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The Invention of Thanksgiving

The long and sometimes bloody history of how we came to celebrate Turkey Day.
The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, by Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, by Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914.

Everything must be invented, and the modern Thanksgiving—feast, founding story, and all—is no exception. The American holiday developed over centuries, in pace with the larger culture. Early Americans might have trouble recognizing the holiday if they could see it today, but there is plenty for current celebrants to learn from that history. Tracing whatever the dominant culture celebrated in successive eras reveals a strange and sometimes brutal tour of the past.

The Pilgrims' Days of Fasting and Thanksgiving

The details might be a bit different from what American schoolchildren are taught, but the Dutch-English settlers of Plymouth, Massachusetts, really did hold a three-day feast in the fall of 1621. (They weren't popularly called "Pilgrims" until centuries later.) What Americans now think of as the first Thanksgiving was held a little less than a year after half of the settlers who had come off the Mayflower died of illness and starvation over a hard winter. Seeing their superior weapons and weakened state, the neighboring Wampagnoag Confederation decided to ally with them. The Wampagnoag taught the settlers how to farm their new land, so the British settlers entered the next winter much better sheltered and provisioned, and held a feast to celebrate. Many historians think that the Wampagnoag hadn't been invited in advance, as Tim Turner, a manager at the non-profit Plimoth Plantation, tells Indian Country Today. Instead, they might have heard shots coming from the settler village, thought the village was being attacked, and come to help. When the Wampagnoag arrived, the settlers invited them to join the party, and the groups exchanged ceremonial gifts.

Meanwhile, the Puritan colonists themselves didn't necessarily think of the giving of thanks as an annual fixture. Instead, they held various days of fasting and "thanksgiving" throughout the year, as documented by a 19th-century Connecticut clergyman named William DeLoss Love Jr. The earliest fast days and thanksgivings were deeply religious and marked by prayer, not by special meals, anthropologist Janet Siskind writes in her 1992 paper, "The Invention of Thanksgiving." The leaders of Puritan congregations would announce fasts after seeing signs of God's displeasure, such as droughts, and call for thanksgivings after blessings, such as rain, good harvests, and the besting of American Indians in battle. Thus some of the first thanksgivings weren't about settler-Indian cooperation at all. In 1676, after the Plymouth congregation had just finished a thanksgiving, Captain Benjamin Church walked in, carrying the head of Metacomet, a Native leader whom the English called King Philip, and who had led the last major effort of the region's tribes to drive the settlers out. Among the defeated American Indians were the Wampagnoag, the Pilgrims' onetime benefactors and allies.

Giving Thanks for Family, Celebrating Whiteness, and Re-Writing the Indians

Throughout the 18th century, as Love documents, Puritan clergy lost their exclusive ability to declare thanksgivings, an authority that became vested in colonial, state, and federal governments. Americans also began feasting at these secular, local, autumn thanksgivings, although they didn't yet think of those meals as being connected to the Pilgrim-Wampagnoag feast of 1621. Thanksgiving holidays gave many 19th-century Americans, who had moved to cities for factory jobs, a chance to revisit their rural family homes, Siskind writes. Abraham Lincoln and other 19th-century presidents declared several thanksgivings; abolitionist ministers preached against slavery on thanksgivings; and some Southern states announced thanksgivings to celebrate having disenfranchised their recently freed slaves.

In the mid-1800s, a magazine editor, Sarah Hale of Godey's Lady's Book, began lobbying national leaders to declare a nationwide Thanksgiving holiday in honor of the "Pilgrim Fathers." Hale wrote letters to Congress and published articles in Godey's. She "tried to define her country's place in history, clarify its identity over against that of the world community, and establish as its prevailing ethos white Protestant culture of the Northeast," religious studies professor Anne Blue Willis wrote in a 2003 analysis of women's magazine articles of the period. Hale also apparently wanted a holiday that American women would be in charge of, something to celebrate the domestic sphere. In fact, it was Hale who suggested the national Thanksgiving be on a Thursday—so that women would still have time afterwards to turn out a traditional Sunday dinner.

By the end of the 1800s, Hale got her wish. The story of the "First Thanksgiving," including its modern cast of racial harmony, spread throughout the country. By that time, the indigenous cultures of the United States had undergone a sustained campaign of erasure by the federal government. "This picture of harmony between Pilgrims and Indians was not possible until the Indians had been completely vanquished, their lands appropriated, their futures thought to be annihilated," Siskind writes.

Thanksgiving postcard circa 1900 showing a turkey and a young football player.

Thanksgiving postcard circa 1900 showing a turkey and a young football player.

Meanwhile, the country was absorbing large numbers of European immigrants to work in America's rising factories. Longtime residents re-conceived Thanksgiving as a way of assimilating these newcomers, historian Eric Hobsbawm writes. It was a history many of us could embrace together, even if it had been twisted a bit through time. Siskind cites a piece of historical fiction, written by and about a Russian immigrant, published in the early 1900s:

I found ... that America started with a band of Courageous Pilgrims. They had left their native country as I had left mine. ... I saw that it was the glory of America that it was not yet finished. And I, the last comer, had her share to give, small or great, to the making of America, like those Pilgrims who came in the Mayflower.

What does Thanksgiving mean today, for most Americans? Its many pieces come from throughout history. It's a time to celebrate domestic hospitality and to renew family ties, as it was for the newly urbanized Americans of the 19th century. It's a time to count blessings, whatever families consider those to be. It still feels like a harvest holiday, even though the vast majority of us don't grow our own food anymore. And it's a time of national unity, with notes both hopeful (Everybody can be an American!) and bloody (But can they?).