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.
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.
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.