A brief history of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a holiday about food – but, argues Professor Rachel B Herrmann, it is more specifically a holiday about food’s absence. From starvation to cannibalism, here she charts the history of Thanksgiving in America and considers the significance of the nation’s beloved turkey dinners and cranberry sauce…

A 'Thanksgiving Greetings' postcard. (Photo by K.J. Historical/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In September 1620, after panicking about leaking ships and provisioning problems that had necessitated stops in Southampton, Dartmouth and Plymouth, the Pilgrims bid a final farewell to England. By November they had become grave-robbers.

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William Bradford, the future governor of the English colony of Plymouth on the east coast of North America, wrote one of the few surviving accounts of the voyage and life in present-day Massachusetts. It was published in the mid-19th century. Bradford was part of a group of families who believed that the Anglican Church could only be reformed from abroad, and had lived for over a decade in Leiden, Netherlands, before their voyage on the Mayflower to North America. Bradford described colonists’ anxieties before departure: the people worried that in this new situation, “they should be liable to famine and nakedness and the want, in a manner, of all things.” Their worries were coloured by history. The first permanent English colony in North America – in Jamestown, Virginia – had experienced a Starving Time from 1609–10, and as accusations and denials swirled in the early 1620s, it became clear that some Starving Time colonists had cannibalised Native Americans, and eaten each other.

The First Thanksgiving in 1621, after a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme; screen print, 1932. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Perhaps these fears were why, during their first few weeks in the region that has come to be known as New England, colonists stole whatever edible items they could find. Historian Christopher Heaney explains that upon arrival in New England, English colonists found mounds of sand filled with mats, pots and Wampanoag weaponry, but said that they stopped digging once they realised that they had unearthed a Native American grave. This admission was a half-truth, because in fact the colonists kept digging once they discovered that some of the graves were filled with maize. For this bounty of “Indian baskets filled with corn”, Bradford thanked the“special providence of God”. The Christians’ theft of this “seed to plant them corn the next year” meant they would be able to avoid starvation.

The colonists needed all the help they could get. Having arrived too late to plant crops, cut down trees and build sufficient housing, they spent the winter on board the Mayflower. Several weeks after they anchored, Bradford’s wife, Dorothy, “fell overboard” and drowned. Most historians think that she took her own life rather than live to face the rigors of the future.

A 19th-century painting of the 'Mayflower' in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)
A 19th-century painting of the ‘Mayflower’ in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

About half of the 102 colonists died. The ensuing years remained difficult. In 1623, for example, one unfortunate fellow who set out to gather shellfish during the cold months was “so weak” that “he stuck fast in the mud and was found dead in the place”.

 

Did some Native Americans offer aid to the first English pilgrims?

Important assistance finally arrived in March 1621 in the form of Native American aid. Colonists and Native Americans had seen each other at various points throughout the winter – and in some cases even exchanged shots – but had avoided closer contact up until this point. Bradford explained that “about the 16th of March, a certain Indian came boldly amongst them and spoke to them in broken English”. This man, Samoset, had met transient English arrivals to North American – fishermen – from “whom he had got his language”. He told them about a Patuxet man named Tisquantum (better known as Squanto), who had been kidnapped by an earlier English colonist and sold into slavery in Spain, and who spoke a better level of English. Tisquantum had escaped to England and made his way back to North America where, finding that the rest of the Patuxets had died from disease, he sought the protection of more powerful men. Samoset explained that the two of them were keen to make an introduction between the colonists and “their great Sachem”, or leader, named Massasoit.

A 19th-century engraving depicts Samoset, a Native American man, as he visits the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, 1621. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)
A 19th-century engraving depicts Samoset, a Native American man, as he visits the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, 1621. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Thus in March 1621, the English signed a treaty with Massasoit, sachem of the Pokanoket Wampanoags. The two groups agreed to mutually aid each other, setting the English on a crash course for conflict with Massasoit’s rivals, the Narragansetts, and Massachusetts. This was a region in which Native Americans outmanoeuvred the English; the weakened colonists were newcomers to this confusing new world of native geopolitics.

What was eaten at the first ‘Thanksgiving’?

It was with Wampanoag help that colonists raised enough corn to feed themselves in 1621, and finally, to harvest their first crops. Tisquantum had spent a planting season showing the Pilgrims how to use fish to fertilise their cornfields, though it is possible that he learned this strategy in England. In late 1621 the Pilgrims gathered what Bradford described as “a small harvest” of maize. They laid a table with salted and smoked cod and bass, wild turkeys, and perhaps some venison. Bradford did not describe this as a thanksgiving meal, though one of his contemporaries, Edward Winslow, did. At this possible ‘thanksgiving’, then, the Pilgrims discharged their guns (as was common at the time) to announce their celebration.

