Thanksgiving: Memory, meaning and myth | SierraSun.com

Thanksgiving: Memory, meaning and myth

Bonnie Watkins
Special to the Sun

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; For many, the understanding of how the original Thanksgiving meal came about is a myth. Indians in animal skins and feathers, and Pilgrims in funny hats and buckles got together to celebrate a joyous, festive noontime bash with all the trimmings surrounding a turkey dinner do not fit the historical narrative. While there are some elements of fact in this myth, the origins of our-Thanksgiving holiday do not resemble the current celebration. Thanksgiving does have its origins with the Pilgrims. Yet, the Pilgrim story is more than just a story about a meal and#8212; it’s a saga and#8212; one that shows the persistence and character of some of our earliest American settlers. The association of the Pilgrims with the Thanksgiving holiday has a complicated and interesting history.

The Pilgrim story begins with the challenges facing the Puritans in England who were a religious and cultural minority that wanted to preserve its identity. During the Reformation period of the 16th and 17th centuries, Christianity had split into many different groups, with varying creeds and desires. Puritans began as a group within the Anglican Church that wanted to purify it of lingering Catholic influences. But some Puritans lost faith in the Anglican Church. Deciding it could never be purified, they abandoned it, separating themselves from it. These became known as Separatists.

In the Nottinghamshire village of Scrooby, England about 1606, a group of English religious dissidents, known as and#8220;the Pilgrims,and#8221; formed their own church independent of the national Church of England and its head, King James I. Over time, informants reported the Scrooby meetings to the attention of the Bishop of Lincoln and Archbishop of York, who began to persecute the participants. Such a move was considered treasonous in a time when church and state were united, and the Separatist were forced to flee the country lest they be imprisoned or even executed for their beliefs. The little assembly immigrated in 1609 to the tolerant haven of the Netherlands.

Following a brief stay in Amsterdam, the Pilgrims moved to Leiden, in Holland where, enjoying full religious freedom, they remained for almost 12 years. In 1617, discouraged by economic difficulties, the pervasive Dutch influence on their children, and their inability to secure civil autonomy, the congregation voted to immigrate to America. Through the London Company, the congregation secured two patents authorizing them to settle in the northern part of the company’s jurisdiction. Unable to finance the costs of the emigration with their own meager resources, they negotiated a financial agreement with Thomas Weston, a prominent London iron merchant. Fewer than half of the group’s members elected to leave Leiden. A small ship, the Speedwell, carried them to Southampton, England, where they were to join another group of Separatists and pick up a second ship.

After some delays and disputes, the voyagers regrouped at Plymouth aboard the 180-ton Mayflower. It began its historic voyage on Sept. 16, 1620, with about 102 passengers and#8212; fewer than half of them from Leiden.

During the voyage, The Mayflower was hit with many strong storms and cross-winds, and the ship was so badly shaken she became very leaky, with water dripping and falling down upon the passengers who were living between the decks. The storms were often bad enough that the Mayflower’s crew had to take down the sails, and just let the storm blow the ship wherever it wanted.- –

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After a 65-day journey, the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod Nov. 19. Unable to reach the land they had contracted for, they anchored (Nov. 21) at the site of Provincetown. Because they had no legal right to settle in the region, they drew up the Mayflower Compact, creating their own government. One of their initial explorations of the immediate area resulted in a skirmish with local Native Americans known as the and#8220;First Encounter.and#8221; Fearing they had angered the local Native Americans by robbing their corn stores and firing upon them, the colonists decided to look elsewhere. The settlers soon discovered Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod Bay and made their historic landing Dec. 21; the main body of settlers followed on Dec. 26.

A recently abandoned Native American settlement named Pawtuxet [south of Boston] became the Pilgrim’s first settlement. This location was chosen not only for its defensive position, but the prior Indian villagers had cleared much of the land, making agriculture relatively easy. Fresh water for the colony was abundant. Although there are no contemporary accounts to verify the legend, Plymouth Rock, a smallish rock on the coast, is often hailed as the point where the colonist first set foot on their new homeland.

The Mayflower remained in New England with the colonists throughout the terrible first winter. Although the ship was cold, damp and unheated, it did provide a defense against the rigorous New England winter until houses could be completed ashore. Nevertheless, exposure, malnutrition and illness led to the death of almost half the group, both passengers and crewmen.

