Tag Archives: Mourt’s Relation

REMEMBERING “THE FIRST THANKSGIVING”: THE HOSTS OF THE FEAST

The First Thanksgiving--Jean Louis Ferris

The First Thanksgiving–Jean Louis Ferris

While a lot more evidence survives concerning the Pilgrims than we might expect, almost none survives concerning the episode for which we remember them best. The Pilgrims’ historian and long-time governor, William Bradford, never mentioned a 1621 thanksgiving celebration in Of Plymouth Plantation.

Bradford began writing his history in 1630, quickly bringing his narrative up to the landing of the Mayflower, but he then set the work aside and did not resume it until the mid-1640s. From that vantage point (perhaps referring to a journal long since lost), he still recalled vividly the “sad and lamentable” details of the first winter, the particulars of their negotiations with the Wampanoag, the facts of Squanto’s personal history, even the fine points of corn planting. He also noted happily that the Pilgrims began to recover their health and strength in the spring of 1621, reaped an adequate harvest that fall, and enjoyed “good plenty” as winter approached.

What he failed to mention was a celebration of any kind. This should give us pause. It would seem that the episode so indelibly imprinted in our historical memory was not memorable at all to the Pilgrims’ long-time governor.

As it turns out, the only surviving firsthand account of a celebration in 1621 comes from the pen of Edward Winslow, Bradford’s younger assistant. Upon the arrival of a ship from England in November 1621, Winslow crafted a cover letter to accompany the 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. It’s a brief, ambiguous account. 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. What do we know with any confidence about this iconic event?

Let’s start with some basic details. By William Bradford’s reckoning, the Mayflower had sailed from England in September 1620 with 102 passengers, divided more or less equally between “saints” (members of the Pilgrim congregation of Leiden, Holland) and “strangers” (individuals recruited by the London financiers who were bankrolling the voyage). Thanks to the “general sickness” that had devastated the colony during its first winter, it seems likely that there were fifty-one members of the Plymouth settlement at the time of the celebration—fifty survivors of the Mayflower’s voyage plus toddler Peregrine White, who had been born aboard ship after the Pilgrims reached Cape Cod. (The little colony’s other baby, Oceanus Hopkins, had not survived his first year.)

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As we try to imagine the gathering, it would be great if we had a better sense of what the Pilgrims actually looked like, but of course there are no photographs, and the only Pilgrim known to have had his portrait painted was Edward Winslow, but that was not until three decades later. Enough evidence survives for some informed speculation, however. If we could take a time machine back to the occasion, the first thing we might notice about the Pilgrims is how small they were. Europeans in the 17th-century weren’t exactly Hobbits, but they were noticeably shorter and dramatically lighter than we are today. Historians of Elizabethan England estimate that the average adult male stood 5’6”, the average female 5’½ ”, and even as late as the American Civil War, the typical soldier weighed in at less than 140 pounds. With regard to the Pilgrims’ stature, think junior high.

We might also be struck by how the Pilgrims were dressed. We have been conditioned to picture the Pilgrims as if they were headed to a funeral, the somber black of their outfits interrupted only by the occasional white collar and the silver buckles mandatory on all shoes, belts, and hats. In reality, this quaint image of the Pilgrims dates only to the middle of the nineteenth century and was pretty much conjured out of thin air. For one thing, buckles were all but unheard of among common folk for at least another half-century, and even had they been available we may doubt whether the Pilgrims would have worn them, as they tended to frown on anything that remotely resembled jewelry. (Their wives did not even wear wedding rings.)

On the other hand, the Pilgrims definitely had a taste for bright colors. Plymouth Colony estate inventories contain countless references to red, blue, green, yellow, and “russet” (orange-brown) garments. To cite but two examples, upon his death, carpenter Will Wright left among other items a Bible, a psalm book, a blue coat, and two vests, one white, the other red. The inventory of William Bradford’s estate showed that the long-term governor did, in fact, own a black hat and a “sad colored” (dark) suit, but he also sported a “colored” hat, a red suit, and a violet cloak. If the Pilgrims genuinely viewed their autumn gathering as a time of rejoicing, then they probably left the “sad-colored” clothing at home.

