Thanksgiving is one of the most celebrated American holidays. Statistically, Thanksgiving is the most celebrated holiday behind Christmas. There’s good reason why. Not only is Thanksgiving an opportunity to gather with family and friends to enjoy a meal and give thanks for the blessings of our lives, but Thanksgiving is flanked by a great story that all kids are taught in grade school. Pilgrims, trying to find a home where they could worship their God without being persecuted, were welcomed with open arms by native peoples who already inhabited the land. After harvesting their crops, the natives and the new settlers ate a large meal together to celebrate this blossoming friendship.
Or, at least, that’s what we were told. The actual story of Thanksgiving is quite different and I want to spend some time discussing the original events that led to this meal and how the history of Thanksgiving became distilled into a simple narrative. As you will discover, the journey of the narrative of Thanksgiving is a parable for how we as modern Americans have a tendency to reduce our history into easily digestible storylines that often ignore the more complex lessons hiding beneath the surface. More importantly, we will explore how the history of this holiday illuminates why our society is so reluctant to deal with ramifications of negative history. Ultimately, this article will serve as the foundation for a second article I will release next month about how this tendency is contributing to the decline of American Christianity in the 21st century.
First Stop: Holland
First of all, what many people do not realize is that Thanksgiving has multiple origin stories. Technically, the first Thanksgiving took place in Virginia, on December 4, 1619 when 38 eight English settlers landed in what is now Charles City County, Virginia. The group’s charter specified that upon making landfall, they were to engage in a religious celebration and feast. However, even though the Virginia Thanksgiving is first chronologically, what most Americans recognize as celebration of Thanksgiving would take place two years later among a group of Pilgrims hundreds of miles north of Virginia.
Perhaps the reason why Thanksgiving is primarily attached to these Pilgrims is because their story is far more interesting. In order to understand how the first Thanksgiving came about among this group, one first has to go back to England in 1608. In the small village of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, there was a Protestant congregation who was upset that they were being asked to pledge allegiance to the Church of England. In their view, the Church of England was a corrupt institution and, after much back and forth, they decided their relationship with the Church of England was unsalvageable. They would leave England and immigrate to Holland where they could enjoy the freedom to worship in whatever manner they saw fit.
Referring to themselves as “Saints”, they packed up their families and moved to Holland, which promoted freedom of religion. Although they could now worship without government interference, they found life in Holland to be more challenging than they had anticipated. The first major issue is that these Saints found themselves struggling economically because migrants were excluded from the professional guilds. This meant they could only perform low-wage, menial labor. Without the possibility of upward mobility, the Saints were barely eking out a livable existence.
However, another reason why the Saints were struggling is because of Holland’s culture. One of the reasons why Holland endorsed freedom of religion is because their society was full of secular people who did not associate with any particular religion. Indeed, Holland possessed a very cosmopolitan atmosphere. The people of Holland lived their lives however they pleased, which was the exact opposite of the strict Christian values of the Saints.
The adults among the Saints had no problem resisting the temptations of Holland’s Laissez-faire society. Their children, on the other hand, were not as stalwart. Many of their children embraced Holland’s social norms, eschewing their devout Christian upbringing. Some, upon reaching adulthood, even abandoned the church.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
Eventually, the group decided Holland presented too many obstacles to their way of life. They had heard of the “New World”, a land where people like themselves could create their own society free of governmental or societal influences. The Saints returned to London where they petitioned a wealthy merchant to fund their expedition. The goal was to establish a settlement near Northern Virginia.
They found passage aboard two merchant ships known as the Mayflower and the Speedwell. When they set sail in August of 1620, there were 41 Saints in total aboard the two ships. Unfortunately, the Speedwell began leaking, which cause them to turn back. Upon arriving at port, everyone from the Speedwell boarded the Mayflower. Carrying a total of 102 passengers, this was not optimal for the long journey as the Mayflower was only 80 feet long and 24 feet wide. Nonetheless, everyone agreed this was the best course of action.
