with great significance an event about which almost no firsthand evidence survives.  The only surviving firsthand account of a celebration in Plymouth in 1621 comes from the pen of Pilgrim Edward Winslow, an assistant to the Plymouth Colony’s governor, William Bradford.  Upon the arrival of a ship from England in November 1621, Winslow crafted a cover letter to accompany reports to be sent back to the London merchants who were financing the Pilgrims’ venture.  In his letter—the main purpose of which was to convince the investors that they weren’t throwing their money away—Winslow described the houses the Pilgrims had built, listed the crops they had planted, and emphasized the success they had been blessed with.  To underscore the latter, he added five sentences describing the abundance they now enjoyed.

Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling; that so we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours.  They four, in one day, killed 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, Massasoyt, with some ninety 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.

These 115 words constitute the sum total of contemporary evidence regarding the First Thanksgiving.  They’re evocative, but they’re also vague, and if we wanted to, we could compile a whole list of details commonly taken for granted about the occasion which we could never prove from Winslow’s brief description.  Why are we so sure that turkey was on the menu?  Why do we assume that the feast took place in November?  Why do we take for granted that the Indians were invited (instead of just crashing the party)?  Can we positively conclude that there was a religious dimension to the celebration?  Can we positively conclude that there was not?

There are a lot of gaps here that we’d like to have filled in.  In the words of the late radio and television commentator Paul Harvey, we want to know “the rest of the story.”

In my next post, I want to introduce you to a novelist that so successfully filled in the gaps that her fictional recreation of the First Thanksgiving soon became historical reality for a whole generation of Americans.  Before doing so, I want to point you briefly to a hoax that continues to mislead many of us who long for the rest of the story.

I first encountered William Bradford’s supposed First Thanksgiving Proclamation when my family and I enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at the home of some dear friends from our church.  Knowing that I was a historian, the host pulled me aside before the meal to tell me that he had found the text of Governor Bradford’s proclamation calling for the First Thanksgiving, and that he planned to read it before asking the blessing.  Here is what he had found:

Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.

Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.

 William Bradford

Ye Governor of Ye Colony

Although I was uncomfortable contradicting my host, I felt compelled to tell him that this was a hoax.  Can you figure out why?  Its two short paragraphs are chock full of factual errors and anachronisms.  The proclamation gives the wrong year for the celebration, to begin with.  It refers to the colony’s “pastor,” although they didn’t have one for many years after settling in New England.  It uses language and concepts unknown to the Pilgrims, most notably the reference to the dictates of conscience, an 18th-century Enlightenment concept that the Pilgrims would have roundly rejected.  Comically, it alludes to “ye Pilgrim Rock,” a landmark unknown to the Pilgrims themselves and not mentioned for 120 years after they landed.

This obvious fabrication has been circulating in the United States for at least three decades, if not longer, and despite its glaring flaws it continues to be cited authoritatively.  The earliest allusion to it that I have come across is from 1985, when a White House speechwriter quoted from it in one of Ronald Reagan’s presidential Thanksgiving proclamations.  Since that time it has appeared (in whole or in part) in at least three books published by reputable presses, and it literally thrives on the internet, where it is reproduced ad infinitum.

The origin of this clumsy hoax will probably always be a mystery.  Why it has gained so much credence is easier to fathom: a lot of us want to believe it.  I don’t mean that we consciously embrace something we know to be false.  That’s probably pretty rare.  The temptation that most of us face is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility—the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true.

So, for example, Americans distressed by increasing government intrusion in the free market are happy to read that the Pilgrims’ first autumn celebration supposedly came in 1623, rather than 1621.  Although seemingly a small point, the incorrect date mistakenly places the festival in the same year that the Pilgrims disregarded their agreement with their London financial backers and allocated individual plots of land to each household.

