Truth and myth and the first Thanksgiving

Posted on November 20, 2019. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Colonial America, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It’s almost Thanksgiving, and what would our national celebration be like if the HP didn’t run its time-honored post on this American holiday, which debuted on November 15, 2010? Related is our short series on the NatGeo made-for-TV movie Saints and Strangers, in which we painstakingly debunk a pack of myths about the Pilgrims and the Americans they lived in relation to and dependence on. Enjoy, as you enjoy the holiday.

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This is the time of year when people take a moment to wonder about the Pilgrims: why were they so cruel to the Indians? The Thanksgiving celebration is marred by this concern. There are many reasons why it shouldn’t be. First, Thanksgiving has only been a holiday since 1863. Second, it had nothing to do with the Pilgrims whatsoever.

President Lincoln instituted this holiday during the Civil War to unite the U.S. in thanks for its blessings even in the midst of that terrible war. Here’s how he put it:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

—Britain and France have refused, in the end, to support the Confederacy, the U.S. itself is still intact and strong, and the U.S. Army and Navy are driving back the enemy.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

—The U.S. economy has not fallen apart for lack of slave-produced cotton, as the South had always predicted it would. Industry and agriculture are stronger than ever and the U.S. continues to expand.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

—God has punished the U.S. with this war for the sin of slavery, but is showing encouraging signs of his support for the U.S. war effort.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

—While thanking God for his mercies to the U.S. so far, Americans should also offer up prayers asking for his care for all those who have lost someone in the war, and asking for his help in ending the war as quickly as possible.

So the First Thanksgiving in the U.S. was held in November 1863 and inaugurated for a good cause. The first lower-case “t” thanksgiving in what would become the U.S. was held in November 1621 and was merely the first of many, many days of thanksgiving observed by the Pilgrims and was not celebrated as an annual holiday at all. Let’s go back to the original article to learn the real story:

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The first Thanksgiving: it’s a hallowed phrase that, like “Washington crossing the Delaware“, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” or “Damn the torpedoes!”, does not bring up many solid facts. Unfortunately, “the first Thanksgiving” is usually either completely debunked, with people saying no such thing ever happened, or used as a weapon against the Pilgrims—i.e., they had a lovely Thanksgiving with the Indians and then killed them all.

The truth about the first Thanksgiving is that it did happen, in the fall of 1621. The Pilgrims had landed in what is now Massachusetts the previous November—a terrible time to begin a colony. Their provisions were low, and it was too late to plant anything. It is another myth that they landed so late because they got lost. They had intended to land south of Long Island, New York and settle in what is now New Jersey, where it was warmer, but their ship was almost destroyed in a dangerous reef area just south of Cape Cod, and the captain turned back. They then had to crawl the ship down the Cape, looking for a suitable place to land. Long story short, they ended up in what is now Plymouth.

Most Americans know how so many of those first settlers died from starvation and disease over the winter, and how it was only by raiding Wampanoag food caches that the colony survived at all. By the spring, there were not many colonists left to plant food, but they dragged themselves out to do so. They had good luck, and help from the Wampanoags, who showed them planting techniques—potentially just to keep the Pilgrims from raiding their winter stores again. By November 1621, a very good harvest was in, and Governor William Bradford called for a day of thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims often had days of thanksgiving. In times of trouble, they had fasts, which were sacrifices given for God’s help. In celebration times, they had thanksgivings to thank God for helping them. So thanksgivings were a common part of Pilgrim life, and calling  for a thanksgiving to praise God for the harvest would not have been unusual, and would have been a day spent largely in church and at prayer.

So the men went out to shoot some “fowls” for the dinner, and perhaps they ran into some Wampanoags, or maybe a few Wampanoags were visting Plymouth, as they often did, and heard about the day of celebration. At any rate, here is the only—yes, the one and only—eyewitness description of what happened next:

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.  They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.  At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

That’s Edward Winslow, writing about the thanksgiving in his journal of Pilgrim life called “Mourt’s Relation”, published in 1622. We see that Massasoit and 90 of his men arrived at some point, having heard about the feast, and the Pilgrims hosted them for three days, and had some rather traditional Anglican sport firing their guns. Certainly the Wampanoags had a right to feel they could join in, since it was their help that had led to the good harvest. A one-day thanksgiving turned into three days of feasting and games.

And that was it. People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year. We have seen that thanksgivings were not annual events, but came randomly when the people felt they were needed as a response to current events, and the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. Holidays were a human invention that made some days better than others when God had made all days equally holy. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way. When things were going well, Separatists and Puritans had days of thanksgiving. When things were going badly, they had days of fasting. None of them were annual holidays or cause for feasting (of course fast days weren’t, but even thanksgivings were mostly spent in church, with no special meal).

