Thanksgiving – A Usable Feast

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 2021

After their first harvest, the Pilgrims held a communal feast that has entered American folklore as the “First Thanksgiving,” commemorated annually (since the 19th century) by family-centered gatherings and meals throughout the country. What little we know about the 1621 event comes in the  brief description published in a promotional book now called Mourt’s Relation (London, 1622): After commenting on crops of wheat, Indian corn, barley, and pease,  Edward Winslow wrote: "Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent foure men on fowling; so that we might after a more speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They foure in one day killed as much fowle as, with a little help besid, served the company almost a weeke. At which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deere, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not alwayes so plentifull, as it was at this time, with us, yet by goodnesse of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie."1 Years later, Governor William Bradford, recalled in his memoir Of Plymouth Plantation, that fishing had been good all summer, and, in the fall, "begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached [...] And besides water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, etc."2 Bradford did not, however, refer to the harvest festivities of 1621; and they are not mentioned in the histories of the colony and of the town of Plymouth that began to appear with Nathaniel Morton’s New England’s Memorial (1669, reprinted several times) until Alexander Young’s Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth from 1601 to 1625 (1841), where Mourt’s Relation is republished fully for the first time, with a footnote identifying the 1621 party as the “first Thanksgiving.” Young’s note stated that “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England.”

James Baker pointed out (in his book, Thanksgiving, The Biography of an American Holiday (University Press of New England, 2009), that Young’s off-hand comment did not lead to dominant visual association of Thanksgiving with the  Pilgrims until around 1890-1900. For more than a century and a half “the harvest festival of New England” was not emphatically about the Pilgrims; instead, it was a family-centered get-together around the hearth and a bounteous table. That the “forefathers” (a term by which the Pilgrims were remembered) had also held a similar event was common knowledge as interest in Pilgrims grew. Details of their daily lives beyond Bradford’s memoir could be imagined when several volumes of colony records were published; and Longfellow’s poem “The Courtship of Myles Standish” added romance. The 1876 Centennial celebrations in Philadelphia incorporated a fanciful forefathers’ log cabin with quasi-Pilgrim furnishings, thus suggesting an ancient and heroic parallel for western pioneers who at that very moment were settling on Indian land and living in fear of attack during the last quarter-century of the American government’s Indian wars. Belligerent Indians appear in a few Thanksgiving-theme illustrations Baker discusses. What became the stereotypical image arose at the same time, illustrating a dramatic retelling of the 1621 event in Jane G. Austin’s 1889 novel, Standish of Standish.

Pseudo-historical paintings by Jean Leon Gérome Ferris and Jennie Brownscombe. ca. 1912-1914, encouraged a romantic public to imagine a peaceful picnic shared by settlers and Natives. Jane G. Austin had described a table set for men outdoors while the women were seated inside the colony’s fort. The paintings moved everyone outdoors like in  familiar 4th of July celebrations. Colonists and Indians co-existed peacefully in good old times. A corollary was the implication that Indians who quite recently had fought to prevent their subjugation were not worthy descendants of the admirable and docile ancestors who had welcomed the Pilgrims.

Contradictory voices expressed opposition to the notion that the Pilgrims were important in that  way. Virginians, Floridians, and Texans triumphantly overlooked the regional limitation of Young’s original claim, proclaiming, “Oh, no – we had the First Thanksgiving here.” In 1895,  William DeLoss Love extensively but anachronistically emphasized that the description of what occurred in 1621 indisputably did not match the forms of “Thanksgivings” esstablished later by Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony.  That view was revived and elaborated by James Deetz (since the 1970s at Plimoth  Plantation Museum and published in 2000) and affirmed by James Baker (2009): because the Pilgrims’ festivities did not match the forms established later in New England, theirs could not be considered a “Thanksgiving.”

That the event was not even a Thanksgiving became a common introduction to the claim that the Pilgrims were simply enacting a traditional harvest festival, which Deetz asserted was secular like what the colonists had recollected from the time of their youth. As one writer put it, “Actual ‘Thanksgivings’ were religious affairs; everybody spent the day praying.” (Rick Shenkman).

The assertion of irreligious secular partying overlooks the circumstance that there were no secular harvest festivals in Olde England. Harvest festivals were by law initiated with prayers set forth in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.

What was it, then; and why did Edward Winslow include his description of the event in Mourt’s Relation published in 1622?

