It all started with corn...
I'll never forget the day before Thanksgiving, 1974, when my kindergarten teacher sliced open a paper-mache turkey and out poured mounds of popcorn for us to eat.
Popcorn, we were incredulous to learn, was not a movie-theater invention, but a traditional snack of the Native Americans. It was only one of the many trade secrets that the friendly Indians shared with their new neighbors, The Pilgrims, to help them weather the harsh New England winter of 1621.
The Pilgrims then invited the Indians to a feast in celebration of their friendship and in thanks to God for seeing them through their first hard year in the New World. Such is the story of the First Thanksgiving as every schoolchild in America has come to learn it.
Leave it to the textbooks to make any story corny and dull.
Meanwhile, fascination and lurid details lurk behind this trite tail of Pilgrim progress - and 1621 wasn't even half the story. The real history of Thanksgiving spans several centuries, ending finally in 1941, when Democrats and Republicans waged a battle over Turkey Day that was as heated as a plate of stuffing.
Fact: harvest celebrations have existed since Greek and Pagan civilizations ruled the world. Fact: days of thanksgiving were common in Europe around the time the Pilgrims set off in search of religious freedom.
Fact: a group of settlers in Virginia held an official day of thanks the year before the Mayflower even set sail. So why do our plucky little friends on Plymouth Rock get all the credit for the First Thanksgiving? The reason is complicated: Blame it on myth. Blame it on Politics. Blame it on the editor of a lady's magazine and her turkey recipes.
Meanwhile, back on Plymouth Rock
Our picture of the Pilgrims as upstanding, pious individuals owes much to the generous simplifications of myth. In a 1992 article in the Monthly Review, Jim Loewen reveals that the Mayflower itself was plagued with rumors of mutiny after the Pilgrims, fearing Anglican powers in the established colonies, wrestled control of the ship from the other 102 passengers and headed for Cape Cod instead of Virginia.
Once landed, the Pilgrims chose a town site that had, until recently, been an Indian village featuring cleared and planted fields and a nearby brook. The town they called Plymouth had been conveniently emptied of Indians by a devastating plague brought by British fishermen who had visited the continent earlier.
Indian tribes had no resistance to the European diseases and died by the thousands. According to Loewen, the plague killed over 90% of the inhabitants of souther New England inside of three years.
Though the plague isn't mentioned in most history books, Loewen points out that it weakened resistance from native populations, and is thereby responsible for the establishment of the United States. It also brought about the event later known as the First Thanksgiving.
Without friendly reciprocity from Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag tribe, the feast would never have reached its proportion or its status among events of inner-cultural peace and brotherhood. But Massasolt's overtures were the actions of a strategic leader, not a naive native - his plague weakened villages were desperate for allies against the neighboring Narragansett tribe. But back to the corn.
Our textbook understanding has us believing that the Indians kindly shared their corn with the Pilgrims and taught them about planting. But a quote Loewen found in a colonist's journal reveals that the dried corn was stolen from the Indian's underground storage place.
"It was with God's help that we found this corn, for how else could we have done it?" the colonist writes. Then he goes on to describe the digging up of an Indian grave, "we took several of the prettiest things to carry away with us, and covered up the body again."
So much for "we come in peace."
Likewise the myth of Squanto, the friendly Indian guide and interpreter who helped the Pilgrims through their first New England winter. Samuel M. Wilson, in an article in Natural History, credits archaeologist and ethnohistorian Lynn Ceci with debunking the Squanto myth. Not only didn't he teach the Pilgrims to fertilize their corn with fish (Ceci found this practice to be of European origin), but he was far more worldly than his 'noble savage' image implies.
Squanto had, in fact, been kidnapped from Cape Cod and sold into slavery in Spain in 1614, Ceci claims. He lived in England with the treasurer of the Newfoundland Company, worked for the merchant who later financed the Mayflower, accompanied Capt. John Mason to Newfoundland and eventually returned to New England, where he found his entire tribe obliterated by slavery and European diseases.