Thus, in best-selling books like Larry Schweikart’s 48 Liberal Lies About American History (ironically dedicated to “to those honest and ethical scholars everywhere who allow the evidence to determine their worldview, not the opposite”) we read that the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Lord’s granting of a bounteous harvest after a cruel winter.  By 1623 that was old news.  Instead, they celebrated because God had delivered them from the futility of socialism.

This is also the message of Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.   As Limbaugh put it in an earlier book, “Can you think of a more important lesson one could derive from the Pilgrim experience?”  It is no exaggeration to say that Limbaugh’s entire argument about the First Thanksgiving stands or falls with this fraudulent document.

Similarly, Christians longing for firm evidence of America’s religious roots have also welcomed the “proclamation.”  Whereas the William Bradford who authored Of Plymouth Plantation did not even mention the First Thanksgiving, the Bradford who penned this imaginary decree reassures us with comforting detail.  Leaving no doubt about the Christian underpinnings of the holiday, he expresses special gratitude for religious freedom and enjoins the Pilgrims to “render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings.”

It is no coincidence, I think, that most of the internet sites posting the proclamation are sponsored by Christian organizations, or that it lives on in books with titles like America’s God and Country or Putting God Back into the Holidays.  Not all of these organizations or authors are seeking ammunition for the culture wars—several simply want to encourage other Christians—but all share a (likely unconscious) willingness to suspend their critical faculties when they find historical evidence that serves their purposes.  Make no mistake: this is a tendency we’re all prone to.




One of my favorite cartoons about the First Thanksgiving shows several Pilgrim and Wampanoag women in the foreground setting a table for a huge feast, while in the background their husbands (both Native American and Pilgrim) are playing a rousing game of football.  Obviously worn out from cooking, one woman turns to another and says “I sure hope this doesn’t get to be a tradition!”

So how old, really, is the connection between Thanksgiving and football?  A lot older than most of us would guess.  As early as 1928, the Saturday Evening Post cover below suggested the centrality of football to America’s Thanksgiving.  Notice the almost perfect symmetry between the two figures.

From the November 24, 1928 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

From the November 24, 1928 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

The cartoon below suggests that the Thanksgiving-football connection is even older, however.  This very busy cartoon by Samuel Ehrhart appeared in Puck in the year 1912.  (Puck was a popular national humor magazine published between 1871 and 1918.)  Notice how the crowds are flocking to see the advertised football contest pitting “Ye Pilgrims versus Ye Indians” at 2:00 p.m.  Even before WWI, then, Americans had come to take for granted the link between Thanksgiving and football, and the cartoon’s gag consists of imagining our ancestors from the 17th century as enjoying the same pastime.



But the Thanksgiving-football connection actually goes back much further than this.  One hundred thirty-eight years ago—in 1876—the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association (with all of four member schools) determined to hold its first championship game in New York City on Thanksgiving Day.  In no time at all the annual Thanksgiving Day championship game had become the country’s premier sporting event, drawing crowds upwards of forty thousand by the early 1890s.

From Harper's Weekly, December 20, 1879

From Harper’s Weekly, December 20, 1879


In 1891, a writer for Harper’s Weekly observed that in New York “a great and powerful and fascinating rival has come to take the place of the Thanksgiving Day Dinner . . . the Thanksgiving Day Game.”  Soon big “rivalry” games were becoming Thanksgiving traditions in Washington, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.  Significantly, they were also spreading into southern cities, and it is no exaggeration to say that the growing popularity of Thanksgiving Day football helped to reconcile southerners to the Yankee holiday.  By 1893 the tradition was so entrenched that the New York Herald could lament, “Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given. . . . It is a holiday granted by the State and the Nation to see a game of football.”

Football wasn’t the only option for those inclined to pleasure on this once “holy day,” however.  By the end of the century there were car races in Chicago; bicycle races in Los Angeles; balls, parties, golf tournaments, and theater matinees in the nation’s capital.  While a West Coast journalist insisted that “the mingling of sports with prayer harms no well-regulated normal community,” a Chicago newsman predicted that “the churches will have to devise some more attractive program . . . if the religious feature of Thanksgiving Day is to be preserved.”  The year of this warning was 1897.



