The Sordid History of Thanksgiving
'The Thanksgiving story was a way of asserting white racial authority throughout the land.'
We’re on break until Monday. In the meantime, we’re bringing you a selection of good posts from some friends of the blog.
This piece was originally published on Skipped History, a Substack blog in which satirist Ben Tumin speaks to leading historians about the overlooked and under-examined events, movements, and people that shaped American history. To subscribe to Skipped History, please click here.
by Ben Tumin for Skipped History
Ahead of turkey season, I spoke to Professor David J. Silverman about the marketing campaign that created Thanksgiving—and the white supremacist motivations that popularized the holiday. Professor Silverman is a historian of Native, colonial, and American racial history at George Washington University. He’s the author of This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving.
Ben: Professor Silverman, thank you so much for being here.
DS: Thanks for having me.
Ben: Of course! Let’s begin by discussing when Thanksgiving became a holiday. The famed “first Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621, but it took a lot longer for the country to commemorate the meal, is that right?
DS: Yes, as you allude, I think there's a widespread misconception that Thanksgiving was celebrated by colonists and then their white descendants in an unbroken chain from that 1621 event onward. That’s simply not true—Thanksgiving only became a national holiday in 1863.
Ben: Why did it take 240 years for that to happen?
DS: Well, to be clear, people in old England had been celebrating “Thanksgivings” since time immemorial. Like people all around the world, when droughts ended or when a good harvest came in, or when there was a military victory, the English would hold a Thanksgiving.
Accordingly, in colonial New England, colonists celebrated Thanksgivings whenever their local governments pronounced them. For many years you might have a Thanksgiving in the spring or the summer, but in New England the time became standardized in late fall / early winter when people closed their account books for the year and settled their debts (as good a reason as any to celebrate).
This was a decidedly northeastern or “Yankee” tradition. Thanksgiving only became a national holiday in 1863 amid the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln had the idea planted in his head that perhaps announcing a national holiday centered on the idea of offering thanks for what's good in our lives would be a unifying act.
So, he pronounced Thanksgiving and the tradition stuck from that point on. Notably, it was only also around the same time that the country began to associate the holiday with a shared feast between the English colonists of Plymouth and the surrounding Wampanoag Indians in 1621.
Ben: Right, it wasn’t exactly like the meal was famous for 240 years and then became the centerpiece of a holiday. Rather, that “first” Thanksgiving meal was kind of lost to history until a footnote in the 1840s?
DS: Yeah. I'm a historian, and I read a lot of footnotes, but believe me when I tell you, there are not a lot of famous footnotes out there. This is one of them.
In 1841, a minister named Alexander Young published one of the few primary source accounts of the Plymouth Colony. He included a four-line description of a feast hosted by the English and attended by the Wampanoags in 1621. To that description, he added a footnote stating “this was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England.”
No one had ever made that connection to 1621 before. But Young’s account was widely read by some of the leading lights of the era: Emerson, Thoreau, and the like. And those high-profile figures propagated the idea in the footnote until it became taken for granted among the broader public.
Ben: So the broader conception of Thanksgiving derives from Young’s footnote. Why did he include the note? Like, was he trying to start a cookbook empire and wanted people to purchase his harvest festival recipes?
DS: Young was part of a decades-long movement that tried to rescue the obscure, marginal, and unimportant Plymouth Colony from the dustbin of history. In reality, Plymouth Colony was never an important place.
Ben: Sorry to all readers and listeners from Plymouth.
DS: Eventually, Plymouth was annexed by the far larger Massachusetts colony and fell into the great stream of Massachusetts' history.
In the late 18th century, Plymouth town effectively started a booster campaign to drum up tourism. They started trumpeting this obscure band of religious separatists, whom they called the “pilgrims,” as the founders of colonial America. They held up the Mayflower Compact, the group’s agreement to abide by democratic rule, as some sort of template for the American constitution (it was not).
Gradually, their campaign started to generate notice, particularly again among the New England literati who had an outsized influence in American letters and politics. And I suspect that Young’s footnote was an extension of that movement.
Ben: Put another way, Thanksgiving started off as a very good marketing campaign by people in Plymouth.
DS: Yeah, that’s effectively correct.
Ben: It sounds like a town in the middle of Idaho erecting a giant potato statue and using that as a way to draw in tourists off the highway—but a lot more effective.
DS: In that analogy, Plymouth Rock is the potato. The historical record makes no mention of the rock—it’s only added to the Thanksgiving myth later on.
Ben: Okay, so the Plymouth Rock legend is made up, too. Broadly speaking, how did this kind of strange mythology become so embedded in the American psyche?
DS: After the Civil War, there were a host of social and political anxieties that the story of a shared peaceful meal between Native people and white colonists served to calm.
The first source of anxiety was immigration. In the 19th century, Catholic and later Jewish immigrants gave mainstream Protestant Americans agita. Conveniently, the growing Thanksgiving myth established Protestants as the colonial founding fathers; laudable figures who believed in democracy and religious freedom (despite the fact that, let's be clear, 17th-century Puritans had no interest in freedom of religion).
The second source of anxiety was racial upheaval. On one hand, African Americans had been set free by the Union victory in the Civil War, and the newly free Black population made many white people anxious. The Thanksgiving story was a way of asserting white racial authority throughout the land.
At the same time, wars against Native peoples on the Great Plains and in the West were winding to a close. The brutality of those wars—fair-minded historians now characterize them as genocide—deeply embarrassed much of the US public, particularly in the East. So, obscuring the viciousness of expansion into Indian Country was palatable to the white American public, and a myth contending Native people had dined with their colonizers and peacefully ceded their country did just that.
Ben: In reality, the participants of the 1621 meal merited the occasion little significance, is that right?
DS: That's right. There was a meal shared by the Wampanoags and the colonists of Plymouth. The two sides had a military alliance, but the meal was not all that critical in forming their relationship. Neither side ever mentioned it again.
And the English relationship with Indigenous peoples degenerated into utter bloodshed in 1675.
Ben: This is King Philip’s War.
DS: Yes, one of the most horrific wars in colonial American history. The history of Euro-American / Native American relations from the 16th century to the close of the 19th century is a tale of one bloody conflict after another.
So, celebrating a shared meal misses the point—deliberately. The only truth of the holiday is that there was a meal shared by the English and the Wampanoag. Everything else about the story is pure myth.
Ben: That leads to my last question, which I have to ask: what foods were at the Thanksgiving meal in 1621, and which ones are made up?
DS: Okay, there was almost certainly turkey. The primary account only says “fowl,” which also includes ducks and geese, but we have earlier accounts from that fall suggesting Plymouth colonists had bagged an awful lot of turkeys. So turkey was served that day.
That's about the only contemporary item that appeared at the meal in 1621. They didn’t have any livestock, so there was no butter. No cream. Probably no milk. And there was no sugar, so there goes half of our side dishes and dessert, right?
Instead, there would've been a heavy emphasis on fish (which I'm all in favor of). Clams, oysters, lobsters, eels, maybe striped bass. The Wampanoags contributed venison. And then mainly wild fruits and vegetables, whatever the English were growing in their garden. Maybe peas and some salad greens.
Let's be clear too, there was no dining table or chairs or silverware. The actual meal bears very little resemblance to modern Thanksgiving.
Ben: What I’m hearing is that if we really want to celebrate a mythical meal that helped reestablish a white supremacist hierarchy after the Civil War, we should order sushi and eat on the floor.
DS: Sounds about right.
Ben: Well, thanks again for being here, Professor Silverman. This was really illuminating.
DS: My great pleasure.