The colonists had observed Native Americans near the settlement during the winter, but it wasn’t until early spring the two peoples actually met. It was March 16 when the famous encounter occurred as Samoset, a chief of the Abenaki Tribe from what is now Maine, and another man entered the little village and said and#8220;Welcome, Englishmen.and#8221;

Samoset had learned English from the English fishermen who crossed the North Atlantic each year to fish for cod. He told the Pilgrims of the great plague which had killed all of the Pawtuxet people who had previously occupied the cleared farmland where the new colony sat, and of the ill-feeling the local Native Americans had toward the English following some kidnapping by Thomas Hunt, an English captain who visited the area a few years before. During Samoset’s visit, the colonists began planting their garden seeds.

On March 22, Samoset returned with another Native American, Squanto, who had been captured by Hunt. His adventures abroad, from slavery in Spain, escape to London and return to America as a guide, taught him well about the ways of the Europeans. Squanto became the little colony’s chief interpreter and agent in their interaction with the native peoples. His arrival paved the way for a visitation by Massasoit, the regional leader among the native people, the Wampanoag. After an exchange of greetings and gifts, the two peoples signed a treaty of peace which would last more than 50 years.

In that spring of 1621, the Indians, led by Samoset and Squanto, taught the survivors how to plant corn (called and#8220;maizeand#8221; by the natives) and how to catch alewives (a variety of the herring family) in order that the fish might be used as a fertilizer for growing pumpkins, beans and other crops. Samoset and Squanto also instructed the Pilgrims in the arts of hunting and angling. The colonists regained their strength and found the land provided them with plenty. All through the summer the Colony began to rebound, finishing their small encampment, gathering food and tending crops. The Mayflower returned to England on April 5, 1621, but not one of the colonists left to go back with it.

In early autumn 1621, to recognize the help afforded the colonists by the Indians and to give thanks for having survived, the first Governor, William Bradford, arranged for a harvest festival. Four men were sent and#8220;fowlingand#8221; after ducks and geese. Turkey may or may not have been a part of the forthcoming meal since the term and#8220;turkeyand#8221; was used by the Pilgrims to mean any type of wild fowl. The festival lasted three days. Massasoit, Chief of the Wampanoag, together with 90 Indians from the various Eastern Woodlands Tribes, participated in the ceremony.

Thankful settlers

There can be little doubt that the majority of the feast was most likely furnished by the indigenous population. It is certain they provided venison. The remainder of the meal, eaten outdoors around large tables, also probably included fish, berries, boiled pumpkin, watercress, leeks, lobster, dried fruit, clams, wild plums and cornbread. This event we call the and#8220;First Thanksgivingand#8221; was not in fact an American holiday, nor was it even a and#8220;Thanksgivingand#8221; in the eyes of the Pilgrims who celebrated it. It was instead an extension of the traditional English harvest celebration.-

The first actual mention of the word thanksgiving in early colonial history was not associated with the first feast described above. The first time this term was associated with a feast or celebration was in 1623. That year the pilgrims were living through a terrible drought from May through July. The pilgrims decided to spend an entire day in July fasting and praying for rain. The next day, a light rain occurred. Further, additional settlers and supplies arrived from the Netherlands. At that point, Governor Bradford proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to offer prayers and thanks to God. However, this was by no means a yearly occurrence.

The next recorded day of Thanksgiving occurred in 1631 when a ship full of supplies feared to be lost at sea actually pulled into Boston Harbor. Governor Bradford again ordered a day of Thanksgiving and prayer.

In June of 1671 another Day of and#8220;Thanksgivingand#8221; was proclaimed. The governing council of Charlestown, Mass., proclaimed June 29 as a day of thanksgiving for the fortune that saw their community securely established. It is notable this thanksgiving celebration probably did not include the Indians, as the celebration was meant partly to be in recognition of the colonists’ recent victory over the and#8220;heathen natives.and#8221;

There can be little doubt the majority of the feast was most likely furnished by the indigenous population. It is certain they provided venison. The remainder of the meal, eaten outdoors around large tables, also probably included fish, berries, boiled pumpkin, watercress, leeks, lobster, dried fruit, clams, wild plums and cornbread. This event we call the and#8220;First Thanksgivingand#8221; was not in fact an American holiday, nor was it even a and#8220;Thanksgivingand#8221; in the eyes of the Pilgrims who celebrated it. It was instead an extension of the traditional English harvest celebration.-

The first actual mention of the word thanksgiving in early colonial history was not associated with the first feast described above. The first time this term was associated with a feast or celebration was in 1623. That year the pilgrims were living through a terrible drought from May through July. The pilgrims decided to spend an entire day in July fasting and praying for rain. The next day, a light rain occurred. Further, additional settlers and supplies arrived from the Netherlands. At that point, Governor Bradford proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to offer prayers and thanks to God. However, this was by no means a yearly occurrence.