In my last post on the First Thanksgiving in American Memory, I called attention to a number of trends in the latter half of the nineteenth century that opened the door for Americans gradually to embrace the Pilgrims as ancestors critical to the American founding. There was one other, absolutely crucial trend at the close of the century that made the adoption of the Pilgrims as honorary Founders not only possible but desirable. That trend was immigration.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Branscombe's famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Branscombe’s famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

By the 1890s, the most pressing political challenge facing the country was no longer the preservation of sectional harmony or conflict with Native Americans, but rather how to assimilate an unprecedented influx of new immigrants to the United States. From the 1880s into the early 1920s, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe—Poles, Italians, Russians, Greeks, Czechs, Armenians, Croats, and Ruthenians, among others—would flood into the United States by the millions, creating anxiety among the native born that their country was being overrun by inassimilable aliens.

As human beings we always remember the past from the vantage point of the present, and in the late-nineteenth century native-born Americans increasingly surveyed the country’s history in the light of contemporary concerns about immigration. The effect on popular memory of the Pilgrims was dramatic. In 1841 Americans had recalled the Pilgrims primarily as New Englanders, or as Puritans, or as generic whites striving to coexist with Indians. By the dawn of the twentieth century they remembered them first and foremost as immigrants. More precisely, by 1900 they had transformed the Pilgrims into America’s model immigrants, the standard against which all newcomers should be measured.

Critics of the new immigrants compared them to the Pilgrims and found them wanting. Noting that Thanksgiving was “the nation’s tribute” to the “sublime strength of character which ennobled the Pilgrims,” a Christian magazine based in Chicago editorialized that the influx from southern and eastern Europe was bringing with it “the germs of a moral malaria.”

The department store Marshall Field and Company echoed this concern in a full-page Thanksgiving ad in 1920. The advertisement featured in the foreground a large, stereotypical Pilgrim male standing on Plymouth Rock, and in the background a sea of immigrants entering the country through Ellis Island. “What metal do they bring to this melting pot?” the ad inquired. “Do they bear the precious ore of the early Pilgrims, or the dross of the disturber? . . . We want only those who—like the Pilgrims of old—landed here with gratitude on their lips and thanksgiving in their hearts.”

The more optimistic believed that the example of the Pilgrims could be used to “Americanize” immigrants. The Citizenship Committee of the American Bar Association found in the history of Thanksgiving an ideal context for inculcating “the principles and ideals of our government in the minds and hearts of the people.” Progressive educators agreed. Soon Thanksgiving materials proliferated in teachers’ magazines and published curricula, and by the 1920s a survey of elementary school principals revealed that Thanksgiving was the single most celebrated holiday.

School history textbooks, which had rarely referred to the Pilgrims prior to 1900, soon devoted whole chapters to the voyage of the Mayflower and the First Thanksgiving. “Boys and girls are especially interested in the Plymouth colony,” noted the author of A History of Our Country, for Higher Grades. “It is the only one of all the American colonies that has given to the United States a holiday,” an observance which “makes Americans a more thankful race.”

By emphasizing the Pilgrims’ perseverance in adversity, the new curriculum both challenged and gave hope to new immigrants. A young Russian immigrant at the turn of the century, for example, learned from her history text that

America started with a band of Courageous Pilgrims [who had] left their native country as I had left mine. . . I saw that it was the glory of America that it was not yet finished. And I, the last comer, had her share to give, small or great, to the making of America, like those Pilgrims, who came in the Mayflower.

Like this young immigrant, for most of the last century Americans learned in grade school that “America started” with the Pilgrims. Although they rarely studied the First Thanksgiving after grade school, this early exposure was enough to make the Pilgrim story a central chapter in Americans’ collective historical memory.

