American Civil War, American Indians, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Thanksgiving without the Pilgrims

Sarah Josepha Hale. Portrait by James Reid Lambdin.
Sarah Josepha Hale. Portrait by James Reid Lambdin.

Americans owe the modern-day celebration of Thanksgiving to Abraham Lincoln and Sarah Josepha Hale. However, I fear we owe our warm, fuzzy image of Pilgrims and Indians living in harmony to a lazy attitude toward history.

Hale promoted women’s issues through the American Ladies Magazine, which she helped found, and then spent 40 years as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a highly influential magazine in the 1800s.

She also lobbied tirelessly to have the last Thursday in November designated as a national day of thanks. In the years leading up to the Civil War, she thought such a celebration would help unify the country.

The idea had some precedence. The country’s leaders had proclaimed various days of giving thanks after victories in the Revolutionary War. And both the Confederacy and Union did the same during the Civil War. According to

Abraham Lincoln himself called for a day of thanks in April 1862, following Union victories at Fort Donelson, Fort Henry and at Shiloh, and again in the summer of 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Hale seized on the latter opportunity to send letters to Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward urging them to enshrine a national day of Thanksgiving as an American custom on the final Thursday in November. Within a week, Seward had drafted Lincoln’s official proclamation to do just that.

It wasn’t until late in the 19th century that the Pilgrims became associated with the holiday, according to Rick Shenkman of History News Network. Until then, “Thanksgiving was simply a day of thanks, not a day to remember the Pilgrims,” he wrote.

And that’s when things got messy.

In a post on the National Museum of the American Indian’s blog (“Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?”), Dennis Zotigh contrasts the Thanksgiving “history” lessons taught to generations of schoolchildren with the actual events. This part is true:

In the fall of 1621, William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, decided to have a Plymouth harvest feast of thanksgiving and invited Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation, to join the Pilgrims. Massasoit came with approximately 90 warriors and brought food to add to the feast, including venison, lobster, fish, wild fowl, clams, oysters, eel, corn, squash and maple syrup.

The statue of Massasoit overlooking Plymouth Rock. Photo by Greg Kullberg.

Not exactly the turkey, potatoes and cranberries Americans associate with the meal today.

But Zotigh goes on to share the story of why Squanto spoke English so well when the Pilgrims met him and why he survived the plague that wiped out his village (hint: it has to do with slavery), what the colonists did with the Pequot women and children they didn’t massacre in 1637 (see previous hint), and why the United American Indians of New England gather at the foot of Massasoit’s statue on Plymouth Rock every year on Thanksgiving day.

For more history and insight, I highly recommend Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower.” As Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote:

‘Mayflower’ is a surprise-filled account of what are supposed to be some of the best-known events in this country’s past but are instead an occasion for collective amnesia. As Mr. Philbrick points out, the national memory tends to skip from the first Thanksgiving to the Shot Heard ’Round the World without a clue about the 150 years in between.

Philbrick’s book will give you a whole new understanding of those years.

There’s nothing wrong with a national day of thanks, but linking it to a selective, romanticized image of what really happened is deeply flawed and does a terrible disservice to American Indians, past and present.

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