We might also be surprised at how young the Pilgrims were and at how few women there were among them. The mortality of the first winter had struck the “saints” and “strangers” in similar proportions, so that the saints from Leiden remained approximately half of the depleted company at the time of the First Thanksgiving. In other ways, however, the “general sickness” had affected the Pilgrims unevenly. The death rate was higher among wives than among husbands, higher among the married than among the unmarried, higher among adults than among children.

By autumn only three of the fifty-one survivors were definitely older than forty—elder William Brewster, his wife Mary, and a wool comber named Francis Cooke. The colony’s new governor, William Bradford, was only thirty-one. Among the adults, males now outnumbered females five to one. (The ratio had been about three to one at the time of their departure from England.) The higher death toll among adults also meant that children and teenagers now accounted for roughly half of the entire group (up from approximately one-third before the general sickness). These latter included the wonderfully named Remember Allerton, Resolved White, Humility Cooper, and the two Brewster boys, Love and Wrestling.

Death had surely left its mark in other ways, as well. In the four sentences that he devoted to the 1621 celebration, Edward Winslow left no clue about the Pilgrims’ state of mind. The devout among them had been schooled to see God’s loving hand in every trial, to believe, by faith, “that in all their afflictions the justice and mercy of God meet together,” as the Pilgrims pastor in Leiden, John Robinson expressed it. Late in his life, William Bradford preached this gospel to himself in verse:

“Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust / fear not the things thou suffer must / for, whom he loves he doth chastise / and then all tears wipes from their eyes.”

And yet, in the autumn of 1621 the wounds were still so fresh. It would be no stain on the Pilgrims’ faith if their rejoicing was leavened with a lingering heartache. Widowers and orphans abounded. Fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished during the winter. There were now only four married couples, and one of these consisted of Edward and Susannah (White) Winslow, who had married that May shortly after both had lost their spouses. Mary Chilton, Samuel Fuller, Priscilla Mullins, and Elizabeth Tilley each had lost both parents, and young Richard More, who had been torn from his parents before sailing, had since lost the three siblings who sailed with him. That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope.

Yet celebrate they did.

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART ONE

In recent years I’ve become more and more fascinated with popular historical memory.  It’s an odd phenomenon, really.  By definition, it exists at the intersection between past and present.  In the best case, it’s informed (at least somewhat) by historical evidence, but it’s always influenced by the contemporary context as well.  This means that one of the best ways to track the changing values of a culture is to examine how popular memory of a particular historical event differs over time.  The memory of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving is a case in point.

The history of popular memory of the First Thanksgiving falls neatly into two broad periods separated by a crucial event in the year 1841.  The first of the two is the simplest to characterize.  For 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no one remembered the event that later generations would recall as a defining episode in the founding of America.  To our knowledge, there was only one contemporary record made of the event.  Sometime shortly after the celebration, a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote a letter back to an acquaintance in England in which he sketched how the passengers of the Mayflower had fared since their arrival at Plymouth.  In the course of that letter, which was published as part of pamphlet in 1622, Winslow included a 115-word description of the event we now remember as the “First Thanksgiving.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

The pamphlet containing the description was published in England under the modest title A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and Others, with the Difficult Passage, their Safe Arrivall, their Joyfull Building of, and Comfortable Planting Themselves in the Now Well Defended Towne of New Plimoth.  The printer who actually published the book was one “G. Mourt,” and the pamphlet has been known ever by the mercifully shorter title Mourt’s Relation.  (In the seventeenth century, “relation” was another word for “report” or “account.)

Rare in England, Mourt’s Relation was rarer still in the American colonies, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century there was probably not a single copy of it in all of New England.  With neither oral tradition nor a written record to keep it alive, the 1621 event gradually faded until it vanished entirely.

The opposite was true of Thanksgiving itself.  As memory of the First Thanksgiving died away, the celebration of Thanksgiving became more popular, not less.  The original Pilgrims had been very skeptical of regular holy days.  (Remember that our word “holiday” is just an elision of the two words “holy day.”)  The Pilgrims associated regular holidays with the perceived abuses of Catholicism, and in general the only true holy day that they celebrated regularly was the Lord’s Day every Sunday.  Their descendants, however, gradually forgot or rejected their ancestors’ hostility to regularly scheduled holidays.  By the 1690s they had adopted a pattern of annual springtime Fast Days, to beseech God’s blessing on the crop about to be planted, and autumn Thanksgiving Days, in which they thanked the Lord for the harvest just past.