Once the Pilgrims had became honorary Founding Fathers, Americans rushed to enlist them as allies in the political struggle du jour. In the midst of the Progressive Era, Theodore Roosevelt placed the Pilgrims on the side of the regulation of Big Business, observing that “the spirit of the Puritan was a spirit which never shrank from regulation of conduct if such regulation was necessary for the public weal.” During the height of the McCarthy Era, the International Nickel Company took out an ad in the Saturday Evening Post portraying the Pilgrims as both libertarian and anti-Communist; in 1623 the Pilgrims had “turned away from governmental dictation” because they realized that “there was plenty for ALL, only when men were Free to work for themselves.” At the close of the turbulent 1960s, Look magazine recalled the Pilgrims as “dissidents” and “commune-builders.”

During World War Two the Pilgrims became ideal soldiers. In its 1942 Thanksgiving issue, Life reminded readers that the Pilgrims had been a “hardy lot,” a “strong-minded people” who “waged hard, offensive wars” and never forgot that “victory comes from God.” When President Roosevelt declared after Pearl Harbor that the nation’s cause was “liberty under God,” the magazine concluded that he might as well “have been speaking for the Puritan Fathers.” At the height of the Cold War, the Chicago Tribune remembered the First Thanksgiving as “our first détente,” but the paper also enlisted the Pilgrims on the side of military preparedness; their security had been rooted in “the clear demonstration that they had the equipment and the will to fight for their survival.”

But not only for their survival, for the Pilgrims had believed in “the restless search for a better world for all,” as President Lyndon Johnson observed in 1965 as he appealed to “the principles that the early Pilgrims forged” to explain why U. S. sons were fighting in Viet Nam. Yet the Pilgrims had also cherished peace, for as Bill Clinton told the nation a generation later, the same spirit that prompted them to sit down with the Wampanoag had also infused efforts for a “comprehensive peace in the Middle East.”

Our adopted Founders have been remarkably malleable, wouldn’t you say?



History is not the past self, but rather the “remembered past,” in the words of Christian historian John Lukacs. With this as our starting point, I teach my students to think of history in terms of metaphors. Among other things, history is a story about the past that helps us to frame our lives. It functions as a mirror helping us to see our own age more clearly. Ideally, it is a rich conversation, a dialogue with the dead about enduring human questions. And as Lukacs’ observation suggests, history is also a form of memory.

We need to take this final metaphor seriously. Think about the attributes of human memory generally. Our memories are always woefully incomplete—not a 24/7/365 documentary of our pasts, but a jumble of fleeting images that we draw from to make sense of our lives. Our memories are influenced by perspective, and the significance that we attach to them changes over time. Historical memory shares all these traits.

In particular, it’s crucial for us to realize that popular historical memory of the past changes dramatically over time. Popular memory of the First Thanksgiving is a classic example. As I noted earlier in this series, for the first two centuries after the First Thanksgiving, Americans attached almost no weight at all to the event. The reason for this was simple: no one remembered it.

This changed in the 1840s and 1850s when a variety of Pilgrim documents shedding light on the 1621 celebration were rediscovered and published. Even then, however, Americans did not rush to embrace the First Thanksgiving as a key moment in the American founding. Thanksgiving was growing in popularity as a holiday, but almost no one was linking the tradition specifically to the Pilgrims and their harvest feast. Why was this?

I think the answer is that the story of the First Thanksgiving wasn’t very useful to mid-nineteenth century America. It didn’t fit well with how Americans wanted to remember the past, and it contradicted how they wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving in the present and the future. To begin with, the evidence that was coming to light suggested that Native Americans had been right in the middle of the Pilgrims’ celebration, but the nation in the 1840s was committed to a policy of Indian removal. Second, the evidence cemented the perception of Thanksgiving as originating in New England at a time when tensions between North and South were rising to a critical level. Finally, the historical evidence underscored the Pilgrims’ conviction that Days of Thanksgiving should be proclaimed irregularly and should center on public worship. By the mid-1800s, however, Americans had generally reversed these criteria and seemed satisfied with the new pattern.