The next recorded day of Thanksgiving occurred in 1631 when a ship full of supplies feared to be lost at sea actually pulled into Boston Harbor. Governor Bradford again ordered a day of Thanksgiving and prayer.

In June of 1671 another Day of and#8220;Thanksgivingand#8221; was proclaimed. The governing council of Charlestown, Mass., proclaimed June 29 as a day of thanksgiving for the fortune that saw their community securely established. It is notable this thanksgiving celebration probably did not include the Indians, as the celebration was meant partly to be in recognition of the colonists’ recent victory over the and#8220;heathen natives.and#8221;

During the 1700s, it was common practice for individual colonies to observe days of thanksgiving throughout each year. These were days set aside for prayer and fasting, not a day marked by plentiful food and drink as is today’s custom. Although not intended to be a perpetual annual observance, in October of 1777 a Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed. Even though it marked the first time all 13 colonies were to join in such a celebration, it was equally a commemoration of the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga. Later in the 18th century each of the states periodically would designate a day of thanksgiving in honor of a military victory, an adoption of a state constitution, or an exceptionally bountiful crop. Nevertheless, over time, the notion of a and#8220;Thanksgiving Dayand#8221; began to spread to other New England colonies.

In 1789, President George Washington, in his first year of office, issued the first general proclamation naming Nov. 26 as a Day of National Thanksgiving. Many were opposed to the idea. There was an air of discord among the Colonies and a feeling the hardships of a handful of Pilgrims hardly warranted a national holiday. In that same year, the Protestant Episcopal Church announced the first Thursday in November should be a day for giving thanks. Yet, for many succeeding decades, the United States had no regular national Thanksgiving Day (although some states independently observed a yearly Thanksgiving holiday).

It wasn’t until 1863 what we know as our modern Thanksgiving came into being. Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific writer whose major surviving work is the children’s poem and#8220;Mary Had a Little Lamb,and#8221; decided to promote Thanksgiving in her magazine, Boston Ladies’ Magazine. From William Bradford’s book Plymouth Plantation, in which he mentioned the colonists had killed wild turkeys in the autumn, Hale concluded the Pilgrims ate turkey at the first harvest celebration. Thus, her articles included roasted turkeys, savory stuffing, and pumpkin pies and#8212; all the foods today’s holiday meals are likely to contain but which share few similarities with the original feast in 1621. Hale is credited with persuading Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in the United States.

For the 75 years which followed, each President in office formally proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated on that last Thursday in November until 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it up one week earlier. The Presidentand#8217;s reason for this change was to help businesses by lengthening the shopping period prior to Christmas. Public uproar against this decision returned the celebration of Thanksgiving back to its original date two years later when congress over-ruled the President and declared the fourth Thursday of November would be deemed an observation of Thanksgiving Day and a legal federal holiday.

Myths and memories

It seems the historical data for the origins of Thanksgiving is not as compelling as the myths that cloud our memories. The images of Pilgrims and Indians may not be based on historical facts, yet thereand#8217;s a legacy about this holiday that threads its way from past to the present and defies both myth and historical evidence. That legacy is generosity. To be sure, Americans today may not be as religious as the Pilgrims, but most Americans do share their plenty with their family and friends on this special day. Itand#8217;s a holiday that brings all Americans, no matter their creed or disposition, together. And thatand#8217;s something worthy of our thanks.

and#8212; Bonnie Watkins lives in Tahoe Donner with her husband of eight years, having moved from 20 years of Marin County living. She was raised in North Carolina, has a degree in Performing Arts, and 10 years with the New York City Ballet Company. Watkins is a seven-year employee as the executive assistant to the general manager for Tahoe Donner.