False Foundations: Giving Thanks

By Chris Cronin
Staff Columnist

This is part two of a monthly series on the falsehoods and misremembered facts behind some of America’s most cherished cultural touchstones.

For the first article in the series, see the Oct 26 issue of The Elm.

Every year, Americans all over the world celebrate the fourth Thursday in November in traditional style. Your family probably has special traditions of its own, but our cultural norm involves extended families, large tables, and a bountiful feast of historical foods: turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, corn, and other Thanksgiving staples. If your family is particularly ambitious, perhaps you decorated your dining room in oranges and reds and included festive accessories like stuffed miniature turkeys and cartoon pilgrims.

And as you sat around the table with your family, gorging yourselves on turkey, maybe the discussion turned to the purpose of the holiday. If you come from a religious family, perhaps it was the subject of your pre-meal prayer. The most basic purpose of the holiday is in the name—giving of thanks, dating all the way back to 16th century England, and created during the Protestant Reformation to synthesize numerous Catholic holidays into one easy-to-celebrate celebration. You might even guess, from the autumn color-scheme and the abundance of the cornucopia motif, that the holiday had its origins in even older harvest festivals, though its modern incarnation has been pushed back in the year well beyond traditional harvest-time.

If the dinner conversation did turn to history, it was probably focused on the historical episode etched into the minds of virtually all Americans from a young age—the celebration of the Pilgrim’s first harvest in America in 1621. The Pilgrims were a Protestant denomination which originated in England at the second half of the 16th century. Because they sought to separate themselves from the central Church of England, the Pilgrims endured persecution, including seeing two of their early leaders executed for sedition. The congregation moved to the Netherlands, but fearing that their children would be corrupted by an alien and overly permissive Dutch society, they made the decision in 1617 to found a colony in the New World. After enduring a miserable 65 days at sea, the first 100 Pilgrims had stepped off their ship, the Mayflower, in November 1620.

The event we call the first Thanksgiving occurred around a year later. Having lived through a difficult first year, the Pilgrims were able to finally celebrate an adequate harvest in 1621 thanks to assistance from Squanto, a Native American translator and advisor. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn, and his tribe, the Wampanoag, sent over food to complement the Pilgrims’ winter stores. It is this demonstration of human kindness and compassion that is at the core of our modern celebration.

It is also, however, an act which led to the destruction of the Wampanoag and the devastation of Native Americans in the Northeast. For decades, the Native Americans in the region enjoyed relatively peaceful relations with the European colonists, but diseases brought by the settlers took a brutal toll on their numbers. Squanto himself died of a fever just a year after the first Thanksgiving.

Fifty years after the arrival of the Pilgrims, faced with dwindling numbers, increasing European encroachment on their ancestral lands, and a massive surge in European migration, the Wampanoag finally abandoned peaceful cooperation for war. Under their leader Metacom, known to the Europeans as King Philip, the Wampanoag united with other tribes in the region and fought a bloody war against the Europeans and their Native American allies. Between 1675 and 1676, 3,000 Native Americans and 600 colonists died. By the time the colonists declared victory, the Wampanoag had lost 40 percent of their tribe. King Philip was beheaded, drawn and quartered, and his head was displayed on a pike in Plymouth for 20 years. Many of the remaining Wampanoag were sold into slavery or executed.

Thanksgiving still has a place in our society. When it was made an official holiday by George Washington in 1789, it played an important role—it allowed Americans to give thanks for the gifts and generosity they had received from others. Today, this is still just as important, especially in the age of hyper-consumerism and selfishness in which we live in. I’m not trying to ruin your holiday. But next Thanksgiving, think back to the people whose gifts made settlement in North America possible, and do not forget the brutal price they paid for their original generosity.

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