While the custom of springtime fasts never caught on elsewhere, the celebration of regular autumn Thanksgivings spread across New England during the eighteenth century, expanded to the Midwest after the War of 1812, and began to catch on in the Upper South by the 1840s.  Thanksgiving was becoming a beloved American holiday, just not one linked to the Pilgrims.

Since the late-18th century the Pilgrims had been growing in importance in American memory, but the part that they played in the national story was as generic “founders” or “forefathers.”  Thinking of their national story as a series of dramatic images, Americans imagined the Pilgrims huddled on Plymouth Rock, not gathered around the Thanksgiving table.  Out of 223 colonial or state thanksgiving proclamations I have located from the years 1676-1840, not a single one refers to the Pilgrims, even euphemistically.  It was as if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration had never occurred.  Americans thought of their Thanksgiving tradition as coming mainly from New England Puritans but did not think of it as originating in a particular historical moment.  As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was simply not a part of historical memory.

It became a part of popular historical memory not in 1621 but in 1841, the year that Edward Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration reentered the historical record.  The key figure in the process was the Reverend Alexander Young, a New England-born Unitarian minister with a passion for local history.  Working with a copy of Mourt’s Relation discovered in Philadelphia a generation earlier, Young included the text of the pamphlet in a compilation of historical documents he titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.  The reverend appended his own explanatory notes to the manuscript, and when he came to Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ celebration, the clergyman explained to his audience that what they were reading was an account of the “first thanksgiving . . . of New England.”

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.

SETTING THE STAGE: THE HOSTS OF THE FEAST

SEVEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday this month I have been posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. At the outset I concentrated mainly on some of the ways we have mythologized the Pilgrim story over the years. This week I am doing my best to sketch the context of the “First Thanksgiving” celebration of 1621. Today’s essay focuses on the fifty-one English folk who hosted the meal.

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The First Thanksgiving--Jean Louis Ferris

The First Thanksgiving–Jean Louis Ferris

While a lot more evidence survives concerning the Pilgrims than we might expect, almost none survives concerning the episode for which we remember them best. The Pilgrims’ historian and long-time governor, William Bradford, never mentioned a 1621 thanksgiving celebration in Of Plymouth Plantation.

Bradford began writing his history in 1630, quickly bringing his narrative up to the landing of the Mayflower, but he then set the work aside and did not resume it until the mid-1640s. From that vantage point (perhaps referring to a journal long since lost), he still recalled vividly the “sad and lamentable” details of the first winter, the particulars of their negotiations with the Wampanoag, the facts of Squanto’s personal history, even the fine points of corn planting. He also noted happily that the Pilgrims began to recover their health and strength in the spring of 1621, reaped an adequate harvest that fall, and enjoyed “good plenty” as winter approached.

What he failed to mention was a celebration of any kind. This should give us pause. It would seem that the episode so indelibly imprinted in our historical memory was not memorable at all to the Pilgrims’ long-time governor.

As it turns out, the only surviving firsthand account of a celebration in 1621 comes from the pen of Edward Winslow, Bradford’s younger assistant. Upon the arrival of a ship from England in November 1621, Winslow crafted a cover letter to accompany the 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. It’s a brief, ambiguous account. 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. What do we know with any confidence about this iconic event?

Let’s start with some basic details. By William Bradford’s reckoning, the Mayflower had sailed from England in September 1620 with 102 passengers, divided more or less equally between “saints” (members of the Pilgrim congregation of Leiden, Holland) and “strangers” (individuals recruited by the London financiers who were bankrolling the voyage). Thanks to the “general sickness” that had devastated the colony during its first winter, it seems likely that there were fifty-one members of the Plymouth settlement at the time of the celebration—fifty survivors of the Mayflower’s voyage plus toddler Peregrine White, who had been born aboard ship after the Pilgrims reached Cape Cod. (The little colony’s other baby, Oceanus Hopkins, had not survived his first year.)

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As we try to imagine the gathering, it would be great if we had a better sense of what the Pilgrims actually looked like, but of course there are no photographs, and the only Pilgrim known to have had his portrait painted was Edward Winslow, but that was not until three decades later. Enough evidence survives for some informed speculation, however. If we could take a time machine back to the occasion, the first thing we might notice about the Pilgrims is how small they were. Europeans in the 17th-century weren’t exactly Hobbits, but they were noticeably shorter and dramatically lighter than we are today. Historians of Elizabethan England estimate that the average adult male stood 5’6”, the average female 5’½ ”, and even as late as the American Civil War, the typical soldier weighed in at less than 140 pounds. With regard to the Pilgrims’ stature, think junior high.