The delay caused them to be travelling at the peak of storm season in the Atlantic Ocean, which meant the seas were choppy. Many of the people aboard the ship suffered from horrible sea sickness. The captain of Mayflower, Christopher Jones, became disoriented because of the storms and, after 66 days at sea, they arrived in the New World at what is now known as Cape Cod. They were more than 400 miles north of their anticipated landing point.
They landed on November 11, 1620, right as the winter was setting into the area. After scouting the shoreline, the only sign of life was an abandoned village once inhabited by a Native American tribe. Rather than go ashore to build suitable lodgings, the colonists opted to spend their first winter living in the bowels of the Mayflower. This would prove a costly decision as the confined space easily spread disease.
By April 1621, when the Mayflower set sail back to England, nearly half of the passengers had died. Only five of the nineteen women managed to survive. It is likely that none of the passengers would have survived had it not been for the kindness of the native peoples who provided the colonists with rations throughout the harsh winter. This was in large part due to an English-speaking Abenaki named Samoset who negotiated an alliance with the local Wampanoags. This alliance would prove essential to the survival of the colonists as the Wampanoags taught them how to grow corn, beans and squash, as well as hunt for local game.
By the end of the summer of 1621, the remaining colonists were collecting the fruit of their first successful harvest. Upon the completion of the harvest, they celebrated with a three-day festival of thanksgiving, likely sometime in mid-October. It is unclear if this celebration was initiated by the colonists or the Wampanoags, but, somehow, they ended up feasting together. The head of the Wampanoag tribe, Massasoit, was in attendance with some 90 men. The colonists were outnumbered two to one. This event is the primary basis of Thanksgiving holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.
The Story Behind the Story
According to the history of Wampanoag tribe, they see Thanksgiving not as a day of celebration, but as a day of mourning. There is regret among the tribe that they ever helped the Plymouth colonists survive. This is in large part due to the fact that native tribes were devastated by smallpox. There was a massive infection of smallpox among native tribes brought by English settlers in Virginia that had swept up the East Coast from 1917-19. Indeed, the Christian colonists believed that the plague of smallpox had been administered by God to limit bloodshed over land disputes. Since many of the Christian settlers believed their success was preordained by God, the infection of smallpox was a means of God clearing the way for a Christian society to be established.
Hence the celebration of Thanksgiving, although it was moment of triumph for this unique multicultural relationship, masked a much deeper reality—the Saints saw these native tribes who had saved their lives as disposable. These native tribes represented a threat to the sanctity of their goal of creating a theocracy where Christianity reigned supreme. Many Christians in the New World equated the smallpox epidemic to the Egyptian plagues found in the book of Exodus and felt it was divine intervention.
Over time, the egalitarian nature of the relationship between colonists and the natives would give way to violence and war, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of natives and the decimation of their culture and land. This pattern would accelerate as the number of colonists arriving on ships increased exponentially. Fascinatingly, even as rapid expansion across the north American continent resulted in ever more bloody encounters with native tribes, this shared feast between the Mayflower colonists and the Wampanoag tribe became lodged in the collective memories of the citizens of this newly formed nation.
Thanksgiving would become a symbol of unity that would be utilized by politicians during times of great discord. Not long after our nation was formed and our first president elected, George Washington made a proclamation in 1789 that Thanksgiving should be celebrated. At the time, the fragility of the new union was palpable and such a holiday emphasized how people from completely distinct cultures and backgrounds can overcome their differences.
Over the next 70 years, Thanksgiving would be celebrated inconsistently. Thanksgiving would only become a national holiday when Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation on October 3, 1863. Lincoln was inspired by a letter from Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor who had been writing to congress for 40 years with the hopes of getting Thanksgiving instated as a national holiday.