It was not until the close of the nineteenth century that Americans widely began to link their cherished Thanksgiving holiday with the Pilgrims and their 1621 celebration. From that point onward the correlation between Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims grew steadily. Art work, fiction, political speeches, school plays, greeting cards, even advertisements for beer and cigarettes collaborated to convince Americans of the centrality of the Pilgrims to the contemporary holiday. (“How the Pilgrims would have enjoyed Budweiser,” gushed a 1908 ad in the Chicago Daily Tribune, “how they would have quaffed it with heartfelt praise and gladness of heart.”)

Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations lagged behind but eventually mirrored the broader trend. When Andrew Johnson called for a national Thanksgiving in 1867, he defended the measure as conforming “with a recent custom.” For more than seventy years his successors followed suit. Aside from vague allusions to “practice,” “custom,” or “habit,” they avoided specific references to the holiday’s supposed origins.

It was 1939 before an American president connected Thanksgiving explicitly with the Pilgrims.  In the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt encouraged Americans to remember the Pilgrims, who “humbly paused in their work and gave thanks to God for the preservation of their community and for the abundant yield of the soil.” By the 1950s such references were almost obligatory. They were a staple of Dwight Eisenhower’s proclamations, and in 1961 John F. Kennedy took the opportunity in his first Thanksgiving proclamation to “ask the head of each family to recount to his children the story of the first New England thanksgiving.” Like the Jewish patriarch at Passover, American fathers were now to instruct future generations about the sacred origins of their celebration. The Pilgrims’ role as the founders of Thanksgiving was now unquestioned.

So why the difference? What had changed since the middle of the 1800s to make the Pilgrims so popular? I think there were two underlying trends in American life that made it possible. First, the obstacles that had discouraged Americans from embracing the story of the First Thanksgiving back in the mid-nineteenth century gradually faded. For starters, by the close of the nineteenth century America’s Indian wars were comfortably past, and it would begin to be broadly possible in the public mind to reinterpret the place of Native Americans at the Thanksgiving table. Although relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag had always been tense, writers could begin to rhapsodize over the “friendly redskins” who had assisted the Pilgrims, and politicians could locate in the First Thanksgiving an inspiring “vision of brotherhood.”

As with the holiday’s link to Native Americans, Thanksgiving’s association with New England would also become less of a liability over time. Within a generation of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox, both North and South would begin to romanticize the Civil War, promoting sectional reconciliation through a “willful amnesia” that minimized the depth of the issues that had earlier divided them. As part of this larger process, the commemoration of Thanksgiving itself became gradually less politicized, and the day would come when white Southerners could adopt the Pilgrims as honorary ancestors without renouncing their regional loyalties.

Finally, a number of well-meaning amateur historians re-wrote the history of the First Thanksgiving to transform it into a private, domestic event. Whereas the Pilgrims’ 1621 feast likely had the feel of a community barbeque—with at least 150 people taking part in an outdoor celebration in which they ate with their hands while sitting on the ground—Americans by the mid-1800s associated Thanksgiving with homecoming, a time for loved ones to gather around the family table. And so they simply re-imagined the event to resemble their own custom, insisting that the Pilgrims had walked to church for a Thanksgiving service before returning to their individual homes for their private Thanksgiving dinners.

While these changes opened the door for Americans gradually to embrace the Pilgrims, other changes in the late-nineteenth century made the adoption of the Pilgrims not only possible but desirable. I’ll take these up in my next post.



I just got off the phone with a reporter from a Boston newspaper who wanted to take advantage of my years of research on the First Thanksgiving. She had left a message on my phone earlier, so I had a moment to speculate about the questions she might ask. My mind raced over the possibilities.

“Perhaps she wants to discuss the Pilgrims’ motivations for coming to New England,” I thought to myself. That’s a rich and complex question that is key to the Pilgrims’ world view.

