The First Thanksgivings
The great Civil War writer and novelist, Ambrose Bierce, wrote of the turkey: “[He] is a large bird whose flesh, when eaten on certain anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude.”
The first Thanksgiving in North American is popularly believed to have taken place at Plymouth Colony in 1621 with Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians who introduced turkey (and other fowl, in addition to lobster, fish, venison, and other game) to Pilgrims, along with cranberries, pumpkin, corn, and beans. (Early Pilgrims also write of eating eagles! Potatoes would be introduced later from South America and Mexico.)
But, as romantic and popular as the story is, it’s not quite accurate. The very FIRST Thanksgivings took place in what is today Florida. Probably the VERY earliest was that of the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who arrived in Florida in 1513 and gave thanks for landing safely in the New World. There were several Spanish Thanksgivings on the coasts of the New World—all many years before the Pilgrim feast on 1621. But the best documented was near what is today St. Augustine, Florida, on September 8, 1565, 56 years before the Pilgrim Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony. The Spanish Conquistador and explorer, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, landed on the Florida coast and held a Mass of Thanksgiving, the first Thanksgiving to be held in North America by white immigrants.
Journals about the event tell us that the local Timucuan Indians of the nearby native village of Seloy joined the feast and that they brought shell fish, berries, beans, corn, and the meats of gopher tortoise and iguana to the feast. Spanish “tapas” were served stuffed with various meats, including iguana! (So, but for a guirk of history, today Americans might be serving a Thanksgiving platter of iguana tamales!) But the Spanish were enamored with the wild turkey, just as the Pilgrims were, and later took them back to Spain to show the New World’s bounty.
Nevertheless, it is the 1621 gathering of Pilgrims and Native American Wampanoags Thanksgiving legend that is so embedded in our national character, that it is now a full-fledged 400-year-old tradition. And a big, crispy, golden-brown roasted turkey is at the heart of the legend. (Today, 88% of Americans serve roast turkey as the piece de resistance on their Thanksgiving table, according to the National Turkey Federation.)
The Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, has assembled all the nation’s Thanksgiving Proclamations dating back to 1723 through the current administration. Beginning first with the Spanish explorer Thanksgiving Masses in St. Augustin, Florida, in 1556 and two other southern coastal areas, followed by the most now-iconic 1621 Plymouth Colony Pilgrim Thanksgiving.
The tradition honoring the Pilgrim Thanksgiving was solidified with several Thanksgiving Proclamations issued by Colonial governments, then the Continental Congress and finally the U.S. government. The first government Proclamation was in 1723. During the early years of our nation’s Continental Congress, nine more proclamations were issued. In 1789, President George Washington in his first year issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation under the new Constitution. During colonial times and the early years of our nation’s formation, Thanksgiving was regarded as a deeply religious and solemn occasion to give thanks to the creator for all of the nation’s blessing and for freedom and prosperity.
Seventy-four years to the day after President George Washington issued the first U.S. government proclamation for Thanksgiving, on November 28, 1861, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation making the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” But the Confederate General Jefferson Davis had beat Lincoln to the punch, declaring that November 15, 1861 should be a thanksgiving “day of fasting, humiliation and prayer.”
Lincoln had created the annual holiday in response to the request of a 74-year-old magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote a letter to Lincoln on September 28, 1863, urging him to have the "day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival." "You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States,” she wrote. “it now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution." Ms. Hale had been advocating for a national Thanksgiving as the editor of the extremely popular Godey’s Lady’s Book. In her periodical she printed recipes and menus for the ideal Thanksgiving feast that included turkey, oysters, potatoes, macaroni, chicken pot pie, cranberries, and pie.
Diaries of Civil War soldiers tell of special dinners served on Thanksgiving. Various charitable organizations solicited donations of food including poultry, mince pies, sausages and fruit. One account notes that the Sanitary Commission put on a feed in the field that consisted of Turkey, Chicken, and Apples—but a day late. A soldier noted, “It isn’t the turkey, but the idea that we care for.”
Asa Bean, a surgeon in the Union Army, wrote describing his Thanksgiving dinner on November 27, 1862:
“There has been a surprise party here to Day for the Benefit of Soldiers and Nurses. They were furnished with a Thanksgiving Dinner roast Turkey; Chicken & Pigeon & Oysters Stewed. … I had a good dinner of Baked Chicken & Pudding Boiled potatoes, Turnip, Apple butter, cheese butter, Tea & Trimmings …we live well enough, but cannot Eat Much without being sick.”
Thanksgiving during wartime is especially bittersweet and poignant and American families were reminded of the bounty and good fortune they enjoyed at home while others around the world suffered warfare, poverty and starvation. Families who had loved ones in the armed forces overseas were especially reminded of sacrifice. During World War I, civilians on the home front were encouraged to cut back on food items such as sugar, meat, fats, and wheat so that food could be sent to troops fighting overseas. Many newspapers across the country printed alternative recipe ideas that cut back on food items, especially sugar. American families were inspired to grow their own gardens called “Victory gardens” and use homegrown food in their Thanksgiving meals instead of buying food from the local food market.
