When we created the editorial calendar for this blog (Didn’t think we had one? Well, we do…sort of…), I recorded very neatly that this week our focus would be on the “True Story of Thanksgiving.” In my naiveté (or ignorance, if you prefer), I imagined this would be a simple matter of doing a little research and dispelling a few common myths. What I found, however, is that the subject is a matter of intense debate among scholars.
Now, I haven’t spent a lot of time in the world of higher education, but enough to know that when the academics really get going, it’s best not to enter the fray unless you’ve got a whole pack of initials after your name and a lot of scholarship under your belt (not to mention a strong interest in arguing ad infinitum about things like the type of buckles the Pilgrims wore on their shoes).
So much for writing the “True Story of Thanksgiving.” As always, there can be many “truths,” depending on a person’s background and point of view. Or, as Oscar Wilde so eloquently put it, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.” However, with regard to that first Thanksgiving, there are a few (very few!) things that appear to be undisputed, and here they are:
- There was a feast in 1621 in which the Pilgrims and Native Americans (primarily the Wampanoag Indians) participated. The fact that the Pilgrims survived to celebrate this feast was due in large part to the help they received from the Indians, especially Squanto and Samoset.
- Squanto and Samoset already knew some English when they met the Pilgrims because they had each gone to England (separately) with earlier English explorers. After returning to the New World, Squanto was captured by a British slaver and sold to the Spanish in the Caribbean. He eventually made his way back to England where the same explorer he had traveled with previously, John Weymouth, paid for his return passage.
- Although previous presidents had often issued annual proclamations for a day of Thanksgiving, much of the credit for Thanksgiving Day as we now know it belongs to Sarah Joseph Hale, the editor of Godsey’s Lady’s Book. For 30 years, she had been contacting presidents to promote the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day. Abraham Lincoln finally responded, issuing a proclamation on October 3, 1863 that set aside the last Thursday of November as a National Day of Thanksgiving. Even so, it wasn’t until 1941 that Congress permanently established the fourth Thursday of each November as a national holiday.
If you’d like to do a little further reading, here are several articles (from both ends of the spectrum):
Teaching About Thanksgiving (An Introduction for Teachers) by Chuck Larsen (also follows the article by Susan Bates in the above link)
In researching all of this, I was reminded of another Native American and Anglo Thanksgiving—one that I personally participated in some 360 years (give or take) after the original event. (Continued in Part II…)
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