Book A Cemetery Tour

Roosevelt School Thanksgiving Pageant, Pittsburgh PA; courtesy Western Pennsylvania Historical Society, Senator John Heinz History Center; Pittsburgh Public Schools Photographs, 1880-1982, MSP 117, Library and Archives Division
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From our young school days, we all learn the same story about how the Pilgrims gathered with the Indians for a large feast to give thanks for a successful harvest. The story tends to feature tall black hats with large buckles, an abundance of corn and turkey during a three-day festival, and a happy ending for all of those involved in that first Thanksgiving. How much of that story is true and how much of the holiday has been crafted over time?

Meeting the Puritans (the term “Pilgrim” doesn’t show up until the 19th century) was not the first contact between the Wampanoag People and Europeans. In fact, there had been contact for at least a century before, much of it bloody and brutal with slave raiding by Europeans. When the Puritans arrived at the Plymouth Colony, at least two Wampanoag spoke English and some had even visited Europe. The Wampanoag had lived in this region for thousands of years with their own government, religious beliefs, system of knowledge, and culture.

Chief Ousamequin shares a peace pipe with Plymouth Governor John Carver; courtesy California State Library; Artist Unknown
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At this point, the Wampanoag leader, Ousamequin, most know him as Massasoit, wanted to form an alliance with the Puritans. His people had been killed by disease and he hoped that this friendship might prove beneficial in time. Having an alliance with armed people meant that the Wampanoag might have a better chance defending their land. This shaky alliance, though, would only last for a short time.

This particular group of Puritans found their way to North America for economic reasons. The idea that they were seeking religious freedom is only partially true. Puritans had moved from England to Holland in the early 1600s and were free to practice their religion there without interference. Moving to North America offered them a chance to regain their English identity away from the Dutch and the hopes of flourishing economically with a new colony.

The feast in 1621 occurred after a difficult year of transitioning to the lifestyle necessary to survive in this part of the New World. It is true that they struggled with agriculture and that local Indigenous People helped them overcome some of those difficulties. Tisquantum, or Squanto as most people know him, was actively involved in this assistance but his story is much more complicated. He had been captured by the English in 1614, sold into slavery, spent time in England (where he learned English) and returned to his native land in 1619. When he returned, his entire Patuxet Tribe was dead from smallpox.

Wood Engraving by Charles de Wolf Brownell
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Much of what we know from the English side of the story comes from the journal of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony. This work was a meticulous account of his experiences and it was heavily used in the book Mourt’s Relation. Mourt’s Relation was written by Edward Winslow, another colonist, and published as a documented account of the proceedings in the Plymouth Colony for readers in England. These records are written by the hand of the colonists. What of the records of the Indigenous People? Their history keeping was done in the oral tradition of passing stories from one generation to the next. Those oral traditions do not include any reference to these stories.

It is interesting to note that Bradford’s journal was lost to time until the 1850s when it was rediscovered in England. The Victorian people had quite a fascination with that time period and used it as a basis to create art, poetry, and theatre about those heroic English people.

“The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris; photo courtesy of The Library of Congress
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The Thanksgiving feast did happen but it was likely very different from the feast we indulge in today. While there are no records that indicate the menu served, we can infer from other texts what was eaten in the region at the time. Wild turkeys were seen in the region but it is just as likely that ducks, geese, and swans were served alongside plenty of fresh seafood. The meal likely had an abundance of native fruits and vegetables including blueberries, plums, and cranberries along with onions, beans, and cabbage. Potatoes were nowhere to be found but it is possible that other root vegetables, like turnips, were served. Also, there was no pie. The colonists did not have the ability to produce butter or wheat flour, nor did they have a functioning closed oven for baking. There is no evidence that the Wampanoag were even invited to the feast. While we know they were there, historians are not sure how or why they arrived.

The celebration was a mix of rejoicing for their successful harvest and a solemn religious observance for the Puritans. Partaking in a meal of thanksgiving had been done for quite some time before 1621. That was also true for many of the Indigenous Peoples living in North America. While one might clump the “Indians” together into one generic group of people, there were thousands of tribes each with their own culture and creation stories. Many of the Indigenous Peoples had within their calendar a celebration of thanks to their creator. For the Wampanoag, giving thanks was a part of their everyday life.

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth;” Oil painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914
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Over time, the relations between the Puritans and Wampanoag would strain. The English colonists completely took over the land within 50 years and forced the rule of English law upon anyone they came into contact with. This resulted in yet another series of brutal conflicts between the Indigenous Peoples and the English colonists.

In the years following, a feast of thanksgiving was relatively common throughout the colonies. In fact, several other locations claimed to be the site of the first such event.  Colonists in Florida, Texas, Maine, and Virginia each stated that their celebration was the first with some historic documents in support. Many of these occurred years before the Mayflower arrived in North America. These celebrations, though, were isolated and not widely known until the 20th century, long after the holiday based on the Puritan tradition was formed.

