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A Note from the Editor: The Primary Source that Led to Today’s Thanksgiving

(A Note from the Editor) Permanent link
Lynn Betlock

Lynn Betlock
Managing Editor

At the beginning of November my two children and I visited Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where we spent a happy day exploring the Wampanoag and English villages. Inside the visitor’s center, while my kids were busy trying on Pilgrim garb in the Family Discovery Center, I walked through the Thanksgiving: Memory, Myth and Meaning exhibit, and learned more about how Thanksgiving developed as a national holiday.


I knew I wanted to write about Thanksgiving for this week’s Weekly Genealogist, although I didn’t have a particular topic in mind. Last week I leafed through an engaging book in the NEHGS library, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (2009) by James W. Baker — but I still didn’t know what to write about.


Over the weekend, though, my husband inadvertently provided me with a topic. We’d been discussing our kids’ Thanksgiving books, and he said that it would be interesting to see a book that compared and contrasted all the different contemporary accounts of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth. Newly refreshed in my Pilgrim history, I said that such a book couldn’t be written because there was only one contemporary source for the 1621 feast that became the archetype for Thanksgiving.


The description of the event was written by Edward Winslow and published in Mourt’s Relation (1622), an account of the first year of Plymouth Colony: 


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, among 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 upon 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.


And even this one source had not been part of the national or, even New England, consciousness from 1622 to the present. As research librarian at Plimoth Plantation, Baker delved into the history of Thanksgiving observances more deeply after he and other staff members realized they couldn’t find any widespread Victorian examples of what we consider to be iconic autumnal “First Thanksgiving” images.


Baker discovered that Mourt’s Relation became scarce, so scarce that there were apparently no surviving copies in New England by the eighteenth century. Scholars used an abridged version that was part of Samuel Purchas’ Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes (1625), which was reprinted by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1802. “The Purchas version omitted the Winslow letter; so the 1621 event had been entirely forgotten! It was not until a copy of the original pamphlet was discovered in Philadelphia in 1820 that the famous harvest account was rediscovered . . . .The first republication of the full text of Mourt’s Relation appeared in 1841 in Rev. Alexander Young’s Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. Significantly, Young added a footnote to the description of the 1621 event, stating ‘This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England’ . . . Young’s judgment that the Pilgrim celebration and harvest was the ‘first’ Thanksgiving . . . of New England’ was slow to attract public attention, despite the support of Dr. George B. Cheever in his edition of the Mourt’s Relation text published in 1848. After all, the Thanksgiving holiday had developed a substantial historical tradition quite independent of the Pilgrims, emphasizing contemporary New England family reunions, dinners, balls, pumpkins, and turkeys.”


Not until after the turn of the twentieth century did the Pilgrim Thanksgiving begin to capture the public imagination and fuse the traditional harvest Thanksgiving with the 1621 feast in Plymouth described by Edward Winslow in Mourt’s Relation.


What a difference a primary source can make!


Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at NEHGS.

Posted by Jean Powers at 11/25/2011 08:40:00 AM | 

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