Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Thanksgiving...?

Last year around this time, I got my first and only patron complaint in over a decade of working at the library. We'll call it a reference interview gone bad. In librarian-speak, a reference interview is where it is not clear what someone is looking for, and we ask a few questions to make sure we are pointing them in the right direction.

In this case, a woman was asking for 'the historical first Thanksgiving.' As it turned out, she really wanted the warm-fuzzy-Ann-Rockwell version, not the actual, historical one. That's fine, we have plenty of versions of the warm fuzzy one (although, two days before the holiday, there wasn't a huge selection left.) 

The problem was, in me finding out what she was REALLY looking for, she became quite irate at the possibility that there was anything less than truth to what we were all taught in school - that the Pilgrims (with buckles on their hats and shoes) and the Indians (in loincloths and headdresses) were best of friends, and they planned this huge meal together and called it Thanksgiving, celebrating it every year thereafter with turkey and sweet potatoes dotted with marshmallows. She called my supervisor to complain that I was sharing too much of my opinion, and suggested I "brush up on my history" (not realizing I used to teach it), by reading William Bradley's On Plymouth Plantation.

Well, I had, but I decided to read it again. And while I am sorry she was so upset, I have to even more firmly stand by the historical accuracy of the two options I (gently, really!) presented to her.

There are multiple web sites and books with different takes on the origins of Thanksgiving, and many are full of opinion, exaggeration, and deliberate slanting in either direction. Since it is getting to be that time of year again, I decided to put together a collection of the most credible sources I could find, especially the only two written records for that area in that time period, as you will see below.

One, of course, is William Bradley's journal, usually titled On Plymouth Plantation. There is a digital transcription of the original manuscript with all the original spelling/typography, as it was written, at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24950/24950-h/24950-h.htm. It is important to note that there are no chapter titles other than the year, from mid-1620 on. The manuscript was first published in 1856, after being squirreled away in London for over a century. Some publishers have added chapter titles such as “The Pequot War” or “The First Thanksgiving”, but those titles were not ascribed by Bradley, who by this time had been dead for 200 years!

Books.google.com offers several online editions of On Plymouth Plantation with more modern typography/spelling, including this: http://books.google.com/books?id=tYecOAN1cwwC&printsec=titlepage#v=onepage&q&f=false  

Following, however (in italics), is from http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/, and is in the original English :

PRIMARY SOURCES FOR "THE FIRST THANKSGIVING"
AT PLYMOUTH
There are 2 (and only 2) primary sources for the events of autumn 1621 in Plymouth:
Edward Winslow writing in Mourt's Relation and William Bradford writing in Of Plymouth Plantation.

William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation:

"They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and
dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; fFor as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no want. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids, they had about a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corn to yt proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports."

Note what you do NOT see in the above account:
-          the word “Thanksgiving”, or any form of the word “thankful”
-          any mention of Native Americans (except for the corn!)
- any mention of a feast being planned or held.

Now, for the second written account:

Edward Winslow, Mourt's Relation:

"our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together(1), after we had gathered the fruits of our labours ; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes(2), many of the Indians coming amongst us(3), and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men(4), whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted(5), and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie."

(1)   – still not called a thanksgiving celebration (which would have been more of a church service anyway), but deemed a special occasion
(2)   According to Wampanoag historical accounts*, this ‘exercising of arms’ alarmed the tribe, which had already signed a treaty agreeing to mutual protection, so…
(3)   A contingent was sent to make sure the people of Plymouth were not under attack. The explanation of shooting firearms to celebrate made as much sense to them as it does to most people today, so they stuck around to make sure all really was well.
(4)   90 men. Not families, men. Women and children would not have been sent with a party expecting to do battle. The Wampanoag were not invited, but
(5)   Were included in the feast under way – to which they also contributed.


Okay, so, if nobody declared this event a Thanksgiving, and there is no record of this joint feast ever being repeated, when was the first one?