We might also be struck by how the Pilgrims were dressed. We have been conditioned to picture the Pilgrims as if they were headed to a funeral, the somber black of their outfits interrupted only by the occasional white collar and the silver buckles mandatory on all shoes, belts, and hats. In reality, this quaint image of the Pilgrims dates only to the middle of the nineteenth century and was pretty much conjured out of thin air. For one thing, buckles were all but unheard of among common folk for at least another half-century, and even had they been available we may doubt whether the Pilgrims would have worn them, as they tended to frown on anything that remotely resembled jewelry. (Their wives did not even wear wedding rings.)

On the other hand, the Pilgrims definitely had a taste for bright colors. Plymouth Colony estate inventories contain countless references to red, blue, green, yellow, and “russet” (orange-brown) garments. To cite but two examples, upon his death, carpenter Will Wright left among other items a Bible, a psalm book, a blue coat, and two vests, one white, the other red. The inventory of William Bradford’s estate showed that the long-term governor did, in fact, own a black hat and a “sad colored” (dark) suit, but he also sported a “colored” hat, a red suit, and a violet cloak. If the Pilgrims genuinely viewed their autumn gathering as a time of rejoicing, then they probably left the “sad-colored” clothing at home.

We might also be surprised at how young the Pilgrims were and at how few women there were among them. The mortality of the first winter had struck the “saints” and “strangers” in similar proportions, so that the saints from Leiden remained approximately half of the depleted company at the time of the First Thanksgiving. In other ways, however, the “general sickness” had affected the Pilgrims unevenly. The death rate was higher among wives than among husbands, higher among the married than among the unmarried, higher among adults than among children.

By autumn only three of the fifty-one survivors were definitely older than forty—elder William Brewster, his wife Mary, and a wool comber named Francis Cooke. The colony’s new governor, William Bradford, was only thirty-one. Among the adults, males now outnumbered females five to one. (The ratio had been about three to one at the time of their departure from England.) The higher death toll among adults also meant that children and teenagers now accounted for roughly half of the entire group (up from approximately one-third before the general sickness). These latter included the wonderfully named Remember Allerton, Resolved White, Humility Cooper, and the two Brewster boys, Love and Wrestling.

Death had surely left its mark in other ways, as well. In the four sentences that he devoted to the 1621 celebration, Edward Winslow left no clue about the Pilgrims’ state of mind. The devout among them had been schooled to see God’s loving hand in every trial, to believe, by faith, “that in all their afflictions the justice and mercy of God meet together,” as the Pilgrims pastor in Leiden, John Robinson expressed it. Late in his life, William Bradford preached this gospel to himself in verse:

“Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust / fear not the things thou suffer must / for, whom he loves he doth chastise / and then all tears wipes from their eyes.”

And yet, in the autumn of 1621 the wounds were still so fresh. It would be no stain on the Pilgrims’ faith if their rejoicing was leavened with a lingering heartache. Widowers and orphans abounded. Fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished during the winter. There were now only four married couples, and one of these consisted of Edward and Susannah (White) Winslow, who had married that May shortly after both had lost their spouses. Mary Chilton, Samuel Fuller, Priscilla Mullins, and Elizabeth Tilley each had lost both parents, and young Richard More, who had been torn from his parents before sailing, had since lost the three siblings who sailed with him. That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope.

Yet celebrate they did.

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART ONE

Some time ago an interviewer asked me to identify the most surprising thing I had learned in my study of the “First Thanksgiving.” I replied that the discoveries that interested me most had less to do with the actual 1621 celebration than with the way that American memory of the event had changed over time.  Although when I began this Countdown to Thanksgiving I said I would only  post on weekdays, I’ve decided to share some “bonus” reflections on how Americans have remembered the First Thanksgiving over the last four centuries.  Look for two posts this weekend, with two more on the topic a week from now. 

