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.”
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.”
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.