Medieval Matters

Pilgrims and Rocks and the Origins of Thanksgiving

I intended to write an “origins of Thanksgiving” post last year, but the release of The Gates of Hell and day-job matters got in the way. I promised in a subsequent “Origins of Xmas” post that I’d do it next year, which a reader has reminded me is now this year … so here we go!

When we think of the historical origins of Thanksgiving, we tend to get an image like the one above.Praying Pilgrims and helpful Indians, amirite? By now we’ve distilled the images even further into simple symbolism that pre-school kids can craft in construction paper. For the pilgrims: black hats with buckles upon them. For the Indians: loincloths and feathered headbands. Turkey with gravy on the table, and nostalgia about peace amid a religiosity of thankfulness.

It’s all lovely, and I quite like Thanksgiving, but its important to distinguish our modern conceptions from the historical realities. Because as quaint as our images are of that “First Thanksgiving,” they’re pretty much all wrong.

First off, there are serious questions about when and where the “First Thanksgiving” was held. The popular image, of course, is the celebration held by the Mayflower Pilgrims in 1621. American culture has very certainly focused on a mythology built around this event, and merchandizing and commercialization industries have moved in lock-step with it. But there are earlier contenders for a claim on the first such celebration.

16th-century engraving of Timucuan Indians and Rene Laudonnière.

Though not always mentioned in the records, we suspect it was common for European explorers and colonizers to celebrate their arrivals in the New World with prayers of thanksgiving, and it’s likely that many of these religious services were tied to feasts of celebration. The earliest recorded instance of something more recognizable as our modern Thanksgiving — European settlers, Native Americans, and a meal giving thanks — is from June 30, 1564, when Rene Goulaine de Laudonnière, a French explorer, celebrated the foundation of Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. The local Timucua Indians not only joined in the feast but probably supplied most of the food, so smoked alligator, not turkey, was likely prominent on the menu. Over a year later, on September 8, 1565, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés celebrated the founding of St. Augustine, Florida by inviting those same Timucua Indians to a Mass of thanksgiving and a feast. Out west, in 1598, the Spanish explorer Juan de Onate reportedly held a feast of thanksgiving on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Even in New England, though, the pilgrims weren’t first. In 1619, settlers from the ship Margaret landed at Berkeley Hundred on James River and began the tradition of holding a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the date of their arrival: December 4. A memorial to the event marks the spot these days, but the fact that this Thanksgiving isn’t more widely celebrated might have something to do with the fact that their settlement was wiped out during the Second Anglo-Powhatan War in 1622.

Memorial to Thanksgiving at Berkeley Hundred in Virginia.

And so, at last, to those Pilgrims, who established their colony in Plymouth in 1620. In modern terms, the Pilgrims were refugees, of course: their strong belief in the separation of Church and State — well, as they perceived it — had made them the victims of religious persecution in Europe. Their journey to the New World was an arduous one and, to be frank, somewhat poorly planned: they arrived in the New World on November 9, a late date that meant facing a hard climate from the get-go. After exploring various potential sites for their settlement, the Pilgrims finally surveyed the site of Plymouth on December 21, an arrival that school-kids around the nation now recognize as setting foot on Plymouth Rock.

What’s left of Plymouth Rock today.

As it happens, Plymouth Rock is itself entwined in myth. It was first identified as “the” rock in 1741 — 121 years after the event — by 94-year-old Thomas Fraunce. The story stuck, though, and it was an important enough symbol that in 1774 revolutionaries tried to move it for propaganda purposes. The rock broke in half (oops), but at least part of it got moved. In 1834 this bit of rock was moved again, once more being broken in the process. People chipped away at what was left of the rock over the years, grasping tokens of this quasi-foundational artifact of America, so by the time it was moved back to its present location near the shoreline in 1880, it is thought to be 1/3 its original size.

Anyhow, whether that rock was involved with their arrival or not, the Pilgrims survived a difficult winter, planted seeds in the spring, and saw their first crops ready for harvest late in the autumn of 1621. So shine the buckles on those black hats, people!

I’m a Pilgrim, yo.

Except not. Black hats and buckles aren’t something the Pilgrims would’ve worn. Here’s the wardrobe of a Pilgrim named Brewster: “one blew clothe suit, green drawers, a vilolete clothe coat, black silk stockings, skyblew garters, red grograin suit, red waistcoat, tawny colored suit with silver buttons.”

In fact, buckles and black cloth would be rare among such folks: both were expensive to produce. The reason we associate them with Pilgrims (and with Puritans, who also didn’t quite dress like this) is that such things seemed both quaint and religious to folks in the nineteenth century: pressing their modern conceptions onto the past, they invented an image that went on to dominate the increasingly popular holiday.

The same thing is true of the blunderbuss, for instance, which we imagine the Pilgrims and such folks using to hunt, despite the fact that the weapon was essentially used for crowd control since it’s only real purpose was to make big noises.

But back to the event in question.

We don’t know the exact date of that Pilgrim Thanksgiving, but we suspect that it was around the time of Michaelmas, on September 29, 1621, that 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Wôpanâak gathered together in Plymouth to celebrate the first successful harvest with a three-day festival. From Pilgrim accounts it seems that unlike the events in Florida, the Indians were not actually invited to the event in Plymouth. They were instead drawn by the days of noise of games and festivities, though once they arrived they were allowed to join in on the fun. We also know that they brought five deer for the “table,” which was really more like a Super Bowl Sunday buffet of revolving munchies over the days. Indeed, those five deer are the only thing that we know for sure was served — though turkey was quite likely involved.

What wasn’t served? Popcorn, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, or even that green bean casserole thing my grandma used to make. All those are, like the buckled black hats, from 19th-century Victorian ideas of “quaint” traditionalism.

The “First Thanksgiving” was, simply put, a harvest festival. It wasn’t a dinner by any modern reckoning, and it was more akin to a party than the quiet religiosity that we tend to imagine. It was about joy, and it was about coming together as a community in collective gratitude for the success of a year’s work and, more importantly, in hope for better years to come.

So whether you celebrate with gator fingers or pumpkin spiced lattes, this coming “Fourth Thursday in November” — the date of celebration here in the United States following a 1941 act of Congress — I hope you’ll join me in raising your cups in similar spirits: better years will come.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Michael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Culture at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. His historical fantasy trilogy set in Ancient Rome, The Shards of HeavenThe Gates of Hell, and the newly released The Realms of God, is available from Tor Books.

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