Given the precarious state of the union during the Civil War, Lincoln, like Washington, saw a political advantage in promoting a holiday where two groups of people with competing interests were able to set aside their differences and come together as one to enjoy a meal. Even though Thanksgiving was only initially instituted in the Northern states, because so many families in the United States had members from both the North and the South, he saw the holiday as a means of possibly unifying the country down the road.
An interesting sidenote about Lincoln’s decision is that he was aware of the two competing Thanksgiving narratives—the original Thanksgiving in Virginia and the second Thanksgiving in Plymouth. Lincoln chose to promote the Plymouth version because the narrative was more friendly to the idea of unity. Also, the history of the early colonies in Virginia were horrific. Not only did the original Jamestown colony collapse, but when the colonists ran out of food during the winter, they resorted to cannibalism. Even though the Virginia Thanksgiving was a decade later, Lincoln didn’t want the two histories getting confused.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Growing up in the American public school system, I knew nothing of the original history of Thanksgiving. The story fed to me was what I regurgitated for most of my life. I didn’t know any of the finer details surrounding the event. I only knew the nuts and bolts of pilgrims having a feast with native people. To be fair, the nuts and bolts are not historically inaccurate. It’s just not a full picture of what was happening and, even more problematic is that, like so many people, I never questioned the narrative.
Indeed, by not engaging with the full context of the history of the event, we are missing some key details that open the door to a much larger conversation about how the colonists came into possession of the territory we call now call the United States. Indeed, the basic story of Thanksgiving makes it seem as though the colonists and natives were super friendly. This story hides the reality that, even though the natives saved the colonists from certain death, the Christian colonists believed they were superior to the native peoples. Indeed, within the details of this story is the basis of what is more commonly known as American exceptionalism—the belief that the people who founded this country were exceptional people whose mission was preordained by God to succeed.
This is an important thread that would find its way through our history as a nation and is why, even to this day, we have tough time coming to terms with the negative features of our country’s history. A good example of this is the current cultural conversation around racism. There are two competing narratives that define America’s history. The most common narrative is that the United States is a place where if you work hard, anyone, regardless of race, class or gender can be successful. The essence of this narrative is that the fundamental building blocks of American society are such that your success or failure rides on your shoulders. If you’re not successful, that’s because of something you did wrong, not because of anything within the society that is holding you back.
The second narrative states that certain groups within American society have more advantages than others. The advantages are primarily based on racial divisions that stem back hundreds of years. When our country was founded, part of the formula for economic success was a large pool of slave labor from the African continent. Baked into this economy of slave labor was a philosophy that those who were enslaved were inherently of lesser value than their masters. One cannot justify enslaving a group of people if they are seen as equals. The dividing line was simple: those with dark skin were inferior, while those with light skin were superior.
This idea became so much a part of our culture, and cultures around the world, that beginning in the 19th century and continuing well into the 20th century, such racist belief systems were seen to be scientifically justifiable through eugenics. It is only with the advent of modern biology and genetic research that eugenics has been proven to be nothing more than junk science. Regardless, this racist philosophy is still very much a part of our society. Those with darker skin do not have access to the same opportunities as those white skin. Although I don’t have time in this article to get into how modern racism continues to propagate itself, but if you are interested, I did a series of articles on this issue in 2020.
The point being that the conflict between these two narratives is similar to the discrepancy between the two Thanksgiving narratives. The simplified version of the Thanksgiving narrative reduces the story down into something palatable. By removing the negative components of how the Pilgrims used the natives and saw themselves as superior, we ignore the sordid history of how we justified the decimation of an entire civilization. When we recycle the simple version over and over again, we enable our own amnesia around the history of how we came into possession of this land.
The same is true when it comes to the narrative of American exceptionalism. The simplified version of the American dream, where anyone can be successful with enough hard work, enables our own amnesia around the history of how this country was actually built on slave labor, which was intellectually justified through a deeply engrained philosophy of racism.
For those who hold power, the simplified narrative is always pre