That’s a tougher question to answer. Native Americans held many such events throughout every year. There is record of Spaniards holding a Thanksgiving event in Texas in the late 1500’s (http://www.texasalmanac.com/topics/history/timeline/first-thanksgiving). But, if you want to stick with white Europeans in the Plymouth colony, the answer (maybe) comes a couple years later, to 1623, when there was another good harvest, and Governor Bradford made the following proclamation:

Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.
Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.
--William Bradford
Ye Governor of Ye Colony
(source:holydays.tripod.com)

Aha! Now we have the word “thanksgiving”, although this is definitely a religious event, not a feast, not a party, and no Native Americans are invited. There is actually some question as to the veracity of this proclamation, however (see http://web.ccsd.k12.wy.us/techcurr/social%20studies/05/0101th-bradp.html), and it is not mentioned in On Plymouth Plantation, which seems odd – he mentions much more trivial things at times, wouldn’t he mention his own proclamation? There is also no mention anywhere that this was more than a one-time event, if it indeed happened at all.

Fast forward a decade, with no mention of joint feasts or thanksgiving celebrations in Bradford's journal. Relations between the Europeans and Native Americans are strained, at best. One major incident is the death of a Captain John Stone, at the hands of local Pequot Indians. He wasn’t the most well-loved person around (http://www.stonefamilyassociation.org/index.php?pr=John_Of_Virginia, http://teaching.monster.com/training/articles/3355-13-things-about-the-pequot-war)  but the Europeans still called for his killers to be handed over. The Pequot refused or were unable to. In May of 1637 (ironically, while the Pequot were gathered for their own harvest festival), the people of Plymouth Colony, under Governor Bradford, took action. Here it is in Bradford’s own words, from On Plymouth Plantation:

They approached ye same with great silence, and surrounded it both with English & Indeans, that they might not breake out; and so assualted them with great courage, shooting amongst them, and entered ye forte with all speed; and those yt first entered found sharp resistance from the enimie, who both shott at & grapled with them; others rane into their howses, & brought out fire, and sett them on fire, which soone tooke in their matts, &, standing close togeather, with ye wind, all was quickly on a flame, and therby more were burnte to death then was otherwise slain; it burnte their bowstrings, and made them unservisable. Those yt scaped ye fire were slaine with ye sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400. at this time. It was a fearfull sight to see them thus frying in ye fyer, and yestreams of blood [426]quenching ye same, and horrible was ye stinck & sente ther of; but ye victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prays therof to God, who had wrought so wonderfuly for them, thus to inclose their enimise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud & insulting an enimie. 

Then

(from a copy of a letter from John Winthrop included in Bradford’s journal) The prisoners were devided, some to those of ye river, and the rest to us. Of these we send ye male children to Bermuda,[DY] by Mr. William Peirce, & ye women & maid children are disposed aboute in the townes. Ther have been now slaine & taken, in all, aboute 700. 
Then. THEN. John Winthrop, Massachusetts Bay Governor, proclaimed:
“This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

For decades after, scattered Thanksgiving services were held throughout the growing colonies, many referencing this 'victory'. None ever referenced the 1621 feast.

In 1776, John Hancock declared a national day of Thanksgiving (which included fasting and prayer services). The following year, the Continental Congress did the same:

Thanksgiving Proclamation 1777
By the Continental Congress
The First National Thanksgiving Proclamation
IN CONGRESS
November 1, 1777

FORASMUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of
Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to
implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant
Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to
smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment
of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a
Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with
most signal success:

It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES to
set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and
PRAISE: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings
of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that,
together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession
of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest
Supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST, mercifully to forgive
and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the
Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire
our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude
which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these
United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE: That it may
please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the
Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education,
so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing
Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom,
which consisteth "in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost."
And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times
innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an
Occasion.

(source: http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/TG_First_National_Thanksgiving_Proclamation_1777.pdf.)

Note that there is still no mention of Native Americans or Pilgrims.

Maybe George Washington mentioned them?

George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation


WHEREAS, It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor;
WHEREAS, Both the houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted' for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have show kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
--George Washington - October 3, 1789

Good old Abe, perhaps?

Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.
A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.
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. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln

Huh. Nope.

It wasn't until the late 1800's that images of Pilgrims and Indians started to creep into the picture. From http://www.alden.org/pilgrim_lore/thanksgiving.html:


In 1889, Jane G. Austin (the American author, not her more famous English namesake) published Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, the first and most popular of several titles dealing with the Pilgrim saga. It was an immediate success, going through at least 28 imprints, and a dramatization in 1919. In Standish of Standish, Austin includes a fictional and sentimental account of the “First Thanksgiving” which appears to have had an important influence on the Thanksgiving myth. Austin’s embellishment of the 1621 harvest celebration led to a new appreciation of the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday. In the 1897 November issue of the Ladies Home Journal, Clifford Howard drew heavily on Austin’s fictional account for an ostensibly historical description of the First Thanksgiving. Accompanying Howard’s article was “The First Thanksgiving Dinner with Portraits of the Pilgrim Fathers” by W. L. Taylor. This is the first recognizable illustration of the now familiar autumnal outdoor feast commonly associated in popular culture with the Pilgrim Thanksgiving.

The new version of the First Thanksgiving story struck a resonate chord with the American public. It fulfilled the cultural desire for a romantic origin for the holiday, and also provided the Pilgrims with a new role as tolerant American peacemakers. The cessation of the Indian Wars in the West and a widespread sentimental interest in Native American culture made it possible for a reassessment of Thanksgiving’s colonial roots. Another factor was the Progressive mindset at the turn of the Twentieth century that sought to bring reform and a rational order to American society. It was now time to create unity out of diversity and invite others to join together at the national table, as Thomas Nast’s prescient cartoon had suggested in 1869.

So...what should we non-Natives do this holiday season...wear ashes and sackcloth? Give all our belongings to the nearest Native American in apology? Scare small children with stories of Pequot people being burned alive or hacked to pieces?

Here is where I WILL insert my opinion. To me, Thanksgiving has nothing to do with early American history, but everything to do with all the many things I have to be thankful for today. It is about sharing what I have with those around me - the fruits of my kitchen, my time, my attention. It is about enjoying the company of family and friends. Will I be celebrating Thanksgiving? Absolutely. I have much to be thankful for, and sometimes I need the reminder to stop and appreciate it. Plus, a holiday with lots of food? Heck, yeah! There are so many wonderful books and activities and crafts out there that focus on all the reasons for the holiday that are set forth in those presidential proclamations.

And, from powows.com (self-described as "an online community for Native American tribes, Native American history, pow-wows, Native American Culture, Native American Music, and Native American Art"):

Should you decide to celebrate this holiday on the fourth Thursday of November, please remember the Native Americans.  Weather you be a teacher or a parent or both be very careful not to “sugar coat” what the Pilgrims did and how they treated the Native Americans, not even to the youngest age.  Please avoid stereotypic Thanksgiving pictures, stories, and programs that depict inaccurate images that are unfair and degrading.  By all means do not have children or adults make “Indian headbands, Indian vests”, do ceremonial war dances or such inappropriate things.  Also do not put on “Pilgrim and Indian” pageants or plays (unless they are historically accurate and tell the story from the true perspectives of Native Americans as well as the European immigrants).

(http://www.powwows.com/2011/07/19/a-more-accurate-view-of-thanksgiving/)

I hope you take the time to check out the links provided* - you shouldn't take my word for anything any more than you should any other person! I also hope you have a wonderful holiday, eat as much as you want, enjoy the company of friends and family, and take a few moments to be thankful for the things you might usually take for granted.

*If you want an age-appropriate book to share with the kids, I found this one comparatively accurate (except for the illustrations in many cases), balanced (the hardships faced by the Pilgrims and the help given by local Native Americans is not ignored), and appropriate for 3rd grade and up (i.e. while the later massacre is mentioned, it doesn't go into graphic detail).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this excellent history lesson!

    ReplyDelete