“Or possibly she is fascinated with how the Pilgrim Story came to be viewed as an important chapter in the founding of the United States,” I mused. “Maybe we’ll get to talk about the role that the First Thanksgiving has played in cultural memory, and the way that our memories of Thanksgiving say a lot about what we value, or think we value, as a people.” My excitement grew.

“Or perhaps she understands the priceless value of history as a conversation with the past in search of insight, perspective, and wisdom,” I silently rhapsodized. “Maybe she’ll ask how we might learn from the Pilgrims and not just about them. Shoot, she might even ask whether there’s anything in the history of Thanksgiving that we need to hear, something that would challenge, or convict, or even inspire us!” I was giddy with anticipation.

And then I returned her call. “I’m doing a piece on the First Thanksgiving,” the reporter stated matter-of-factly, “and I want to talk with you about what was on the menu.”


Actually, I wasn’t that surprised.  Since The First Thanksgiving came out a little over a year ago, I’ve done about forty radio interviews concerning the book, and the question of what the Pilgrims and Wampanoag had to eat has featured prominently in almost every one of them.

I still remember a live call-in show hosted by a smaller station in the midwest.  I spoke briefly at the outset, explaining some of the ways that a truer understanding of the First Thanksgiving can illuminate what it means to think Christianly about the past.  To say that the switchboard didn’t light up once the phones were opened would be an understatement.  After a few painful minutes (that seemed like hours), the host finally announced that there was a caller on line one.  The sweet older lady thanked me profusely for my book–on my end of the line I was blushing–and  then she posed the question that she keenly hoped I could answer.  “Is it true,” she asked, “that the First Thanksgiving meal included succotash?”

I plan to continue my series on “The First Thanksgiving in American Memory” in a day or two, but today I’ll interrupt that thread to focus on the Thanksgiving menu.

First, you can find an informative essay on the topic over at the website for the Smithsonian magazine.

Second, here’s a short You-Tube video of an interview with yours truly on the topic.

Finally, here’s what I had to share about the meal in The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History:

. . . We can get too caught up in discussing what they [the Pilgrims and Wampanoag] had to eat, but it is worth noting that almost nothing we associate with a “traditional” Thanksgiving meal would have been on the menu. That generalization starts with the main course. From Edward Winslow’s account of the feast it is clear that they had some kind of “fowl,” but nowhere does he refer to turkey specifically. Certainly there were turkeys around. Bradford remembered that there was a “great store of wild turkeys” as winter approached, and later visitors to Plymouth often made similar observations. But there were also eagles, pigeons, and partridges, as well as “swarms and multitudes” of waterfowl: geese, ducks, swans, herons, and cranes.

And the waterfowl were incomparably easier to catch. When he visited Plymouth a few years later, an agent of the Dutch West India Company described the wild turkeys that he hunted there as having “very long legs” that enabled them to run “extraordinarily fast.” Even “when one has deprived them of the power of flying,” he marveled, “they yet run so fast that we cannot catch them unless their legs are hit also.” In contrast, in his opinion the “great many geese” were “easy to shoot, inasmuch as they congregate together in such large flocks.”

His Pilgrim hosts surely agreed, for their matchlock muskets were so long and heavy that they typically used tripod-like “stands” to support the barrel while they waited for something edible to cross their field of fire. Given the flocks of ducks and geese that descended each autumn on the area’s numerous lakes and ponds, the four men that Governor Bradford sent “on fowling” likely concealed themselves at the water’s edge and then blasted away. It was less sporting than chasing roadrunner-like turkeys through the woods, but undoubtedly more efficient.