Turkey on a Dutch blue and white tile, 17th century

Winslow’s description fully justifies the interpretation that the 1621 event was conceived as a thanksgiving for the colony’s first, adequate harvest. The event was not only explicitly unlike familiar special-event Thanksgivings that celebrated special events such as military victories, but also inconsistent with recurrent harvest festivals in their English past. The 1621 event was, moreover, unlike the standardized subsequent thanksgiving events cited by Love and his followers. Love was indeed correct in his observation that the 1621 celebration was not consistent with later New England Thanksgivings, but I disagree with his conclusion that, therefore, the 1621 event could not have been a thanksgiving.

Winslow’s description is composed of partial citations from biblical references to thanksgiving (John 4:36; Psalm 33 1-5, 18-22).[1] These descriptive references were sufficient indicators that the event was a thanksgiving. Winslow could expect his readers to recognize the biblical verses, while at the same time the Pilgrims were about the last people one should imagine actively trying to recreate any Church of England past that they considered so far polluted that they were compelled to leave it and form their own new church. Giving thanks for the divine providence that had preserved those who survived inspired new forms, but those forms were evidently consciously and thoughtfully derived from the Bible’s instructions for a harvest festival (Deut 16: 13-14), that it should last a week and that all should “reioyce in thy feast” and not neglect to invite everyone within the boundaries to participate, including “the stranger.” The biblical inclusion of the “stranger” may account for the presence of the Indians who came for three days of the Pilgrims’ week-long festivity. What Winslow describes corresponds with the bibilical instructions, but there were also military exercises, a detail not found in Deuteronomy. A precedent for that could be found in Leiden’s Reformed thanksgiving celebrations held annually since 1574 on October 3rd to commemorate lifting of the Siege by which the Catholic troops of the Spanish King Philip II had tried to conquer the Protestant city.

I assume that Winslow provides the details he does for two reasons. He wanted to inspire people to come join the colony; his writing is part of a promotional pamphlet with that purpose. Describing the colonists’ plenty presents their circumstances in the most positive light possible. Things were good, at Plymouth. (Mourt’s Relation does not inform the reader that half the colonists had died.) Second, the alert reader could recognize that the colonists had succeeded in reforming their public life in conformity with biblical precept.

Harvest thanksgivings were so ingrained that since time immemorial every farming community marked its agricultural seasons that way. Although later harvest festivals in the colony are unrecorded, no doubt such activities, enjoined by the Bible, did take place. To argue that the absence of explicit mention of events in later years has some significance overlooks the circumstance that such harvest thanksgivings were so expectable as not to require mention when they no longer were needed to convince new colonists to join the Pilgrims.

Winslow used the 1621 Thanksgiving to reassure potential investors or colonists of God’s providential support for Plymouth Colony. The Thanksgiving theme of family unity and peace (on its own, without the Pilgrims taking a leading role) had nostalgic appeal as a metaphor for national unity in the context of the Civil War. Thanksgiving had polemical value when President Abraham Lincoln declared the observance a national holiday in 1863.

By the 19th century, the Pilgrims had become brave “forefathers” of the self-congratulatory settlers of an empire ever expanding on land stolen from the subjugated owners, the Indians. Simultaneous with the 1876 Centenary celebrations, the Great Sioux War and other conflicts marked what appeared to be the final stage of suppression, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, despite the Indian victory at “Custer’s Last Stand.”

The association of Thanksgiving Day with sentimentally peaceful family unity achieved apparently unassailable dominance. Pilgrims and Indians together at table became the symbolic image known to all, while the Pilgrim story itself was losing its lustre. Harvard’s professor Samuel Eliot Morison summarized in 1937 that “The insignificance of the Plymouth Colony in the colonial era is one [issue] upon which all American historians are agreed.” Historians, however, had little influence on popular conceptions and none at all on Thanksgiving Day celebrations. George Willison’s book Saints and Strangers retold the Pilgrim story as a conflict between religious fanatics and economically driven add-ons, the synthesis of which resulted in an admirable society recognizably the ancestral model for modern American suburbia. Willison’s extremely popular version of the 1621 Thanksgiving includes a menu that seems lifted straight from the novel Standish of Standish, ignoring. that nothing like that can be found in Winslow’s writings or those of any other Pilgrim. Thanksgiving remained the sort of event people wanted.

