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 What we call history is best defined as that portion of the past that we remember, thanks to insights from historical documents, material artifacts, and oral tradition.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.



  1. I can’t help but admire the assurance that good, solid, thorough historical research gives to the historian (in this case Tracy McKenzie). So much of what passes for “truth” is really just taking a side and insisting on its validity over and over again (like political commercials). At the same time, the historian, knowing what he went through to get at the truth of this one event, has to acknowledge that that kind of assurance about other events is impossible without the same level of research. So he learns to be assertive in the one case and to be humble with most everything else. This is a great lesson in Christian faith for us all.

    • Good point. It seems to me that all events are recorded in the ‘present’, and therefore are subject to the state of the recorder in the present, about those past events. Only God has perfect recall, and that’s why it’s critical for us to filter everything through His Word.
      I don’t think God is judging the present state of America so much from our past, as He is by what we do in the here and now with the light He has given us.
      A point for open discussion: Biblically speaking, it appears the only nation that can truly be called ‘A Christian Nation’, is future Israel during Christ’s 1,000 reign. Neither Israel currently, nor any gentile nation could rightly claim such a title, although America just might have gotten as close as any nation could before the 1,000 year reign, given a prophetic timeline (viewing prophetic events as having been fulfilled, being fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled). Further, since there is no coincidence in God’s universe, America with it’s unique history might have a special place in God’s plan for Israel as the church epic draws to a close. The ‘Replacement Theology’ doctrine prevalent in some of the main line denominations in America, is a divisive issue in the church body today. Quite frankly, it really isn’t so much about America as a world power anymore, as it is about God finishing the last couple of phrases in Daniel 9:24. God will finish dealing with Israel’s rebellion ‘ For they are a stiff necked people’, and the stiff necked gentile nations get ‘grafted into’ Israel’s judgment as well.
      The question for us today then is, what will be recorded about Christians in God’s historical record…..from this point in history to the rapture? If anything, this excellent blog points out how difficult it is to get an accurate picture of our past today. We can certainly learn valuable lessons from what we can discern about our history, but we can only directly affect our present, and hopefully have an impact on the remaining time we have in our future before the rapture. The future from the Tribulation period on is clear, but from now until it begins we have an opportunity to leave a Godly historical record in our personal lives, irregardless of what our national and local leaders do. In our struggle to get as close to the truth about our past as possible, let’s not forget to bring the Lord Jesus into our present time!
      Whatever the truth about Thanksgiving might have meant to those of the past, God has given us plenty to be thankful for right now! So give thanks to Him, ‘For all good things come down from the Father of lights!’
      Thank you Robert for doing such an excellent job in your research. Earlier you stated you were a little disappointed about the level of discussion on your posts. I have a suspicion that’s about to change shortly. In David Barton and Rush, you’ve taken on some ‘Big Names’, but so did Paul when he ‘Withstood Peter, because he was to be blamed.’ I would suggest though, that perhaps with God’s intercession, there could be a joining forces to truly have an impact on this last generation. I have serious doubts about Rush’s state of salvation and biblical understanding though, perhaps that would be a good place to start praying.
      God bless you and your family, God bless all your readers, and God bless America!

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