The "First Thanksgiving": Facts and Fancies

The event we now know as "The First Thanksgiving" was in fact neither the first occurrence of our modern American holiday, nor was it even a 'Thanksgiving" in the eyes of the Pilgrims who celebrated it. It was instead a traditional English harvest celebration to which the colonists invited Massasoit, the most important Sachem (leader and one of my relatives!) among the Wampanoag. It was only in the nineteenth century that this event became identified with the American Thanksgiving holiday.


The association of the Pilgrims with the Thanksgiving holiday has a complicated history. The holiday itself evolved out of a routine Puritan religious observation, irregularly declared and celebrated in response to God's favorable Providence, into an single, annual, quasi-secular New England autumnal celebration. The first national Thanksgiving was declared in 1777 by the Continental Congress, and others were declared from time to time until 1815. The holiday then reverted to being a regional observance until 1863, when two national days of Thanksgiving were declared, one celebrating the victory at Gettysburg on August 6, and the other the first of our last-Thursday-in-November annual Thanksgivings. Although the Pilgrims' 1621 harvest celebration had been identified as the first American Thanksgiving as early as 1841 by Alexander Young, the common Thanksgiving symbolic associations in the 19th century centered on turkeys, Yankee dinners and an annual family reunion, not Pilgrims. The now famous 1621 event had been in fact entirely forgotten until the 1820s, when the full text of Mourts Relation (1622) with the reference to the feast was rediscovered. Mention of the Pilgrims brought the Landings or Myles, Priscilla, and John to mind, not



Moreover, whenever a Pilgrim, or more accurately, a generic 17th-century puritan image appeared in popular art in connection with Thanksgiving during the nineteenth century, it was not the now familiar scene of English and Indians sitting down to an outdoor feast. On the contrary, the image almost always portrayed a violent confrontation between colonist and Native American. It was only after the turn of the century, when the western Indian wars were over and the "vanishing red man" was vanishing satisfactorily, that the romantic (and historically correct) idyllic image of the two cultures sitting down to an autumn feast became popular. By the First World War, popular art (especially postcards), schoolbooks and literature had linked the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving indivisibly together, so much so that the image of the Pilgrim and the familiar fall feast almost ousted the Landing and older patriotic images from the popular consciousness. This alliance also deflated Forefathers' Day, which sank in to insignificance even in Plymouth itself.


The Pilgrims and the "First Thanksgiving"

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving was more commonly symbolized by its New England origins and its chief dinner constituent, the turkey, than by the Pilgrims' 1621 harvest celebration. 

In addition to the rural New England theme, there were a diversity of contemporary and historical illustrations and stories, including Thanksgivings on the battlefield, down south with African-Americans and in the urban slums, as well as a few generic colonial New England (and Old England) Puritan images. It is surprising to note that when the colonists are represented, they are less likely to be sharing their feast with their Native American neighbors, than illustrating European and Native American conflict, indicated by a hail of arrows! Apparently the very real dangers of the Indian Wars in the West produced a sense of fear and guilt which was expressed in this fashion, in graphic contrast with the familiar peaceful autumn pastorals that we associate with the holiday today. It was only after the wars were over that a sentimental regard for the satisfactorily "vanishing Red Man" provoked a national change of heart in which Jennie Brownscombe could create her idyllic "First Thanksgiving" (1914). Even then the image of the Thanksgiving "Pilgrim-puritan" fleeing a shower of arrows retained a popular appeal.

The association between Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims had been suggested as early as 1841 when Alexander Young identified the 1621 harvest celebration as the "first Thanksgiving" in New England, but their importance among the holiday's symbols did not occur until after 1900. It was then that the familiar illustrations of Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down to dinner in peace and concord appeared widely in calendar art and on patriotic murals. The real New England Thanksgiving, as is shown in the 1777 proclamation, bore less of a resemblance to our modern holiday than the feasting and games of the Pilgrim harvest celebration. But when the Victorians were looking for the historical antecedent of the contemporary Thanksgiving holiday, the Pilgrim festival with its big dinner and charitable hospitality seemed the perfect match. The fact that the 1621 event had not been a Thanksgiving in the Pilgrims' own eyes was irrelevant. The Pilgrim harvest celebration quickly became the mythic "First Thanksgiving" and has remained the primary historical representation of the holiday ever since. The earlier Pilgrim holiday, Forefathers' Day (December 21st, the anniversary of the Landing on Plymouth Rock), which had been celebrated since 1769 faded in importance as the Pilgrims increasingly became the patron saints of the American Thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims were cast in their Forefathers role to provide an example of the close-knit, religiously inspired American community that people worried about the decline of basic values during the First World War period wished to instill in their descendants. While retaining their Victorian symbolic virtues, the Pilgrims became usable history for generations of school children, and played an important part in the Americanization of the Northern and Eastern immigrants entering the country. New elements and a new theme supporting this role were added to the Pilgrim Story as the Pilgrims acquired their most recent and important popular association: the Thanksgiving holiday. A modern image, the First Thanksgiving, showed Pilgrim families sitting down to a pastoral celebration with the Native Americans in harmony, thus symbolizing the potential for unity of different ethnic background.

