Though many of our tryptophan-induced comas are long over and thoughts of sugarplums now are forming in our heads, it just may be time to correct our understanding of Thanksgiving’s origins before the memories cement for next year.
Ask most anyone where the holiday takes root, and you’ll find a pretty idyllic account: Long ago, English settlers looking for religious freedom sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower and landed in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. Once they got there, the Native Americans helped them adjust to a new life in a strange place, and once their crops were harvested, both groups joined hands around a big table to celebrate the great gift of turkey.
But historians are likely to offer a much more complex answer.
To look at the origin of Thanksgiving, one has to understand the reasons Europeans came to the Americas in the first place, according to Georgia Southern University history professor Solomon Smith.
“This is an amazingly complex question for which numerous books have been written, but if I was going to sum it up, I would say religion, economics and access to land were the three driving factors to come,” Smith said. “There are a multitude of other reasons to come, but those are the most dominant.”
The pilgrims arrived just after diseases had wiped out much of the native population in what is now Massachusetts, and in many cases they found abandoned villages with crops in the fields, he said. They survived the harsh winter, and during the next spring they established ties to Tisquantum, more frequently known as Squanto, and Massassoit. Both men were members of the Wampanoag tribe who taught the pilgrims how to grow native crops and to find fishing and hunting spots.
“This was the first time Europeans had come to stay and brought women with them, so the natives welcomed them as allies and friends,” Smith said. “The new connection was celebrated with a feast, which probably did happen after the fall harvest and could put it near the time frame we celebrate Thanksgiving.”
Native Americans had nearly 50 years of contact with Europeans before the pilgrims arrived, and conflict did arise at times.
“As with any first contact event, tensions would have been high,” he said, adding that natives in coastal Massachusetts also recently had suffered from epidemics probably brought by European fishermen, which put them into a weakened position that made an alliance with the newcomers seem beneficial.
When the pilgrims and natives finally sat down to celebrate a bountiful harvest, turkey and sweet potatoes would not have been the centerpiece. Instead, deer meat, corn, peas, gourds and pumpkins would have been the key players, with turkey as a secondary treat.
“But it is key to remember that the pilgrims never celebrated it as an annual event or even put much significance into the event,” he said. “And relations with the native peoples deteriorated pretty fast after that first year for a multitude of reasons.”
Though there is historical documentation that President George Washington set aside a day of thanks during his presidency, Thanksgiving did not become a federal holiday until President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation in 1863 at the height of the Civil War, according to www.history.com.
Perhaps the most surprising historical insights into the feast are that the first Thanksgiving feasts in the Americas were celebrated by Spanish colonists and that there are two possible dates for the first Thanksgiving with English settlers. One may have been at Jamestown, Va., in 1607, or in Berkeley Hundred, Va., around 1619.
“That means the pilgrim story is actually a little late but still is far more quaint than the others,” Smith said.
And though we now may think more about turkey when the fourth Thursday of November rolls around, Smith said society still keeps the original purpose in mind.
“Thanksgiving feasts were originally a religious observance by members of a community to give thanks to God for a common purpose,” he said. “We continue to do this today, although it also now includes a focus on family. Both remain strong binding factors in American society and deserve