The paragraph that led to Thanksgiving as we know it is in this book
What would the two men who wrote the book on the first Thanksgiving say about the way we celebrate it now?
They did not say much at that first gathering, 400 years ago.
Michael Hattem, a co-curator of an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society that includes the book in question (above), told me that the Thanksgiving holiday was built on a paragraph deep in a book published in 1622 — and a footnote when that passage was reprinted in the mid-19th century.
How different those terse beginnings were from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, back at full strength this year with what my colleague Julia Jacobs called “all its helium-filled pomp and corporate-branded holiday cheer.” And what would the people who attended the first Thanksgiving say about our at-home preparations? By one estimate, Americans will spend nearly $1 billion on turkey for Thanksgiving this year, $144 million more than last year, partly because the price per pound has jumped.
The Thanksgiving story caught on after the Civil War, according to the historian Philip Deloria, as “American mythmakers discovered that the Pilgrims, and New England as a whole, were perfectly cast as national founders: white, Protestant, democratic and blessed with an American character centered on family, work, individualism, freedom and faith.” Over the years the story was taught and retaught, even if “today’s teachers aim for less pageantry and a slightly more complicated history,” Deloria wrote in 2019.
Hattem said the passage in the 1622 book was “not an extensive account of what happened” at the first Thanksgiving. Edward Winslow, who with William Bradford wrote the book, “did not attach the kind of significance to the event” that it assumed 220 years later when the Rev. Alexander Young wrote the footnote.
Hattem said that Winslow, who wanted to encourage more people to leave England and settle in the American colony, was preoccupied with the alliance between the colonists and the Indigenous Wampanoag tribe led by the man he called Massasoit (actually a title, not a name, according to Deloria). The Wampanoags “weren’t just coming to help the colonists or celebrate,” Hattem said. They wanted “a political alliance that would protect them from the Narragansetts,” a tribe in Rhode Island.
“Winslow leaves all of that out,” Hattem said.
All this was largely forgotten until Young’s book, “Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers,” came out. “He identifies this scene from Winslow’s journal as the quote-unquote first Thanksgiving and includes a footnote that literally says this was the first Thanksgiving,” Hattem said. In his account, Deloria wrote: “Of such half-thoughts is history made.”