Thanksgiving: Why Pilgrims get bragging rights

By Chuck Springston
Maybe the Pilgrims didn't have the first Thanksgiving, after all.
Maybe the Pilgrims didn't have the first Thanksgiving, after all.
The Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving of 1621 was not the first Thanksgiving in America. Others occurred far earlier. But the feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts, grew to surpass all others in popular culture. This is how it happened.

    Let’s begin with a quick rundown of contenders for the First Thanksgiving title.
    The earliest possible date is April 3, 1513, when Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon’s crew became the first Europeans to set foot on what is now the United States—or at least the first whose landing was documented.
     They went ashore somewhere in Florida, likely between St. Augustine and the Cape Canaveral area. There are no records of the landing activities or ceremonies, but scholars point out that prayers of thanksgiving were typical for Spanish explorers of the New World, so at least some type of prayer was likely said in de Leon’s group (but anything beyond that is pure conjecture).
     Not willing to let 1513 be engraved as the first thanksgiving, a big stack of localities have claimed the honor for themselves. The places and dates include Blanco Canyon, Texas (Lubbock is the closest major city), late May 1541; Fort Caroline, Florida (present-day Jacksonville), June 30, 1564; St. Augustine, Florida, Sept. 8, 1565; El Paso, Texas, April 30, 1598; Cape Henry, Virginia (present-day Virginia Beach), April 26, 1607; Popham Beach, Maine, August 1607; Jamestown, Virginia, May 1610; Berkeley Plantation, Virginia (near Jamestown), Dec. 4, 1619.
     So which site gets the prize for first place? Is the winner simply the first location where someone thanked God for a safe arrival or surviving extreme hardships? Must those prayers occur at a special day convened by some religious or civic authority—and not just be part of a routine religious service? Does a feast have to be involved? Should Native Americans be present at the event? Must the convocation be the genesis of an annual celebration? Do only Thanksgivings in one of the original 13 Colonies count?
     But this is the more important question: Were today’s Thanksgiving traditions built around the notion that the Pilgrims started it all? The answer is no.

     Lost history

     The sequence of events that led to our Thanksgiving holiday did not begin with any claim of primacy for the Plymouth meal. Indeed, the New Englanders who initiated the push for a national holiday rarely, if ever, mentioned the Pilgrims until their vision of Thanksgiving was well on its way toward becoming a nationwide celebration. The Pilgrims became part of the discussion only after two of their long-forgotten writings re-emerged in the mid-1800s.
     One of those documents is a letter from Edward Winslow (1595-1655), an associate of Plymouth Colony’s governor, William Bradford, and a future governor himself. His letter to a friend on Dec. 11, 1621, includes these words:
     “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. … amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us… for three days we entertained and feasted. …These things I thought good to let you understand…and that you might on our behalf give God thanks, who hath dealt so favorably with us.”
     The other firsthand account comes from Bradford (1590-1657), who put together a history of the colony covering the years 1620 through 1646. Of Plymouth Plantation, written between 1630 and 1651, describes the Thanksgiving this way:
     “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. …and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached. ... And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.”
     The Thanksgiving of 1621, believed to have taken place between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, was not followed up with another one in 1622. The next Plymouth Thanksgiving was in the summer of 1623 to mark the ending of a drought and the arrival of a ship with supplies and colonists.
     In later years, there were other thanksgivings in New England. Days for giving thanks were pronounced by clergymen to commemorate various blessings; however, they were spent in church and emphasized prayer and fasting, not feasts. Thanksgiving days were also declared by government officials after a victory in some battle. But those events were not done in memory of the Pilgrims. Very few people knew the Thanksgiving stories Winslow and Bradford had written.
     Winslow’s letter was included in small book published in England in 1622 with the assistance of fellow Pilgrim George Morton, who arranged the printing and wrote the preface, signing it G. Mourt. Known as Mourt’s Relation, the publication is largely a compilation of thoughts and news that Winslow and Bradford wrote in their personal journals between November 1620 and December 1621. The book didn’t get much popular attention, and copies were lost over time. An abridged version had been published in 1625 but—hard to believe today—it left out Winslow’s letter about Thanksgiving.
     Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation didn’t fare much better. Bradford never got the manuscript published. It stayed in his family after the governor’s death, and a nephew used it as one of the sources in writing a history of New England in 1669. Other chroniclers of New England borrowed it for their own books. One of the borrowers was a pastor at Boston’s Old South Church. With the family’s permission, he put the manuscript in the church’s library in 1728. It disappeared around the time of the American Revolution—still unpublished in its entirety as a stand-alone work.