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In recent years I’ve become more and more fascinated with popular historical memory.  It’s an odd phenomenon, really.  By definition, it exists at the intersection between past and present.  In the best case, it’s informed (at least somewhat) by historical evidence, but it’s always influenced by the contemporary context as well.  This means that one of the best ways to track the changing values of a culture is to examine how popular memory of a particular historical event differs over time.  The memory of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving is a case in point.  In the next few posts I thought I’d show you what I mean, drawing from research that I conducted for my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

The history of popular memory of the First Thanksgiving falls neatly into two broad periods separated by a crucial event in the year 1841.  The first of the two is the simplest to characterize.  For 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no one remembered the event that later generations would recall as a defining episode in the founding of America.  To our knowledge, there was only one contemporary record made of the event.  Sometime shortly after the celebration, a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote a letter back to an acquaintance in England in which he sketched how the passengers of the Mayflower had fared since their arrival at Plymouth.  In the course of that letter, which was published as part of pamphlet in 1622, Winslow included a 115-word description of the event we now remember as the “First Thanksgiving.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

The pamphlet containing the description was published in England under the modest title A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and Others, with the Difficult Passage, their Safe Arrivall, their Joyfull Building of, and Comfortable Planting Themselves in the Now Well Defended Towne of New Plimoth.  The printer who actually published the book was one “G. Mourt,” and the pamphlet has been known ever by the mercifully shorter title Mourt’s Relation.  (In the seventeenth century, “relation” was another word for “report” or “account.)

Rare in England, Mourt’s Relation was rarer still in the American colonies, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century there was probably not a single copy of it in all of New England.  With neither oral tradition nor a written record to keep it alive, the 1621 event gradually faded until it vanished entirely.

The opposite was true of Thanksgiving itself.  As memory of the First Thanksgiving died away, the celebration of Thanksgiving became more popular, not less.  The original Pilgrims had been very skeptical of regular holy days.  (Remember that our word “holiday” is just an elision of the two words “holy day.”)  The Pilgrims associated regular holidays with the perceived abuses of Catholicism, and in general the only true holy day that they celebrated regularly was the Lord’s Day every Sunday.  Their descendants, however, gradually forgot or rejected their ancestors’ hostility to regularly scheduled holidays.  By the 1690s they had adopted a pattern of annual springtime Fast Days, to beseech God’s blessing on the crop about to be planted, and autumn Thanksgiving Days, in which they thanked the Lord for the harvest just past.

While the custom of springtime fasts never caught on elsewhere, the celebration of regular autumn Thanksgivings spread across New England during the eighteenth century, expanded to the Midwest after the War of 1812, and began to catch on in the Upper South by the 1840s.  Thanksgiving was becoming a beloved American holiday, just not one linked to the Pilgrims.

"Landing of the Pilgrims," Henry A. Bacon, 1877

“Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877

Since the late-18th century the Pilgrims had been growing in importance in American memory, but the part that they played in the national story was as generic “founders” or “forefathers.”  Thinking of their national story as a series of dramatic images, Americans imagined the Pilgrims huddled on Plymouth Rock, not gathered around the Thanksgiving table.  Out of 223 colonial or state thanksgiving proclamations I have located from the years 1676-1840, not a single one refers to the Pilgrims, even euphemistically.  It was as if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration had never occurred.  Americans thought of their Thanksgiving tradition as coming mainly from New England Puritans but did not think of it as originating in a particular historical moment.  As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was simply not a part of historical memory.

It became a part of popular historical memory not in 1621 but in 1841, the year that Edward Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration reentered the historical record.  The key figure in the process was the Reverend Alexander Young, a New England-born Unitarian minister with a passion for local history.  Working with a copy of Mourt’s Relation discovered in Philadelphia a generation earlier, Young included the text of the pamphlet in a compilation of historical documents he titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.  The reverend appended his own explanatory notes to the manuscript, and when he came to Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ celebration, the clergyman explained to his audience that what they were reading was an account of the “first thanksgiving . . . of New England.”

Even though Americans now were aware of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration, it would be a long time—generations, in fact—before the American people widely credited the Pilgrims as the founders of their Thanksgiving tradition.  In my next post I will explain why that was so.

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART TWO

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.

FTcover

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY, PART ONE

An interviewer recently asked me to identify the most surprising thing I had learned in my study of the “First Thanksgiving.” I replied that the discoveries that interested me most had less to do with the actual 1621 celebration than with the way that American memory of the event had changed over time.