So that one-time harvest thanksgiving was indeed a happy event, shared in equally by Pilgrim and Wampanoag. And those Pilgrims who sat down with Massasoit and his men did not then slaughter them all; it would not be until their grandchildren’s generation that war broke out, in 1676, once Massasoit and the Pilgrims at that table were long dead.

The first Thanksgiving was an impromptu, bi-cultural celebration that we can all think of happily as we sit down to our annual table.

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Roger Williams in Plymouth

Posted on September 10, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , |

Here in Part 3 of our Truth v. Myth series on Roger Williams, we follow his time in Plymouth. We saw last time that Williams had left Boston because its church had not separated from the Church of England, which Williams, like all English Separatists, saw as a failed church. So he went to Plymouth, which was a Separatist colony.

For a while things went well, as Williams again charmed the people of Plymouth with his winning personality and his goodness, and impressed them with the occasional preaching he did (he did not earn a living as a minister, but worked his family farm). But fairly soon Williams began to feel even Plymouth was not separated enough. When members of the colony visited England, they went to Anglican (Church of England) services there, then came back and worshipped in the Plymouth church, thus contaminating it. He also, to some degree or other, began to object to using the common term “Goodman”—equivalent to “Mr.” today—to address men who were not revealed to have been saved by God’s grace. How could a man who was not truly good be given the title of Goodman?

Williams stirred up enough fuss about using “Goodman” that when John Winthrop came to visit Plymouth, its leaders asked his opinion. So Winthrop learned that once again, Williams was falling into that trap of shutting out more and more of the world in an attempt to create a purely holy world of one’s own. He reassured the Plymouthers that “Goodman” was appropriate, but Williams made the decision to leave Plymouth. The governor of the colony, William Bradford, wrote later that Williams left “abruptly”, in 1633.

He returned once more to Salem, where the people welcomed him happily, and made him a full member of their church. Williams was willing to join the church, even though it was Anglican, because he saw that most members of the Salem church were open to his ideas; he must have hoped/thought he could lead them to Separatism. He began teaching unofficially, urging the people to aim for the heights of spiritual perfection.

But it wasn’t just his religion that made Williams a problem. While in Salem he would ignite a political scandal that would engulf and endanger the entire Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Next time: Williams commits treason

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Roger Williams: A Dangerous Man

Posted on September 7, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , |

Welcome to Part II of our Truth v Myth series on Roger Williams. Here we look at his early life in New England.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, Puritans were always on the verge of deciding the world was too sinful and withdrawing from it to maintain their own purity and safety. The first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, was wise enough to see that this was both an insult and a danger. An insult because it left the unsaved to their doom, and a danger because once people decide they must withdraw from the world, they go quickly down an endless spiral, rejecting more and more people as unfit, until they are completely isolated and literally alone.

Winthrop, like all good Puritans, knew that the righteous had a responsibility to live in the world and help other people achieve righteousness (if not salvation; only God could give that). He was constantly talking extremists down from the ledge of withdrawal.

Roger Williams was one of those extremists. Winthrop, who had known Williams slightly in England, thought well of the young minister. When Williams was invited to serve as temporary  minister in the Boston church while its usual minister went back to England to get his wife, Winthrop approved. But Williams refused the offer to lead this very prestigious church; he was already a Separatist, done with the Church of England that the Puritans were trying to improve. While Williams was universally well-liked, and a very appealing person, he was beginning to harbor dark thoughts about humanity. He felt he had soiled himself by taking communion in the Church of England because it was not a true church. His purpose now in New England was to regain his purity. Even though the church in Boston did not allow anyone to take communion unless they  had gone through the rigorous process of demonstrating the saving grace of God in them, Williams still would not worship there. Even though the Bostonians were pure themselves, they had not renounced the impure Church of England. Williams demanded that the congregation “make a public declaration of their repentence for having communion with the churches of England, while they lived there.” It would not, and Williams moved on.

As Edmund Morgan puts it so well, “Here was a Separatist indeed, who would separate not only from erroneous churches but also from everyone who would not denounce erroneous churches as confidently as he did.”

Winthrop put forward the corrective idea that people could reform corrupt bodies like the Church of England rather than abandon them; to leave sinners without the “Care” that they needed was a refusal to do one’s God-ordained duty. Winthrop deplored the “spiritual pride” that led people to abandon those who needed them.

But Williams was unmoved by such arguments. He was beginning to see the world in very black and white terms of good and evil, and the number of those who could be considered evil was ever-growing. Williams was also rejecting temporal law: before leaving Boston, which he did after just a few weeks, he had questioned whether the government of the colony (or any government) had any power to address religious matters. While we take this for granted as the separation of church and state, it was anathema to the Puritans of New England, who had come to America expressly to create a government that supported their religion.