For more than a century, the Pilgrims were praised as the inventors of American democracy – heroic exemplars of courage and virtue, worthy of emulation. Not asking how or whether the Pilgrims should be commemorated, the goal of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (a genealogically restrictive club founded in 1897) is to educate people as to “why the Mayflower Pilgrims were important, how they shaped western civilization, and what their 1620 voyage means today and its impact on the world” (from “Our Mission” online 14 Nov. 2021).

In 1970, commemorating the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the “Mayflower,” Frank Wamsutta James was invited to speak and expected to say something anodyne about Pilgrim-Indian relations. He attempted to clarify exactly how the Pilgrims had “shaped western civilization” by mistreating the Wampanoag tribe, the beginning of an ongoing oppression still experienced by Indians throughout America. His explanation of what the “1620 voyage means today and its impact” on Indians was unwelcome. He was not allowed to speak at the intended place but instead spoke to the first gathering at Plymouth’s statue of Massassoit Osamequen, initiating the annual National Day of Mourning.

James’s reminder of the present-day consequences of European colonization for Indians across the continent inspired a half-century when flowery phrases of filiopietism from “Mayflower” descendants vied for attention with strident protests that associated the Pilgrims with a vast range of grievances.

The statue erected to memorialize Osemequin for having helped the Pilgrims became the focal point for legitimate anger about consequences and events which historically had nothing to do with the Pilgrims. In 1970, Frank Wamsutta James announced that “Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece.” No – it wasn’t common practice. The few times anything like that occurred were strongly condemned by colonists who feared negative consequences for their hopes for trading with the Indians. His message could be summarized with the phrase, “We are still here,” combined with an urgent announcement that “this is only the beginning of the American Indian, particularly the Wampanoag, to regain the position in this country that is rightfully ours.”

Russell Peters, a Wampanoag leader, spoke several years later with regret: "While the day of mourning has served to focus attention on past injustice to the Native American cause, it has, in recent years, been orchestrated by a group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England. This group has tenuous ties to any of the local tribes, and is composed primarily of non-Indians. To date, they have refused several invitations to meet with the Wampanoag Indian tribal councils in Mashpee or in Gay Head. Once again, we, as Wampanoags, find our voices and concerns cast aside in the activities surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday in Plymouth, this time, ironically, by a group purporting to represent our interests."

But by 2003, Mahtowin Munro and Moonanum James (Frank’s son), speaking for the organizers of the annual Day of Mourning, asserted that the Pilgrims “introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system.” (

In later years, sentiment shifted to the point where the Town of Plymouth, “on behalf of the United American Indians of New England” and attempting to right past wrongs while pacifying the protests, erected a bronze plaque commemorating Native Americans who had gathered on Cole’s Hill since 1970, for whom Thanksgiving Day “is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”

Undeniably, public sentiment supports the complaint that symbolically identifies the arrival of the Pilgrims with Indians’ loss of life and land throughout America. If Thanksgiving Day had served to support past complacency about the Pilgrims’ contribution to American history (whatever it was), the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 and of their first thanksgiving in 1621 would have to accomodate the new mood. The various events in Plymouth, Massachusetts; Plymouth, England; and Leiden, The Netherlands, were all united in a theme of “four nations” – England, The Netherlands, the United States, and the “Wampanoag Nation.” Only at Leiden was the word plural – Native nations – to indicate that the Pilgrims’ colony was created in the midst of numerous Indian nations, including the Massachusetts tribes as well as the several separate groups now generally called Wampanoag. Organizers did their best to give at least equal attention to Native voices while expressing interest in the Pilgrims only as exemplifying the circumstances, problems, and solutions common to religious and political refugees in modern times.

The “400th” could be used to pay attention to what had been suppressed in the “350th” anniversary. The Pilgrims themselves became the hapless and incompetent foil for a revival of the noble savage image, much beloved of colonial romantics. The “Indian voice” would now be heard. But whose voice was that?

In all the commemorations just a few names appear – Paula Peters, Steven Peters, Linda Coombs – and in the various museum exhibits presentation of the “Indian point of view” has been realized solely by the Peters’ so-called communications company, “SmokeSygnals.” Denying the story of a friendly gathering of Plymouth colonists and their Native neighbors, a major claim about the 1621 event is that the Indians were not invited but instead showed up in expectation of armed conflict when they heard the sound of the Pilgrims’ militia exercises. David Silverman, in his book, This Land Was Their Land,  p. 171 ) reported that “Wampanoag tradition is that this force rushed [all the way from Rhode Island] to the scene out of concern that Plymouth was under attack because of the sound of gunfire from the colonists’ sporting.” A variant has the Indians making a warning show of force in case the colonists were practicing for an attack on their Native allies. In 2021, Thanksgiving could not commemorate a moment of peaceful cooperation that represented an ideal to be hoped for.