The First Thanksgiving in 1621, after a painting by Jean Leon Gerome; screen print, 1932. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
The First Thanksgiving in 1621, after a painting by Jean Leon Gerome; screen print, 1932. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

The gunshots drew the attention of Massasoit, who arrived with several dozen others. Seeing the Pilgrims’ sparse table, the native men disappeared and returned with five freshly killed deer. Historian Michael LaCombe has convincingly argued that the venison undermined Governor William Bradford’s authority, because Massasoit gave the meat to each of the colony’s leading members, rather than to Bradford himself, for redistribution; the act signified Indians’ control of the country’s edible resources and their propensity for ignoring Bradford’s rule.

The arrival of Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), in Virginia, leading to the settlement established on Roanoke Island under John White (c.1540-93 (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

With native assistance, the colony began to thrive. By 1630, there were 1,500 English colonists in Plymouth. That year John Winthrop led what is known as the Great Migration to North America, and by 1640 there were 14,000 English in Massachusetts. As Native Americans learned that the colonists intended not only to stay, but also to take indigenous land, conflicts became more and more common. The English waged war against the Pequots between 1636 and 1637/38, killing and enslaving some 700 men, women and children. Several decades later, in 1675, King Philip’s War broke out as English colonists pressed for more land. Massasoit’s son, Philip (alias Metacom or Metacomet), gathered Wampanoags, Nipmucks, Podunks, Narragansetts and Nashaways to fight the English alongside their Pequot and Mohegan allies. In the face of permanent English colonisation, old native enemies became allies. They would fight the colonists in what has been called the deadliest war in American history, in proportion to population.

Early American patriotic flag. (Visions of America/UIG via Getty images)

A century later, English colonists blamed Great Britain for privileging native interests over those of colonists. In the 1776 Declaration of Independence – one of the key documents that sparked the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and its mainland British colonies – colonists accused King George III of allowing “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions” to attack “the inhabitants of our frontiers”. In reality, these proto-Americans had spent more than a century crossing established colonial boundaries to take native territory that did not belong to them. The War for Independence ended with the American defeat of Great Britain and its Native American allies, and the swift seisure of more indigenous territory. The question of how to divide so much land between a growing slave interest and northerners (who disliked slavery because it gave the south greater representation in the House of Representatives) ultimately sparked the American Civil War (1861–5).

John Trumbull's painting of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)(Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
John Trumbull’s painting of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)(Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

 

When did Thanksgiving become a national holiday?

Which brings us back to Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until 1863, when novelist and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale succeeded in convincing Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday on the last Thursday in November – after nearly 20 years spent advocating for the cause. She had started her campaign in the 1840s, when she observed a nation whose disagreement about slavery was fracturing it into pieces; she hoped that a national day of celebration would help to prevent the Civil War. She was up against no small amount of resistance from the southern states, as well as inconsistencies in the way thanksgiving was celebrated.

The bronze statue in Washington DC celebrating Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of slaves shows the 16th president standing over a shackled African American. Lincoln is "one of the towering figures in the story that Americans tell about themselves," writes Lucy Worsley. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Since the colonial period, the meaning of thanksgiving days has varied quite a lot. Thanksgiving events occurred throughout the year and could involve religious days of fasting as well as feast celebrations to mark significant events. In 1777, the Continental Congress proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for all 13 states in celebration of American soldiers’ success against the British at Saratoga. By contrast, the Connecticut private Joseph Plumb Martin, who wrote a retrospective narrative of the war, recalled a thanksgiving meal in which soldiers were in such dire straights that their feast consisted of rice and a tablespoon of vinegar (he may have exaggerated somewhat, because his personal bugbear at the time of publication was the fact that so many soldiers had yet to receive their war pensions).

The meaning and significance of the holiday continued to change. In her book on the history of Thanksgiving, Diana Carter Applebaum writes that during the 1850s Pennsylvanians debated whether the governor should make the holiday a statewide one. Matthew Dennis observes that by this point every northern state, and several southern, Midwestern and far western states (including Arkansas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin) had officially celebrated Thanksgiving, at least occasionally.

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Land girls on an Essex turkey farm round up the turkeys for the last time. (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Sarah Josepha Hale thought that an official date would give the states more in common with each other than they had differences. In 1854, as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, she wrote:“The last Thursday in Novemberhas been selected as the day best suited to the general convenience, when the people from Maine to Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, might sit down together, as it were, and enjoy in national union their feast of gladness.” In the south, however, slaveholders viewed the holiday as an opportunity for Yankee preachers to make sermons speaking out against slavery, and in their eyes to push the country closer to war. In 1853, governor Joseph Johnson of Virginia refused to declare Thanksgiving a holiday, and in 1859, governor Stewart of Missouri proclaimed 8 December instead of 24 November a day of Thanksgiving in a deliberate act of defiance.

Since the colonial period, the meaning of thanksgiving days has varied quite a lot. In this 1940s illustration, a husband and wife break a wishbone of a turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
Since the colonial period, the meaning of thanksgiving days has varied quite a lot. In this 1940s illustration, a husband and wife break a wishbone of a turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Despite Hale’s efforts, war broke out, and Lincoln’s decision to make the holiday a national one was as much an effort to support the north’s cause as it was to invent a tradition that lent stability to the nation’s history. Thanksgiving did not prevent the Civil War, but it was used to help bolster the Union’s cause – partially through food. Mentions of turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce appear in association with Thanksgiving in 1860s editions of Godey’s Lady’s Book.

