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A thankful history

Holiday’s roots differ from classic Pilgrim tale

A Thankful HistoryMany people celebrate Thanksgiving every year with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans and other side dishes associated with the holiday. Others prefer the holiday to be a time to reflect on the things they are thankful for. However, most people don’t know the history of the holiday or where it originated.

“In British culture, there's a long tradition of declaring days of thanksgiving when something good happens,” Brendan Gillis, LU associate professor of history, said. “It's generally coordinated through the church and in Britain, it's the Anglican Church. When a new child is born to the royal family, they'll declare a day of thanksgiving. When there's a big military victory or something, the church will celebrate a day of thanksgiving.”

Gillis said that the thanksgivings traditionally have a church service with a party or a feast to celebrate.

“There are actually some accounts that there was a Thanksgiving before the one we know as the first one in Massachusetts,” he said. “In Virginia, at one of the early plantation houses that settled soon after Jamestown was founded in 1607, there was a day of Thanksgiving held because of (finding) a safe way across the Atlantic to the New World. So, it's sort of not surprising that there would be Thanksgiving celebrated in the Americas right from the start.”

The traditional holiday we know today started with the colony of Massachusetts.

“In 1621, there was a lot of weariness when English settlers arrived in the Americas for the first time,” Gillis said. “We can sort of assume that most Native Americans by that point had already heard about English settlers. Word would have spread out from Virginia that various different expeditions had come along the coast. There would have been rumors circulating in the Native American cultures that there were these white people in boats who turned up.”

Gillis said during this time, the settlers of Plymouth and Massachusetts bays were trying to build relationships between the Native Americans. The popular story of the origin of Thanksgiving is a mistake, he said.

Based on the surviving accounts, from that period, the Pilgrims, the group of English colonists, went out on a hunt, Gillis said. They used firearms to kill the local animals for food but were not well-versed on how to properly hunt the game in the newly-settled colony.

“The guns aren't very effective for them,” he said. “These are religious exiles from Europe. They're not people who are trained up to be survivalists or something great at living on the frontier.

“What we know is that local Native Americans hear these bangs, they hear gunfire, they hear loud noises. They see the colonists sort of moving through the forest and they're like, ‘Oh, no, we're about to be attacked.’ They're very wary and they basically raised a very quick military party and sent them out to investigate. What happens next is they realize these people are just hunting. Somehow, they're able to avoid actually escalating into armed conflict. Both sides realized that there's a misunderstanding that's been taking place.”

According to the earliest accounts, the Native Americans agreed to kill a couple of deer for the colonists and then they had the Thanksgiving.

“We know if you look at the longer history of Massachusetts in the 1620s, the Pilgrims sign a treaty with the Wampanoag, one of the largest Native American groups in the region,” Gillis said. “This treaty is of sort of a mutual defense and an alliance, and there's this possibility that there's going to be a more peaceful relationship between natives and colonists that turned to that celebration of Thanksgiving.”

The meal that came to be known as the “First Thanksgiving” originated with Native American concerns about what turned out to be a hunting party, Gillis said.

“Massasoit, the local Wampanoag leader, asked some of his men to kill a few deer, and both the Native Americans and the Pilgrim colonists celebrated for several days,” he said. “As such, the menu at the first Thanksgiving featured roasted venison. In addition, colonists and Native Americans dined on shellfish gathered from the Massachusetts coast and corn from Wampanoag farms. It is unlikely that there would have been any turkey. Basically, Native Americans provided much of the food.”

During this time, the colonists learned techniques on farming and hunting from the Wampanoag tribe, but that is only part of the story, Gillis said.

“The Native Americans, while they're willing to help, they're curious,” he said. “They see these outsiders as potential allies. If they get these foreigners on their side, maybe they'll be able to beat their traditional enemies among other Native American tribes.”

Gillis said that peace didn’t last long, and in the 1630s, there was a terrifying war between New England colonists and Native Americans called the Pequot War.

“That war comes to mind because there is a famous engraving of it,” he said. “The New England colonists were upset that the Pequot were trying to trade with New Amsterdam. The New Netherlands was Dutch at the time, and it wasn't an English colony. The colonists tried to get the Pequot to trade with them instead and the Pequot ended up not doing that. They then put together a force. It's a bunch of New England militia and their Native American allies. They go surround a Pequot village, set a fire around it, and then they shoot everyone — man, woman and child — who's fleeing. That war drags on until the 1670s.”

The modern-day Thanksgiving was officially made a holiday in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday.

“When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, there was debate about which Thursday in November should be Thanksgiving,” Gillis said. “It led to some controversy and Roosevelt declared the third Thursday as opposed to the last Thursday. Some people were very upset, which led Congress actually to respond with a piece of legislation saying, ‘Oh, no, it should be the last Thursday.’ But you know, that's America, everything gets politicized.

  “In the United States, or what became the United States, this idea of a religious celebration, a day to reflect on our good fortune, has merged with the tradition of the harvest festival. In England, they do actually have harvest festivals. Most agricultural societies, if you look, sometime in the fall, people get together and celebrate a good harvest.”

Gillis said if one asks people today what Thanksgiving is about, they'll generally say turkey, food and family.

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want,” also known as “Thanksgiving,” created 1941-1943.
Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want,” also known as “Thanksgiving,” created 1941-1943.

“For a lot of people, that brings to mind the artwork of Norman Rockwell,” he said. “This image from the 1950s of a really idealized fulfillment of the American dream is like, ‘What does it mean to be thankful?’ Being thankful is to be surrounded by your family, to have enough wealth not just to be able to survive, but to be able to throw this big festive meal. For a lot of people, Thanksgiving today doesn't have anything to do really with the harvest. Nobody is thinking that they got the pumpkins out from the field, or saying that they had a good corn crop harvest this year.

“In the United States, it's a much more of a recent invention. Every generation in America has had its own understanding of what there is to be thankful for, what the United States is all about, what living the good life should look like.

“And so our Thanksgiving today is probably a little bit different from what our parents’ and our grandparents’ was. But by the 1940s and 1950s, you start to see people really celebrating a Thanksgiving that would be recognizable to most of us today.”

Thanksgiving can mean lots of things to people, but it is important to remember to be thankful for what you have and how you got there. Dig in.

Category: Features