In recent years I’ve become more and more fascinated with popular historical memory.  It’s an odd phenomenon, really.  By definition, it exists at the intersection between past and present.  In the best case, it’s informed (at least somewhat) by historical evidence, but it’s always influenced by the contemporary context as well.  This means that one of the best ways to track the changing values of a culture is to examine how popular memory of a particular historical event differs over time.  The memory of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving is a case in point.  In the next few posts I thought I’d show you what I mean, drawing from research that I conducted for my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

The history of popular memory of the First Thanksgiving falls neatly into two broad periods separated by a crucial event in the year 1841.  The first of the two is the simplest to characterize.  For 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no one remembered the event that later generations would recall as a defining episode in the founding of America.  To our knowledge, there was only one contemporary record made of the event.  Sometime shortly after the celebration, a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote a letter back to an acquaintance in England in which he sketched how the passengers of the Mayflower had fared since their arrival at Plymouth.  In the course of that letter, which was published as part of pamphlet in 1622, Winslow included a 115-word description of the event we now remember as the “First Thanksgiving.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

The pamphlet containing the description was published in England under the modest title A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and Others, with the Difficult Passage, their Safe Arrivall, their Joyfull Building of, and Comfortable Planting Themselves in the Now Well Defended Towne of New Plimoth.  The printer who actually published the book was one “G. Mourt,” and the pamphlet has been known ever by the mercifully shorter title Mourt’s Relation.  (In the seventeenth century, “relation” was another word for “report” or “account.)

Rare in England, Mourt’s Relation was rarer still in the American colonies, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century there was probably not a single copy of it in all of New England.  With neither oral tradition nor a written record to keep it alive, the 1621 event gradually faded until it vanished entirely.

The opposite was true of Thanksgiving itself.  As memory of the First Thanksgiving died away, the celebration of Thanksgiving became more popular, not less.  The original Pilgrims had been very skeptical of regular holy days.  (Remember that our word “holiday” is just an elision of the two words “holy day.”)  The Pilgrims associated regular holidays with the perceived abuses of Catholicism, and in general the only true holy day that they celebrated regularly was the Lord’s Day every Sunday.  Their descendants, however, gradually forgot or rejected their ancestors’ hostility to regularly scheduled holidays.  By the 1690s they had adopted a pattern of annual springtime Fast Days, to beseech God’s blessing on the crop about to be planted, and autumn Thanksgiving Days, in which they thanked the Lord for the harvest just past.

While the custom of springtime fasts never caught on elsewhere, the celebration of regular autumn Thanksgivings spread across New England during the eighteenth century, expanded to the Midwest after the War of 1812, and began to catch on in the Upper South by the 1840s.  Thanksgiving was becoming a beloved American holiday, just not one linked to the Pilgrims.

Since the late-18th century the Pilgrims had been growing in importance in American memory, but the part that they played in the national story was as generic “founders” or “forefathers.”  Thinking of their national story as a series of dramatic images, Americans imagined the Pilgrims huddled on Plymouth Rock, not gathered around the Thanksgiving table.  Out of 223 colonial or state thanksgiving proclamations I have located from the years 1676-1840, not a single one refers to the Pilgrims, even euphemistically.  It was as if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration had never occurred.  Americans thought of their Thanksgiving tradition as coming mainly from New England Puritans but did not think of it as originating in a particular historical moment.  As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was simply not a part of historical memory.

"The Landing of the Pilgrims," by Henry A. Bacon, 1877

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” by Henry A. Bacon, 1877

It became a part of popular historical memory not in 1621 but in 1841, the year that Edward Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration reentered the historical record.  The key figure in the process was the Reverend Alexander Young, a New England-born Unitarian minister with a passion for local history.  Working with a copy of Mourt’s Relation discovered in Philadelphia a generation earlier, Young included the text of the pamphlet in a compilation of historical documents he titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.  The reverend appended his own explanatory notes to the manuscript, and when he came to Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ celebration, the clergyman explained to his audience that what they were reading was an account of the “first thanksgiving . . . of New England.”

Even though Americans now were aware of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration, it would be a long time—generations, in fact—before the American people widely credited the Pilgrims as the founders of their Thanksgiving tradition.  In my next post I will explain why that was so.

First Thanksgiving