His village was now occupied by the Pilgrims, and in his savvy he found it advantageous to befriend them and represent them (or mis-represent them) to other tribes. Squanto did in fact invite the Wampanoag tribe to the first Plymouth thanksgiving - but then he also told them that the white settlers kept the plague in the ground and could release it at will.
According to Malabar Hornblower's 1993 article in Yankee magazine, the Wanmanoags had their own harvest festival - the Green Corn Dance - and figured the Pilgrim's party was in a similar vein. By introducing their own traditions - and bringing five deer to snack on - they turned the sombre day of prayer into a three-day feast and sporting event. While the men romped, the four surviving Pilgrim ladies were left to cook for the 140-member party.
Turkeys and other Political Figures
According to Hornblower, the next Massachusetts thanksgiving wasn't until the summer of 1623, when Governor William Bradford decreed a religious holiday to thank God for ending a crop-destroying drought. Similarly, the previous thanksgiving in Virginia did not follow a regular, annual schedule; the governors of individual states would declare thanksgiving days whenever and event called for gratitude, say, the survival of an Indian massacre or victory in a certain battle.
Nancy G. Heuser (Early American Life, Oct. 1986) says these declarations bordered on whim - one in 1663 offered thanks for foiling an insurrection by indentured servants, another in 1699 commemorated the use of a new royal seal. In The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England) (1895), W. DeLoss Love records 696 New England observances of thanksgiving before the year 1700.
The first national thanksgiving, scheduled by the Continental Congress to celebrate the defeat of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, was not until 1777. George Washington proclaimed two one-time-only days of thanksgiving, one in November 1789 to celebrate the new Constitution, and another one in February 1795 after the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion.
Thomas Jefferson refused to declare any at all, arguing that separation of state and church did not allow for national holidays with religious content. After 1812, claims Heuser, nationally declared thanksgivings dropped off entirely until the 1860s. She asserts that they continued to be held in New England, however, where they became partisan in nature, including sermons on anti-slavery and abolition.
This offended southern states, particularly Virginia, where governors Joseph Johnson and Henry A. Wise argued vehemently against the adoption of a thanksgiving holiday.
Recipes to the Rescue
Vegetarians and haters of football, had the matter rested there you could spend late November in peace. But a certain Sarah Joseph Hale, the editor of a nineteenth century women's magazine called Godey's Lady's Book, seems to have had a drumstick up her butt. Though the cause of her zeal remains a mystery, we do know that Hale spent nearly 40 years crusading for the adoption of Thanksgiving as a permanent national holiday.
Three hundred years after the fact, Chicago Reader columnist Cecil Adams tells us in his book 'More of the Straight Dope' (Ballantine Books 1988), Hale used her magazine to editorialize endlessly on the merits of an annual day of thanks, and wrote hundreds of letters to political leaders asking for their support. A New Englander herself, Hale had grown up with thanksgivings and each fall packed her magazine with turkey related recipes.
Perhaps she was just looking to boost magazine sales, but whatever her motive, Hale's perseverance paid off in 1863, when, hoping to build bridges in a nation torn by civil war, President Lincoln declared a national thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November.
Almost as American as Consumerism and Football
It isn't for another 70 years, however, that we can safely shut the book on the story of Thanksgiving. The holiday continued to be proclaimed annually until 1939: The Year Franklin Roosevelt Pissed People Off.
In an attempt to win the favor of retailers, Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving would be held on the third Thursday in November in order to add a few shopping days to the Christmas rush. (He also instituted capitalizing the "T".) Football coaches screamed that FDR had upset the bowl game schedule and his political opponents took the opportunity to lambaste him for mucking with tradition.
Adams claims that for two years, the country was split on which day to give thanks - Democrats followed the new decree while Republicans showed their disapproval by sticking with the traditional date. The matter was settles in 1941 when Congress officially declared that Thanksgiving would forever fall on the fourth Thursday of November.
And so it is to this day, with pumpkin pie and football and - lest we forget it - plenty of corn for all.