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The First Thanksgiving and its debunkers

  • In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.

The story of the First Thanksgiving (1621) is usually told as a story of a neighborly gathering between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. However, this version is fraught with falsehoods about the times and the relations of these two groups. What do the facts reveal about that initial Thanksgiving?

Historically, Thanksgiving is a harvest holiday that was observed in England and in the Germanic parts of Europe. In England, they observed days of fasting when God inflicted bad things on them, such as floods and droughts, and they celebrated days of thanksgiving when God showed His benevolence – a victory on the battlefield, good harvests, etc. In 1606, for example, the English started celebrating an annual day of thanksgiving on Nov. 5 to commemorate the thwarting of the “gunpowder plot” to blow up King James I and his Parliament. This holiday eventually became Guy Fawkes Day, which is still celebrated there today.

The traditional tale about Thanksgiving in America indeed retells the story of the thanksgiving celebration that took place in 1621, a year after the settlers arrived at the colony of Plymouth. They had a feast with the neighboring Algonquin Indians, which demonstrated their bond of friendship and neighborliness, facilitated trade between them, and cemented their military alliance.

Those who debunk and ridicule this story point out that it’s a fairy tale that we tell children about how sweet, tolerant, and benign our ancestors were, when in fact, in the years that followed, these English settlers took advantage of their Indian neighbors in trade, fought wars against them, and pushed them off their land.

This is true, of course, but it does not negate the fact that in 1621, these groups really did have good relations – they were commercial trading partners, and they were military allies against the traditional Indian enemies of the Algonquin Indians. Over the next 50 years, however, relations grew worse. It’s a common story in human history – friendly relations go sour (see, for example, the United States and Cuba or Iran). By the same token, history is filled with stories of former enemies becoming friendly over time – the United States and Canada, Britain and France, Germany and Russia, Israel and Egypt...

When people debunk the story of the First Thanksgiving, therefore, they don’t really debunk it. They instead contextualize it by pointing out that it was merely the first scene in a long play, and that the following scenes in the drama of Anglo-Indian relations were decidedly less friendly and benign. By contrast, the traditional story of the First Thanksgiving tells the story in context of the previous year.

The English settlers in Plymouth lived through a harrowing and miserable experience that first year (1620-21) – their crops failed, they didn’t know how to hunt or fish, and the New England winter was much harsher than anything they had experienced in England. They were starving and helpless – of the 102 settlers that landed in Plymouth, 45 had died that first winter from starvation or disease. Considering the First Thanksgiving in this context (the context of the previous year, rather than of the years that followed) sheds light on the mentality of those settlers, whom we (modern Americans) usually struggle to understand.

Most of us would not have it in us to thank God after experiencing such hardships and seeing our friends and family starve to death; we would instead be resentful or angry. When the story of that original Thanksgiving feast is told in context of that cruel first year, it directs people’s attention to the contrast between those settlers and us; it makes us consider what makes some people respond to misfortune with resentment and others with gratitude.

Resentment and gratitude reflect one’s preexisting expectations. People who expect a great deal – from society, from the world, or from God – are only mildly grateful when they receive what they are owed, but are greatly disappointed (even resentful) when life fails to live up to those expectations. By contrast, people who expect little will be only mildly disappointed in the face of misfortune. The settlers’ expression of gratitude in 1621 indicates to modern audiences that they believed God (or the world) did not owe them a thing; they deserved nothing. Everything they did have was therefore a gift. So they could look at everything and everyone they had lost and still express sincere gratitude for what they had been given.

I once read a funny journal entry by one of the settlers telling about their troubles, their losses, the hunger, and the bitter cold. But the diarist pointed out that there was reason to believe that God was smiling on their endeavors, because after two months of failure at fishing, they had their first success when they found a dead carp that had washed up on the shore.

Those who frame the story of the First Thanksgiving in context of Anglo-Indian hostilities in the years that followed are interested in interracial relations in America and in the fate of this continent’s original inhabitants. By contrast, those who frame the story in context of the preceding year are interested in the settlers themselves. Americans who cherish the traditional story of the First Thanksgiving do so not because they think colonial America was an interracial paradise, with Anglo-Americans and Native Americans living in peace and harmony. Rather, they cherish it because they admire the mentality they see on display during that first harvest feast and wish to emulate it – to not be complainers who think the world owes them stuff; to not focus on what they don’t have; and to appreciate and be grateful for everything they do have, which is a lot.

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