As part of his annual Thanksgiving Proclamation, President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 reminded Americans of the privations in Europe during the Great War: “I urge and suggest our duty in this our day of peace and abundance, to think in deep sympathy of the stricken peoples of the world upon whom the curse and terror of war has so pitilessly fallen, and to contribute out of our abundant means to the relief of their suffering.”
During World War II, efforts were made through charitable organizations and the government to serve Thanksgiving dinner to American troops. In 1943, the American people sent two liberty ships fully stocked with Thanksgiving foods, included, turkeys, trimmings, cranberry sauce, and even various pies, all sent throughout the European and Pacific theaters, all the way to the frontlines. In 1944, the government decided to provide a turkey dinner for all troops in the European Theater of Operations for Thanksgiving that year. That Thanksgiving, fresh fruit, vegetables and roast turkey had been distributed to all troops, a logistical miracle. The trucks of the mobile bakery companies also helped get the meal out. Some of the combat troops did not receive the special ration until one or two days after Thanksgiving, but it was generally considered a notable feat of distribution under great difficulties.
The wildly popular American artist, Norman Rockwell, created some of his most famous work for war-time Thanksgiving covers for The Saturday Evening Post during World War II. His most famous was the iconic scene of Gramma serving the turkey at the Thanksgiving with family gathered round the table for the November 1943 issue. The cover was Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” series inspired by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, known as the Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear. Another of Rockwell’s Thanksgiving wartime covers depicts a poor Italian girl wearing an American GI’s jacket and giving thanks for her meager fare she eats from a skillet. Italians and many other people around the world were starving during World War II, ravaged by war, poverty, pillaging, and genocide. GIs were shocked to see formerly prosperous European countries devastated and their people emaciated and begging. His Thanksgiving 1945 cover, “Mother and Son Peeling Potatoes,” shows a son in his GI uniform home on leave to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family during War II.
Thanksgiving is about who we are as Americans. Not only to celebrate our beneficence but to be grateful for our immense blessings. Is it not apropos that the turkey should be the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving feast? A unique all-American bird, a creature of the frontier, introduced to Puritan white settlers and Spanish Conquistadors by Native Americans and served with other bounty of the American continent: cranberries, potatoes, corn, beans, and pumpkin in pie. Mark Twain said it best: “Thanksgiving Day. Let us all give humble, hearty, and sincere thanks. All of us but the turkeys!”
Happy Thanksgiving from Notes from the Frontier to all of you!
PHOTOS: (1) A famous painting depicting the “first” Pilgrim Thanksgiving in 1621, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. It’s an idyllic scene that perpetuates the legend but is far from the truth. “The Pageant of a Nation,” circa 1913. Library of Congress. (2) Despite American legend, the first Thanksgiving was held in what is today St. Augustine, Florida, on September 8, 1565, 56 years before the Pilgrim Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony. The Spanish Conquistador and explorer, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, landed on the Florida coast and held a Mass of Thanksgiving, the first Thanksgiving to be held in North America by white immigrants. There were, in fact, two other Thanksgiving Masses held by other Spanish explorers in the New World, before the Pilgrim Thanksgiving in 1621. (3) The prevailing Thanksgiving tradition in America is fashioned after the Pilgrim 1621 legend with roast turkey as the centerpiece. (4 & 5) In 1789, President George Washington in his first year issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation under the new Constitution. (6 &7) Seventy-four years to the day after President George Washington issued the first U.S. government proclamation for Thanksgiving, on November 28, 1861, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation making the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise” and a national holiday. (8, 9 & 10) American artist, Norman Rockwell’s most famous war-time Thanksgiving covers for The Saturday Evening Post. (8) This iconic scene of Gramma serving the turkey at the Thanksgiving with generations of family gathered round the table was the famous cover of the Saturday Evening Post’s November 1943 issue during WWII, as part of Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” series. The cover was inspired by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, known as the Four Freedoms. Courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. (9) Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving 1945 cover “Mother and Son Peeling Potatoes.” The son in GI military dress made it home on leave to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family at the end of World War II. Courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. (10) Rockwell’s 1943 wartime cover for the Saturday Evening Post November 27, 1943, depicts a poor Italian girl wearing an American GI’s jacket and giving thanks for her meager fare she eats from a skillet. Italians and many other people around the world were starving during World War II, ravaged by war, poverty, pillaging, and genocide. Crops and gardens were bombed, trampled or pilfered, livestock killed or stolen. GIs were shocked to see formerly prosperous European countries devastated and their people emaciated and begging.
You may also find this related post interesting:
-The Truth About Thanksgiving
"The First Thanksgivings" was first posted on Facebook November 28, 2019
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