In 1777, the Continental Congress, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving.  It was meant to be a somber event with little servile labor nor recreations. Several early US Presidents also proclaimed national Thanksgivings but by 1815, the holiday was no longer celebrated at a national level. Instead, several states carried on the tradition and by the 1850s, nearly every state and territory marked a day of thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving Day – The Dinner and The Dance;” courtesy Harper’s Weekly, Vol. II, November 27, 1858; Winslow Homer
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It was around then that many people rallied behind the idea of reinstating a national day. This effort was largely headed by Sarah Josepha Hale. She was a prominent writer, known widely for her poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and her editing work for Godey’s Lady’s Book, a women’s magazine with a circulation of more than 150,000 as the Civil War began. Hale grew up in New England and celebrated Thanksgiving all her life. Those experiences led her to publish a series of editorials about the holiday in an effort to gain national attention and support.

Sarah Josepha Hale, circa 1831; painted by James Reid Lambdin; courtesy Richard’s Free Library, Newport, New Hampshire
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During the Civil War, both sides of the conflict had calls for national days of thanks, typically after large military victories. President Abraham Lincoln issued another proclamation in the summer of 1863 following the battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the decisive victory in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Hale used this as yet another reason to reinstate a national holiday by writing to both Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward. By October, 1863, a draft of Lincoln’s official proclamation was complete. It set aside the last Thursday in November for the observance of a national day of Thanksgiving.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

– from Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving, October 3, 1863

But the story does not end there.  In fact, at this point in the story that new national day of Thanksgiving had very little to do with the Puritans and Wampanoag People. Throughout the 19th century, folks became fascinated by the story of the Puritans and their settlement at Plymouth Rock. Around 1890, the Thanksgiving Celebration was starting to become tied to those events from 1621 and school children around the country began learning about American freedom and friendship. The story was simplified into a narrative that barely mentioned the history of the Wampanoag People and certainly did not include any of the aggression from the Puritans. The Puritans were considered to be nearly perfect people by most late-19th century Americans. American and Indigenous People’s history over the course of that century was far from friendly or perfect. The whitewashing of the true story during that time period is exactly in line with relations of that time.

A Captain Nemo float makes its way through the streets of Manhattan during the 1929 Macy’s Day Parade; courtesy AP Images
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The 20th century saw a few additions to the holiday that seem to be integral parts of the American tradition now. The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade occurred in 1924 but it looked nothing like the parades today. Yes, there were floats and folks dressed in costume, but the audience of 10,000 people pales in comparison to the over 3.5 million that line the parade route in the 21st century. That first parade had very little news coverage as compared to today as multiple national TV stations air the parade to more than 50 million homes.

President George H. W. Bush pardons a turkey; courtesy George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum/NARA
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Other traditions also have their roots in the 20th century, especially the time-honored photo op of presidents appearing with turkeys at the White House. Turkeys had long been sent to the president but it wasn’t until President Truman took a photo with the turkey that the tradition became a part of pop culture. The idea of the Presidential Turkey Pardon, though, only goes back to 1989 when President George H. W. Bush noted that the turkey looked “understandably nervous.”  He added, “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”

The tradition of watching football on Thanksgiving day goes back to a game between Yale and Princeton in 1876. Other college and large high school rivalries also picked up the holiday.  When the National Football League was founded there were as many as six professional games on Thanksgiving each year. Today, the NFL’s tradition centers around the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys.  The Lions began their Thanksgiving tradition in 1934 as a way to bring attention to the team. Dallas followed that lead in 1966 and both are now solidly a part of the American tradition.

Detroit Lions versus the Chicago Bears, 1934; courtesy National Football Hall of Fame
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It wasn’t until the late 1930s that the holiday’s retail shopping angle began to become quite important. The National Retail Dry Goods Association approached President Franklin Roosevelt and asked him to change the holiday to be the fourth Thursday in November. This move would extend the Christmas shopping season and avoid Thanksgiving ever falling on the occasional fifth Thursday of November (which it did in 1939). Within a few years, Congress approved the change.

The roots of “Black Friday,” though, aren’t as simple. Many people think the term refers to a retailer whose sales have “gone into the black” or made a profit. The alternative being “into the red,” which would signal a financial loss. Others think it refers to slave trading with a big sale on slaves after the day of thanksgiving, but there is no evidence to support that myth.  Another story pinpoints a drop in gold prices in the late 1860s, but that also isn’t the foundation of the retail holiday. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s and the rush of traffic in Philadelphia that the term was used. The city was always packed with people, cars, and taxi-cabs, and the police in the city hated the congestion and smog. They began calling the day “Black Friday” as a reference to how annoying the day was. Years later, retailers tried to transform the name into something more positive and began using the accounting related story.

Cultures around the world have celebrated a day of thanksgiving for thousands of years.  Here in the United States, the holiday is decidedly part of the American culture. Though its roots are nuanced and not always pleasant to read out, November has been deemed National Native American Heritage Month with organizations throughout the country coming together to celebrate, remember, and honor the history of our Indigenous Peoples.