Saturday, November 3, 2012
The History of Thanksgiving
Myth: The first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth, Mass.
5:45 am edt
Fact: If you learned in school that Thanksgiving started with the Pilgrims and the Indians feasting together
in New England, your education might have been over-simplified.
that such a feast took place — and it was a doozy of a dinner. “For three days we entertained and feasted,”
wrote one colonist who experienced the 1621 event firsthand. They even ate the traditional bird, according to another, who
recalled a “great store of wild Turkies.”
An earlier colonial one
happened on Dec. 4, 1619, a year before the Pilgrims would arrive at Plymouth Rock, when colonists landed on what’s
now the coast of Virginia
to found Berkeley Hundred (now Charles City). They were under strict orders from the London
Company about what to do when they got there: “We ordain that the day of
our ships arrival … shall be yearly
and perpetually kept as a day of thanksgiving”
read the edict. The Pilgrims might have feasted, but these colonists
used the word “thanksgiving” first.
But another group may have beaten even
these colonists to claim the first Thanksgiving. Two decades before the Virginia landing, a group of Spanish colonists feasted
in 1598, giving thanks for their arrival at the waters of the Rio Grande after making a new trail across the Chihuahuan Desert
to what became El Paso del Rio del Norte. The site of this celebration was originally on the Mexican side of the river, which
later changed course, placing the location on the U.S. side of the border. They, too, invited local native people to join
them in a three- day feast. The same happened in Florida
when Spaniards landed near St. Augustine in September 1565. A feast with the local Indians followed (no
mention of turkeys). So Texas and Florida lay claim to the first Thanksgiving.
Zoom forward, now, to the Civil War. In 1863, after Union wins
at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a national day of Thanksgiving.
And so the feast we know today was born.
So which “first” celebration
trumps the others? According to Ann Berry, executive director of the Pilgrim Society and Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth,
Mass., the Pilgrims’ feast wins. “To us, 400 years later, that’s what we as Americans look to as the origin
of our Thanksgiving today,” she says. But Tammy Radcliff, manager of the Berkeley Plantation, favors Virginia’s.
“This was the first official Thanksgiving, the documented Thanksgiving,” she explains.
As for Texas, Barbara Angus, the senior curator at the El Paso Museum of History, takes a longer view. “It is
simply human nature to celebrate after great triumph or trauma,” she says, and there was plenty of trauma to go around
when North America was first being settled by Europeans. Plus, adds Angus, even among the museum’s staff, there is disagreement.
“We have a hold-out from Florida who says the first Thanksgiving was over in Florida,” she
says. Texas or Florida? Virginia or Massachusetts? Potato, potahto. Mashed white ones and sweet
baked ones. Please pass the gravy.
Reference: Beth Goulart
is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.