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Turkey and football, or a day of national thanks and unity?

HOUGHTON — To millions of Americans today, Thanksgiving is an annual day of football games and a turkey feast. But it was not always a national holiday and –well — most historians agree that it had little to do with the Pilgrims back in 1621. Author Dina Gilio-Whitaker, in her ThoughtCo.com essay, Fact and Fiction About the Origins of Thanksgiving: What you thought you knew about Thanksgiving is Probably Wrong, summed it up nicely:

“Among the origin stories of the United States, few are more mythologized than the Columbus discovery story and the Thanksgiving story. The Thanksgiving story as we know it today is a fanciful tale shrouded by myth and omissions of important facts.”

And as she points out, when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on December 16, 1620, they landed already armed with ample information, including maps and knowledge from explorers like Samuel de Champlain, who founded Quebec in 1608. The Spanish had settled in Florida in the mid-1500s, and for over a century before the Pilgrims arrived in the New World, there were already well-established European enclaves along the eastern seaboard.

Gilio-Whitaker further states that Plymouth Rock was actually the village of Patuxet, the ancestral land of the Wampanoag, which for untold generations, had been a well-managed landscape, cleared and maintained, for corn fields and other crops. This, she wrote, is contrary to the popular understanding of it as a “wilderness.” It was also the home of Squanto.

Squanto is famous in grade school histories for having taught the Pilgrims how to farm and fish, saving them from certain starvation. In truth, however, Squanto had been kidnapped as a child, sold into slavery, and sent to England where he learned how to speak English (making him very useful to the Pilgrims). Having escaped, he found passage back to his village in 1619, only to find the majority of his community dead, wiped out by a plague. But a few remained, and the day after the Pilgrims’ arrival, while foraging for food, they happened upon some households whose occupants were gone for the day, Gilio-Whitaker explained, which the Pilgrims happily robbed.

The Pilgrims had entered into a treaty of mutual protection with the Wampanoag under the leadership of Ousamequin (who comes down to us in history as “Massasoit”). In celebration, the two groups shared a meal together, which Gilio-Whitaker points out, is drawn from only two written records, neither of which “is very detailed and certainly not enough to conjecture the modern tale of Pilgrims having a Thanksgiving meal to than Indigenous people for their help that we are so familiar with.”

John M. Cunningham, writing for Britannica, concurred, writing:

“… the Pilgrims do not appear to have considered this meal a milestone worthy of special commemoration. No 17th-century reference to it exists beyond a letter written by Plymouth colonist Edward Winslow. For the Pilgrims, giving thanks for the autumn harvest wasn’t a new concept. As a tradition with roots in European harvest festivals and Christian religious observances, “days of thanksgiving” were fairly common among the colonists of New England. Throughout America’s colonial era, communities held their own unofficial Thanksgiving celebrations, and few people associated them with the Plymouth settlers.”

Cunningham wrote that while there is, indeed, historical evidence of a meal shared between the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony, there is no record of turkey having been part of the fare.

“For meat, the Wampanoag brought deer, and the Pilgrims provided wild ‘fowl,'” Cunningham wrote. “Strictly speaking, that ‘fowl’ could have been turkeys, which were native to the area, but historians think it was probably ducks or geese.”

By the opening of the 19th century, though, turkeys had become popular dish to serve on special occasions, he wrote. There were a few reasons for this.

“First, wrote Cunningham, “the bird was rather plentiful. One expert estimated that there were at least 10 million turkeys in America at the time of European contact.”

Secondly, turkeys were always available on a family farm for slaughter, and third, a single turkey was big enough to feed a family.

There are people who credit British author Charles Dickens’ 1843 book A Christmas Carol with creating the turkey as the holiday center piece, the turkey mentioned in Dickens book was a Christmas turkey. Credit, however, may more appropriately belong to American novelist Sarah Josepha Hale, who in 1827 wrote Northwood; a Tale of New England, in which he wrote of the bird being the main course of the Thanksgiving dinner.

“The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion,” she wrote on page 107, “being placed at the head of the table; and well it did become its lordly station, sending form the rich odour of its savoury stuffing, and finally covered with the frost of the basting.” However, she also listed, at the foot of the table, “a surloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and a joint of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend iinnumerablebowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter. A goose and pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the the table the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions, by that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie.”

Hale is probably the real credit behind a national day of Thanksgiving, as she ccampaignedfor years for such a holiday. Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular women’s magazine in 19th century America, wrote to President Abraham Lincoln in Sept., 1863. According to Robert McNamara, in his article, Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation (ThoughtCo.com), Hale mentioned in her letter that having such a national day of thanks-giving would establish a great union festival of America. Lincoln, at the time, was distracted with delivering an address at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, was as weary as the rest of the country of war. The address he contemplated, McNamara wrote, focused on the purpose of the Civil War.

Lincoln issued a proclamation on Oct. 3, 1863: A national day of Thanksgiving would be recognized and celebrated on the last Thursday of November, which in 1863, fell on Nov. 26. From a northern perspective, 1863 was a year to celebrate: On July 3, The Union Army of the Potomac, under General George Gordon Meade, had met and defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. In the Western Theater, General Ulysses S. Grant had successfully completed his Vicksburg Campaign, forcing Confederate General John Pemberton to surrender the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, along with 35,000 troops. Grant’s victory removed an entire Rebel army from the field of operations, and opened the entire length of the Mississippi River to Union control and Union shipping. At the same time, the same action cut the Confederacy in half, cutting off supplies of beef, leather, and other needed materiel from the eastern theater. It was a good year for giving thanks.

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