     Thanksgiving without the Pilgrims

     Meanwhile, the various types of New England thanksgivings—harvest, religious and civic—were merging into annual fall festivals, untethered to the Pilgrims. Before long, New Englanders would take their Thanksgiving customs with them wherever they went,  and they went just about everywhere.
     In the years immediately after the Revolution, New Englanders packed their Thanksgiving customs for journeys to New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The migration trekked to other parts of the Midwest, followed the Oregon Trail in the early 1840s and joined the California Gold Rush of 1849. California military Gov. Bennett C. Riley issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation on Nov. 29, 1849.
     By the 1840s, the governors of most states and territories had issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations, although not every year and on various dates, according to “The Evolution of Thanksgiving,” a section of the Pilgrim Hall Museum’s website.
     In 1847, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), the editor of Philadelphia magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, started using the magazine to promote the idea of a national Thanksgiving holiday in November. Hale, a New Hampshire native, wrote affectionately about New England’s Thanksgiving traditions in an 1827 novel, Northwood. There was no mention of the Pilgrims’ 1621 event in the novel or her early editorials.
     Soon, however, the Pilgrims would re-enter the Thanksgiving picture. A copy of the original version of Mourt’s Relation—with Winslow’s Thanksgiving letter—was found in Philadelphia in 1820.
     The Rev. Alexander Young, a Unitarian minister, put the complete text of Mourt’s Relation in a book called Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, published in 1841. At the end of Winslow’s letter, he added a footnote: “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England. On this occasion they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison.”
     Young’s footnote was “the earliest identification of the 1621 event as a Thanksgiving,” writes James W. Baker, former director of research at Plimoth Plantation, in Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (University of New Hampshire Press, 2009).
     But Young’s assertion “was slow to attract public attention,” Baker adds. “After all, the Thanksgiving holiday had developed a substantial historical tradition quite independent of the Pilgrims, emphasizing contemporary New England family reunions, dinners, balls, pumpkins and turkeys.”
     Over the next few years, the Pilgrims would move further into the spotlight. In 1855, a historian researching the history of Massachusetts discovered that the long-missing original Bradford manuscript was in the bishop of London’s library.
     A copy of the manuscript was made in England and sent to Boston, where it was published in 1856. How the manuscript got from Boston’s Old South Church to the bishop of London’s library remains a mystery. (The manuscript wasn’t returned to the United States until 1897. It is now in the Massachusetts State House.)
     In 1858 another boost for the Pilgrims: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, was published and became an immediate best-seller.
     Through it all, Hale relentlessly pursued her campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She had written letters to five presidents, including Abraham Lincoln. On Oct. 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a proclamationdeclaring the “last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father.” No mention of the Pilgrims.

     The return of the Pilgrims

     Even though popular awareness of the 1621 Thanksgiving was increasing, at the end of the 1800s the Pilgrim dinner still had not become the iconic image of the holiday. That was about to change—and rapidly.
     The “tipping point,” Baker writes in his book, probably was the novel Standish of Standish, published in 1889 and written by Jane G. Austin (1831-1894), a descendant of multiple passengers on the Pilgrim ship Mayflower. The book presented the “First Thanksgiving” in the idyllic setting of an outdoors feast spread across long tables with a stuffed turkey on one of them.
     It was a verbal image that would be transformed by others into illustrations and paintings. Before long, the picnicking Pilgrims were everywhere around the holiday: on Thanksgiving greeting cards, in classrooms as representatives of a American values, on stage for pageants and so on.
     And in 1905, they made it into a presidential proclamation for the first time, although not by name. Theodore Roosevelt praised the “first settlers” who started the custom of setting aside one day each year “for a special service of thanksgiving to the Almighty.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1939 proclamation was the first to mention the Pilgrims by name.
     Bostonian John F. Kennedy, in his 1962 proclamation, stated: “Over three centuries ago in Plymouth, on Massachusetts Bay, the Pilgrims established the custom of gathering together each year to express their gratitude to God.”
     John J. Wicker Jr., a former Virginia state senator and honorary chairman of the Richmond Thanksgiving Festival, sent a telegram to the president complaining that Kennedy’s presidential proclamation “erroneously credits Massachusetts Pilgrims with America’s First Thanksgiving observance.”
     So in his 1963 proclamation, Kennedy said: “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving.”   


     Abe Lincoln and the politics of Thanksgiving