Equally important at the turn of the century was the inspirational image of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sharing their communal meal in harmony. The country was seriously concerned over immigration and the problems surrounding the integration of the new citizens into American culture. The Thanksgiving image of dissimilar ethnic communities co-existing amid peace and plenty was an irresistible symbol. The Pilgrims became the exemplary immigrants whose Protestant virtues made them the preferred model for all later arrivals. Americanization programs, which were intended to socialize the new immigrants by instilling in them the values and beliefs of "real" Americans, made good use of the symbols and ideals of Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims. By 1920, when the Pilgrims' 300th anniversary celebration elevated them to the pinnacle of their fame, their role as Thanksgiving icons and the "spiritual ancestors" of all Americans became permanently fixed in the American psyche.


   Ten Steps To A Picture Perfect Turkey

 Follow these 10 easy steps to create a picture-perfect turkey.

1. If turkey is frozen, thaw in the refrigerator or cold water. When ready to cook, remove the wrapper. Preheat the oven to 325 Fahrenheit.

2. Remove the neck from the body cavity and the giblets from the neck cavity. Drain the juices and blot the cavities with paper towels.

3. Just before roasting, stuff the neck and body cavities lightly, if desired. Turn the wings back to hold the neck skin in place. Return legs to tucked position, if untucked. No trussing is necessary.

4. Place the turkey, breast side up, on a flat rack in an open roasting pan about 2 inches deep. A handy "turkey lifter" comes with each Butterball Turkey. Place this special string cradle on a rack, then place the turkey on top and bring the loops up around the turkey. Do this before putting the turkey in the oven and when lifting the cooked turkey from the pan, use the loops as handles.

5. Insert an oven-safe meat thermometer deep into the lower part of the thigh next to the body, not touching the bone.

6. Brush the skin with vegetable oil to prevent skin from drying. Further basting is unnecessary.

7. Wash preparation utensils, work surfaces and hands in hot, soapy water following contact with uncooked turkey and juices.

8. Roast at 325 F. For approximate cooking times, see roasting time schedule. When the skin is light golden, about 2/3 done, shield the breast loosely with lightweight foil to prevent overcooking.

9. Check for doneness 1/2 hour before turkey is expected to be done. Turkey is fully cooked when the thigh's internal temperature is 180 F. The thickest part of breast should read 170 F and the center of the stuffing should be 160 F.

10. When done, let the turkey stand for 15 to 20 minutes before carving.



Libby's Famous Pumpkin Pie

The ultimate, deliciously easy pumpkin pie

1 unbaked 9-inch deep dish pie shell (4-cup volume); refrigerated, frozen or homemade
2 eggs
1 can (16 ounces) Libby's Solid Pack Pumpkin
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 can (12 fluid ounces) undiluted Carnation Evaporated Milk

Prepare pie shell. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Beat eggs lightly in large bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients in order given. Pour into pie shell.*

Bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees F. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees F.; bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until knife inserted near center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack.

* If using metal or foil pan, bake on preheated heavy-duty baking sheet.

Makes one 9-inch deep dish pie

For 2 shallow pies, substitute two 9-inch pie shells (2-cup volume). Bake in preheated 425 degree F. oven for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees F; bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until pie tests done.

For lower fat/calorie pie, substitute Carnation Evaporated Lowfat Milk.


   Pumpkin Walnut Cheesecake


6 oz zwieback crackers, crushed
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
6 Tbsp butter, melted
24 oz cream cheese, softened
5 eggs
16 oz pumpkin
1 3/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/4 cup heavy cream



6 Tbsp butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Blend zwieback crumbs, 1/4 cup sugar, and the 6 tablespoons melted butter. Press firmly over bottom and up sides of a lightly buttered 9-inch spring-form pan. Chill. Beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the 3/4 cup sugar and the 3/4 cup brown sugar, beating until well mixed. Beat in the eggs one at a time, until mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the pumpkin pie spice and the heavy cream at low speed. Mix in the pumpkin. Pour into prepared pan. Bake in a slow oven (325) for one hour and 35 minutes. While pie is baking, mix the topping ingredients (the last 3 ingredients), first the butter and brown sugar until crumbly, then blending in the nuts. After the one hour and 35 minutes, remove the pie from the oven. Spread the topping over it, and return it to the oven for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Refrigerate for several hours, or overnight. This cheesecake is rather large, and incredibly rich. Everyone always wants more than they can fit in their stomach! And the recipe! Serving suggestion: Some like this garnished with whipped cream and more walnuts, or with whipped cream and pecans.


Fun Thanksgiving Links

All our links are G rated, however if you find inappropriate links please email us  and let us know!'s Thanksgiving Cyber Cards

Kid's  Thanksgiving Games

A Thanksgiving Lesson Plan

Thanksgiving Central

Vegetarian Thanksgiving Meal

The Mayflower

     Thanksgiving on the Net

Related to Early Settlers? See the Mayflower Passenger List!

              Learn About the Wampanoag People & Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims

Christmas Shopping Page


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