The other major assertion characterizing the Indian story as presented in 2021 is that the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, to the exclusion of all others, are the descendants of the Pokanoket Indians (of Mount Hope) who first had friendly contact with the Pilgrims. They pretend to be the rightful heirs to all Pokanoket lands; and in their official petitions claiming possession of the Titicut Reserve, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe denies the continued existence of any other tribes. They refuse recognition to the continued separate presence of the Pokanoket Wampanoag tribe, the Pocasset Wampanoag tribe, the Massachusetts tribes of Ponkapoag and Mattakeeset, and other tribes at Namasket, Herring Pond, etc. SmokeSygnals displays a map of the Wampanoag imperium claiming territory encompassing all of southeast Massachusetts, part of Rhode Island, and lands including Boston, all of Cape Ann, and extending up to the Merrimac River. Silverman’s major souce for what he thinks is Wampanoag oral history was Linda Coombs; his book provides her inventions with an appearance of almost scholarly authority. But the Mashpee Wampanoag are the descendants of the “South Sea Indians” who were not the Pokanokets, although a few Pokanokets did move to Mashpee after King Philip’s War (1675-1676). The Pokanokets still exist around their ancestral home at Montaup/ Mount Hope. The Pocassets also still exist. The Ponkapoag and Mattakeesets still exist.

Moreover, the Titicut Reserve (where the Mashpee Wampanoag would like to build a casino) was explicitly established in 1664 to be perpetually held by the Mattakeeset tribe, just as the Pocasset Reserve was granted to Indians there in perpetuity. That the land has been stolen from them can be reversed, but not by pretending that they no longer exist. They are still here, to paraphrase the sentiment that brought pride to the Mashpee Wampanoag when William Apess was inspired in the 1830s to protest the theft of their land at Mashpee.

Thanksgiving in 2021, like the entire 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival and establishment, takes place amidst inter-tribal rivalry. Reducing the issues to colonists versus “the Indians” and ignoring all Indians except the most vocal Wampanoags, betrays an underlying racism that paternalistically allows unexamined assertions to be presented without question merely in order to avoid the regrettable mistakes of the past.

Six books provide insight into the complexity of Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims, and the Indians:

James Baker, Thanksgiving, The Biography of an American Holiday (University Press of New England, 2009).

James Baker, Made in America, The Pilgrim Story & How It Grew (General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2020.

David Silverman, This Land Was Their Land, The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019).

Jeremy Bangs, Indian Deeds, Land Transactions in Plymouth Colony, 1620-1691 (New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2002, 2008).

Jeremy Bangs, New Light on the Old Colony, Plymouth, the Dutch Context of Toleration, and Patterns of Pilgrim Commemoration (Brill, 2020), chapter 2: “Tribes and Land Reserves in Plymouth Colony.”

Jeremy Bangs, Josias Wompatuck and the Titicut Reserve of the Mattakeeset-Massachusetts Tribe (Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, 2nd edition, 2021, available in America print-on-demand from Lulu Publishing).

[1] John 4:36 [Generva Bible]– “And he that reapeth, receiueth wages, & gathereth frute vnto life eternal, that bothe he that soweth, & he yt [i.e. that] reapeth might reioyce together.” Psalm 33, verses 1-3 and 18-22 – “Reioyce in the Lord, o ye righteous: for it becometh vpright men to be thankeful. Praise ye [i.e. the] Lord with harpe: sing vnto him with viole & instrument of ten strings. Sing vnto him a new song: sing cheerfully with a loud voyce. For the worde of the Lord is righteous and his workes are faithful. He loueth righteousness & iudgement: the earth is ful of the goodness of ye Lord. […] Beholde, the eye of the Lord is vpon them that feare him, & vpon them, that trust in his mercie, To deliver their soules from death, and to preserue them in famine. Our soule waiteth for the Lord for he is our helpe and our shield. Surely our heart shal reioyce in him, because we trusted in his holie Name. Let they mercie, O Lord, be upon vs, as me trust in thee.”