An 1850s print of a turkey from 'The Natural History of Animals'. Mentions of turkey appear in association with Thanksgiving in 1860s editions of 'Godey’s Lady’s Book'. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
An 1850s print of a turkey from ‘The Natural History of Animals’. Mentions of turkey appear in association with Thanksgiving in 1860s editions of ‘Godey’s Lady’s Book’. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

 

Why do Americans traditionally eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

That the turkey features so prominently has a bit to do with Benjamin Franklin, 18th-century printer, statesman, and one of America’s first autobiographers. Around the time of the War for Independence, Franklin was keen on the turkey for several reasons: although it’s not true that he pushed to make the turkey rather than the bald eagle the national bird of the new United States, he did think that the turkey was the superior bird. The turkey was important because it was indigenous to North America. Turkeys, according to Franklin, cared about their appearance, and were likelier “to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on”. Ordinary readers would have grasped the significance of Franklin’s symbolism immediately. Having waged a war against Great Britain – and won it – Americans could be proud of the bird’s imagined bravery in the face of British attack. At the end of the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin used the turkey to highlight Americans’ military might against the British; in the mid-19th century, the turkey might have symbolised the Union’s prowess over a starving South.

Marlborough Pie. (© Jessica Hope)

After the Civil War, Thanksgiving remained a contested holiday. It was only in 1865 that Sarah Josepha Hale linked Thanksgiving to a peaceful meal between Pilgrims and Native Americans. On the one hand, this myth was popular enough to appear in school textbooks by 1870. On the other hand, Texan governor Oran Milo Roberts refused to have a Thanksgiving Day at all from 1879 to 1883, calling it “a damned Yankee institution”. For the most part the southern states waited until the end of Reconstruction [the 1865–77 reconstructive period that followed the American Civil War] to celebrate Thanksgiving. White southerners’ celebrations coincided with the appearance of popular magazine depictions in the 1870s and 1880s of African-Americans either serving Thanksgiving dinner to white families, sitting down to a paltry Thanksgiving meal, or even stealing turkeys.

Today, a majority of Americans celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, but regional food preferences remain; a few years ago, The New York Times produced a map of the most-Googled Thanksgiving recipes by state. It concluded that most Americans sit down to a roast turkey, though more and more people are choosing to spatchcock (or butterfly) the bird to reduce cooking time and maximise crispiness, which results in a tastier but less visually striking centrepiece. Many will opt to skip brining or go for a dry brine, as wet-brining has fallen from favour. Vegetarians and vegans may enjoy a tofurkey, and gluttons might buy or attempt to cook a ‘turducken’ (a chicken stuffed inside of a duck, all stuffed inside of a turkey, with layers of sausage between each bird).

Oxtail stew. (© CICO Books 2017)

Stuffing is another staple (though it will be called ‘stuffing’ in some places and ‘dressing’ in others), and nowhere will it be served in moulds or muffin tins as it is in Britain. Cranberry sauce is a divisive but ever-present chutney-like condiment, either slipped straight from a can onto a plate (if no one likes it), or made fresh with cranberries, lots of sugar, oranges (rinds and all), walnuts and raisins. Sweet potatoes are often topped with marshmallows, but some families prefer mashed potatoes. You can also expect to see green bean casserole with fried onions, soft dinner rolls, biscuits and cornbread. And pie; lots of pie: pumpkin, pecan, key lime, lemon meringue, and apple.

A 1950s illustration of an American woman presenting a Thanksgiving turkey to her family. (Illustration by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
A 1950s illustration of an American woman presenting a Thanksgiving turkey to her family. (Illustration by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Thanksgiving, then, is an unmistakably delicious holiday. But for many historians, it is also a holiday of ambivalence that recalls both American and British history. Celebrating the day as one of European triumph or even peacefulness is an act that erases centuries of Native American deaths at non-native hands. The Pilgrims arrived in North America so afraid of starvation that they turned to grave-robbing. Those men and women depended on Wampanoags to survive. Wampanoag hospitality, in turn, set colonists on a crash course that facilitated the land-grabs of English colonists in the 1630s, 1670s, 1780s and beyond; several centuries of warfare against Native Americans; and the territorial expansion of slavery that caused the Civil War. In the wake of that conflict, it was only a misremembered history of 17th-century self-sufficient Englishmen that helped heal the country.

Thanksgiving is a holiday about food. But it is a holiday about food’s absence, and the regional battles over Thanksgiving celebrations that symbolise a larger conflict over the course of nations and peoples.

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Rachel B Herrmann is assistant professor in modern American history at Cardiff University. She specialises in colonial, Revolutionary and Atlantic history, with particular focus on food and hunger in the Atlantic World. To find out more, visit www.rachelbherrmann.com or follow her on Twitter @Raherrmann