To complement the game birds that the hunters brought back, the Pilgrims may have added fresh fish, mussels and clams, and perhaps eels, which could be caught in September “with small labor.” The “trimmings,” which were less plentiful, would have included Indian corn (ground and used to make porridge or “succotash”) as well as what the Pilgrims called “sallet herbs”: vegetables from their gardens such as collard greens, parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, spinach, and cabbage. (If you’re striving for authenticity, try serving turnips and eel next Thanksgiving.) There would have been no sweet potatoes, which were not native to North America and largely unavailable in England except among the very wealthy. Cranberry sauce would have been missing as well, since the sugar so vital to the dish was unavailable. Nor, sad to say, was there any pumpkin pie. The Pilgrims lacked the butter and flour for the pie crust and faced the added problem of having no ovens for baking. Everything they ate would have been boiled or roasted.

As we imagine them enjoying this banquet—heavy on poultry and fish, light on vegetables and sweets—remember also that the buildings the Pilgrims had erected were tiny, that tables and even chairs were scarce, that knives were rare and that forks were nonexistent. (The latter were available in England by this time but little used among common folk, who dismissed them as a “foppish pretension.”) In our mind’s eye, then, we should picture an outdoor feast in which almost everyone was sitting on the ground and eating with their hands—more like a picnic or cookout than the formal domestic scene we have come to associate with the holiday.

I didn’t share these facts about the menu simply to explode popular myths, much less to help the occasional reader who genuinely wants to recreate an historically authentic Thanksgiving meal.  (I’m all for historical accuracy, but who really wants to exchange turkey and stuffing for turnips and eel?)  I do want to help us see how naturally we embellish the past, how easily we project on the past values and practices that don’t belong there.  “The past is a foreigh country,” British novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote; “they do things differently there.”  When we forget that basic truth, we rob history of much of its power to challenge and change us.



In my last post I began a quick sketch of how American memory of the First Thanksgiving has changed over time. And it definitely has changed, and changed dramatically.

In every class that I teach here at Wheaton College, one of the first principles that I try to drive home to my students is the fundamental distinction between history and the past. The past is everything that has been said and thought and done until now. God knows the past perfectly and exhaustively. We don’t. Indeed, a great deal of the past has been lost to us. What we call history is best defined as that portion of the past that we remember, thanks to insights from historical documents, material artifacts, and oral tradition.

I mention this now because, for most of the first 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no Americans remembered it. There had never been but a handful of American copies of Mourt’s Relation, the 1622 pamphlet that contained the sole description of the event, and memory of the celebration gradually faded. As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was not a part of American memory. By that time Thanksgiving had come to be a much loved holiday in New England, but New Englanders didn’t think of the holiday as perpetuating a tradition begun by the Pilgrims in 1621. Celebrating Thanksgiving was just what New England folk did every autumn. As far as anyone knew, it was what they had always done.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Brownscombe's famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Brownscombe’s famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

This began to change around 1841, when Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s 115-word account of the 1621 feast was discovered and reprinted in a history book titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. The result was that Americans gradually became more and more aware of the Pilgrims’ celebration. Notice I said aware, not impressed. Generations would pass before Americans widely embraced the story of the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving as an important chapter in the early history of America. So why was this?

I can think of three reasons. For starters, Winslow’s account showed that the Wampanoag Indians had played a prominent role in the Pilgrims’ celebration. Winslow had devoted only one sentence to the Wampanoag, but that lone sentence made two disturbing facts undeniable: the majority of those present at the “First Thanksgiving” had been Indians, not Pilgrims, and the two groups had interacted peacefully.

The revelation was jarring, especially outside of the Northeast. In 1841, Thanksgiving was still almost exclusively a northern holiday, flourishing particularly in New England and in areas farther west to which New Englanders had migrated in large numbers. In New England—where few Native Americans remained in 1841—it was possible for Yankees to romanticize the “noble savage” and to imagine a carefully circumscribed role for Indians in their beloved regional holiday. Elsewhere this was far from easy.

