|The "First Thanksgiving": Facts and Fancies|
The event we now know as "the First Thanksgiving" was in fact neither the first occurrence of our modern American holiday, nor was it even a 'Thanksgiving" in the eyes of the Pilgrims who celebrated it. It was instead a traditional English harvest celebration to which the colonists invited Massasoit, the most important sachem among the Wamapanoag. It was only in the nineteenth century that this event became identified with the American Thanksgiving holiday.
The association of the Pilgrims with the Thanksgiving holiday has a complicated history. The holiday itself evolved out of a routine Puritan religious observation, irregularly declared and celebrated in response to God's favorable Providence, into an single, annual, quasi-secular New England autumnal celebration. The first national Thanksgiving was declared in 1777 by the Continental Congress, and others were declared from time to time until 1815. The holiday then reverted to being a regional observance until 1863, when two national days of Thanksgiving were declared, one celebrating the victory at Gettysburg on August 6, and the other the first of our last-Thursday-in-November annual Thanksgivings. Although the Pilgrims' 1621 harvest celebration had been identified as the first American Thanksgiving as early as 1841 by Alexander Young, the common Thanksgiving symbolic associations in the 19th century centered on turkeys, Yankee dinners and an annual family reunion, not Pilgrims. Mention of the Pilgrims brought the Landings or Myles, Priscilla, and John to mind, not Thanksgiving.
Moreover, whenever a Pilgrim, or more accurately, a generic 17th-century puritan image appeared in popular art in connection with Thanksgiving during the nineteenth century, it was not the now familiar scene of English and Indians sitting down to an outdoor feast. On the contrary, the image almost always portrayed a violent confrontation between colonist and Native American. It was only after the turn of the century, when the western Indian wars were over and the "vanishing red man" was vanishing satisfactorily, that the romantic (and historically correct) idyllic image of the two cultures sitting down to an autumn feast became popular. By the First World War, popular art (especially postcards), schoolbooks and literature had linked the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving indivisibly together, so much so that the image of the Pilgrim and the familiar fall feast almost ousted the Landing and older patriotic images from the popular consciousness. This alliance also deflated Forefathers' Day, which sank in to insignificance even in Plymouth itself.
The Pilgrims and the "First Thanksgiving"
During the second half of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving was more commonly symbolized by its New England origins and its chief dinner constituent, the turkey, than by the Pilgrims' 1621 harvest celebration. In addition to the rural New England theme, there were a diversity of contemporary and historical illustrations and stories, including Thanksgivings on the battlefield, down south with African-Americans and in the urban slums, as well as a few generic colonial New England (and Old England) Puritan images. It is surprising to note that when the colonists are represented, they are less likely to be sharing their feast with their Native American neighbors, than illustrating European and Native American conflict, indicated by a hail of arrows! Apparently the very real dangers of the Indian Wars in the West produced a sense of fear and guilt which was expressed in this fashion, in graphic contrast with the familiar peaceful autumn pastorals that we associate with the holiday today. It was only after the wars were over that a sentimental regard for the satisfactorily "vanishing Red Man" provoked a national change of heart in which Jennie Brownscombe could create her idyllic "First Thanksgiving" (1914). Even then the image of the Thanksgiving "Pilgrim-puritan" fleeing a shower of arrows retained a popular appeal.
The association between Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims had been suggested as early as 1841 when Alexander Young identified the 1621 harvest celebration as the "first Thanksgiving" in New England, but their importance among the holiday's symbols did not occur until after 1900. It was then that the familiar illustrations of Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down to dinner in peace and concord appeared widely in calendar art and on patriotic murals. The real New England Thanksgiving, as is shown in the 1777 proclamation, bore less of a resemblance to our modern holiday than the feasting and games of the Pilgrim harvest celebration. But when the Victorians were looking for the historical antecedent of the contemporary Thanksgiving holiday, the Pilgrim festival with its big dinner and charitable hospitality seemed the perfect match. The fact that the 1621 event had not been a Thanksgiving in the Pilgrims' own eyes was irrelevant. The Pilgrim harvest celebration quickly became the mythic "First Thanksgiving" and has remained the primary historical representation of the holiday ever since. The earlier Pilgrim holiday, Forefathers' Day (December 21st, the anniversary of the Landing on Plymouth Rock), which had been celebrated since 1769 faded in importance as the Pilgrims increasingly became the patron saints of the American Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims were cast in their Forefathers role to provide an example of the close-knit, religiously inspired American community that people worried about the decline of basic values during the First World War period wished to instill in their descendants. While retaining their Victorian symbolic virtues, the Pilgrims became usable history for generations of school children, and played an important part in the Americanization of the Northern and Eastern immigrants entering the country. New elements and a new theme supporting this role were added to the Pilgrim Story as the Pilgrims acquired their most recent and important popular association: the Thanksgiving holiday. A modern image, the First Thanksgiving, showed Pilgrim families sitting down to a pastoral celebration with the Native Americans in eirenic harmony, thus symbolizing the potential for unity of different ethnic background.
Equally important at the turn of the century was the inspirational image of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sharing their communal meal in harmony. The country was seriously concerned over immigration and the problems surrounding the integration of the new citizens into American culture. The Thanksgiving image of dissimilar ethnic communities co-existing amid peace and plenty was an irresistible symbol. The Pilgrims became the exemplary immigrants whose Protestant virtues made them the preferred model for all later arrivals. Americanization programs, which were intended to socialize the new immigrants by instilling in them the values and beliefs of "real" Americans, made good use of the symbols and ideals of Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims. By 1920, when the Pilgrims' 300th anniversary celebration elevated them to the pinnacle of their fame, their role as Thanksgiving icons and the "spiritual ancestors" of all Americans became permanently fixed in the American psyche.
P. O. Box 1620
Plymouth, MA 02362
© Plimoth Plantation, Inc. 1999