On Williams went to Salem, where he was also received with kindness and happiness. Williams was so likable that he could say things that were terrible to the Puritans and still maintain their goodwill–excusing the young minister for his radicalism quickly became a habit in Salem and elsewhere. He seemed so clearly to be saved, he exuded such goodness and personal piety, that no one wanted to believe he was a divisive and alienating zealot.

Winthrop, however, wrote a letter to Salem asking how they could allow a Separatist to be their minister, and his dose of objectivity led Salem to rescind the offer, and Williams went finally to Plymouth, which was a Separatist colony. He should have lived happily ever after in Plymouth, but he did not.

Next time: Williams makes waves in Plymouth

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Pilgrims v. Puritans: who landed in Plymouth?

Posted on May 12, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , |

Most Americans know the terms Puritans and Pilgrims. Most don’t know that these are two different groups.

Puritans were English Protestants in the late 16th century who wanted their church, the Anglican church, to follow the Calvinist model more closely and give up the remnants of Catholicism still present in Anglicanism.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Puritans consistently pushed their agenda in Parliament and in their local towns. Puritans would often remove themselves from their assigned parish church to go hear sermons from a Puritan minister in another town’s church. This was illegal at the time. In an effort to stop the wild pendulum swings in her kingdom from extreme protestantism to Catholic resurgence and back again, Elizabeth refused to legitimize the Puritan agenda. She did not prosecute them severely, but she did not rescind the laws making their activities illegal.

Their sense of being persecuted for their faith gave the Puritans a lot of energy. They developed a complete system for defining and realizing salvation that I can’t go into in a short post here. But they also split.

Puritans began as a group within the Anglican church that wanted to purify it of lingering Catholic influences. But some Puritans lost faith in the Anglican church. Deciding it could never be purified, they abandoned it, separating themselves from it. These became known as Separatists. The majority of Puritans, who remained within the Anglican church, were known as nonseparating Puritans. The two groups grew increasingly hostile as the 17th century wore on.

It was the Separatists who took the Mayflower for America. Forced to leave England because it was treason to leave the Anglican church, small groups of Separatists left for Holland and other Protestant European countries. The group that we know as the Pilgrims went to Leiden in Holland. Americans often learn that they decided not to stay there because their children were becoming Dutch, but this is not true. They left because Holland’s truce with Catholic Spain was near its end, and the Protestant Separatists would have been wiped out if Spain had taken control once again of Holland.

So the Separatists received permission from the English government to go to America. Why? They were funded by financiers in London, and the crown figured that if the colonists made a go of it, the crown would seize the colony and enjoy the profits. The religion of the colonists was secondary to the financial potential they represented.

Not all the people on board the Mayflower were Separatists. Stories of the horrors suffered by colonists at Jamestown, in Virginia, were well-circulated in England. The feeling in England was that the Jamestown colonists had gone to America grossly unprepared. The Separatists vowed not to repeat those colonists’ mistakes. They recruited tradespeople from London whose talents would be essential to building a new society—carpenters, blacksmiths, etc.

Those recruits were not Puritans or Separatists. They were Anglicans. But mostly, they were people who didn’t really think about religion too much, who just wanted a chance to go to America. The Separatists, then, were in the minority as the Mayflower set sail. Fights between the two groups broke out almost immediately. The Separatists got on the others’ nerves with their religion, which permeated all aspects of their lives, and the Anglicans got on the Separatists’ nerves with their deliberate sacrilege and mockery of religion. When they landed in America, the Separatists had a hard time keeping control of the colony from the majority.

Now, the nonseparating Puritans in England came under real persecution starting in 1630, with the election of Archbishop Laud, who dedicated himself to wiping Puritanism out and bringing the Anglican church as far back toward Catholicism as he could. Tens of thousands of Puritans would emigrate to Massachusetts in the 1630s.  But they didn’t go to Plymouth. They weren’t about to miss their chance to found an untrammeled, unchallenged, all-powerful Puritan state by moving in with a bunch of crazy Separatists and, worse yet, blasphemous, Catholic-tinged Anglicans.

The Puritans instead founded Boston, north of Plymouth. And as the Puritan colony centered there—the Massachusetts Bay Colony—grew, it quickly outstripped Plymouth. Bay colonists ruthlessly confiscated land, including lands owned by Plymouth. By the 1640s, Plymouth was reduced to a backwater, and its Separatist quality was fairly diluted, even as the Puritanism of the Bay Colony grew and strengthened.

So that’s the story of the Pilgrims and the Puritans in a two-minute nutshell. Here are some fantastic books to read on the subject:

Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, by the great Edmund S. Morgan

The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700, by Stephen Foster

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