In 1841 the southeastern United states was only three years removed from the infamous “Trail of Tears,” the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia to Oklahoma that had resulted in more than four thousand Cherokee deaths. West of the Mississippi, violence would continue to punctuate Indian-white relations for another two generations, on scattered battlefields with evocative names like Sand Creek, Little Big Horn, and Wounded Knee. Correspondingly, until long after the Civil War, most artistic representations of Thanksgiving that included Native Americans portrayed them as openly hostile, and it is no coincidence that the now familiar image of Indians and Pilgrims sitting around a common table dates from the early twentieth century. By that time America’s Indian wars were comfortably past, and it would begin to be broadly possible in the public mind to reinterpret the place of Native Americans at the Thanksgiving table. But that would come later. In 1841 the national policy toward Native Americans was not assimilation but removal, and in that respect the First Thanksgiving fit awkwardly in the national story.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims.  It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims. It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

Keep in mind also the growing sectional rivalry of the period. Winslow’s account of the 1621 celebration was republished just as tensions between North and South were beginning to mount. Unfortunately, fans of Thanksgiving had traditionally emphasized its regional ties. New England magazines and newspapers boasted that the holiday was “strictly one of New England origin.” The custom was “precious to every New-England man,” and without its recurrence “a Yankee could scarce comprehend that the year had passed.” More to the point, white southerners also associated the holiday with New England, and that made it suspect in their eyes. Even as it gradually expanded southward, there was a lingering tendency among southerners to think of Thanksgiving as a holiday invented by Pharisaical Yankees to take the place of Christmas, which Puritans had traditionally spurned.

New Englanders did little to make the holiday easier to swallow. From our twenty-first-century perspective, one of the striking things about Thanksgiving in antebellum America is how politicized it could be. For southern whites, it didn’t help that northern governors often endorsed the abolition of slavery in their annual proclamations, or that antislavery organizations sometimes took up collections at thanksgiving services, or that New England abolitionists wrote poetry linking the “Pilgrim Spirit” to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers occupied the federal arsenal in that place as the first step in an ill-defined plot to foment a slave uprising. Yankee educator Franklin Sanborn, a secret supporter of Brown’s scheme, penned a tribute to the antislavery zealot, noting that “the Pilgrim Fathers’ earnest creed . . . inspired this hero’s noblest deed.”)

As the crisis of the Union came to a head, the Richmond Daily Dispatch surely spoke for many southerners in mocking New England’s favorite holiday. When a New York newspaper reported that the newly elected Abraham Lincoln had celebrated the holiday “like the rest of Anglo-Saxon mankind,” the editor of the Dispatch erupted. Thanksgiving was unknown outside “a few Yankee Doodle States,” he insisted with some exaggeration, “but it is a common notion of New England, that it is the hub of the whole creation, the axis of the entire universe, and that when it thanks God that it is not as other men, everybody else is doing the same. . . . What a race these sycophants are!”

A final reason for the Pilgrims’ limited usefulness to mid-nineteenth century Americans, I believe, is that they had come to celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that the Pilgrims would not have recognized, much less approved. This had not been intentional. Americans’ Thanksgiving traditions had developed while the country knew nothing about the First Thanksgiving. And then, after two centuries, in the span of less than two decades the veil was pulled back. The first step had been the republication of Mourt’s Relation, but much more was involved. A decade later came the release of three volumes of writings and sermons from the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson. Five years after that came the dramatic publication of Pilgrim Governor William Bradford’s long-lost history Of Plymouth Plantation.

Collectively, these sources revealed that the Pilgrims had roundly criticized the Church of England for its numerous annual holidays. All three underscored the Pilgrims’ conviction that Days of Thanksgiving should be proclaimed irregularly and should center on public worship. Unfortunately for the Pilgrims’ popularity, mid-nineteenth-century Americans had precisely reversed these criteria. By the eve of the Civil War, the “traditional American Thanksgiving” was a regularly scheduled celebration centered inside the home.

If the Pilgrims’ story was to become an important part of Thanksgiving, there was much that would have to change.  We’ll talk about those changes next time.