Jennie Augusta Brownscombe’s, “The First Thanksgiving.” is an iconic painting of the origins of the holiday. In decades past a copy was hung in most school rooms. It depicts a prayer being offered while Puritans sit at the dinner table with native American chiefs, as others sit or kneel nearby. This mythical depiction has been thoroughly debunked. Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, “The Thanksgiving Picture” is another iconic depiction of the modern Thanksgiving. Grandma is setting out a roast turkey, while Grandpa in suit and tie, and other smiling faces look on in eager anticipation.
Now young people are being encouraged to speak up at the Thanksgiving dinner table and challenge the ideals of white privilege, rather than “playing nice.” It might provoke a something nasty, but nasty disagreements are exactly the origins of Thanksgiving.
In 1517 Martin Luther challenged the supremacy of the Catholic Church, setting off the Reformation with major upheavals, new religious sects and disastrous wars. In 1534 Henry VIII formed separated the Anglican Church from Catholicism furthering religious disruption in England. The Puritans were a group that thought the Anglican Church needed to be further purified from its Catholic roots. The among the Puritans were several bound to make history, including William Brewster, William Bradford and John Smyth. The Puritans were persecuted for their beliefs and some were imprisoned in the early 1600’s.
England was at war with Catholic Spain which controlled the Low Countries, the area of today’s Belgium and the Netherlands. Religious wars in the Low Countries resulted in a Twelve-Year Treaty with Spain providing for some religious tolerance. The Puritans saw this as their opportunity to gain the freedom to practice their religion by leaving England. Several hundred emigrated to the Low Countries.
First in Amsterdam then in Leiden the Puritan community practiced their religion but suffered severe hardships. They were farmers from the countryside in England, but now were clothe weavers living in the cramped slums of Leiden.
By 1620 the Treaty with Spain was ending, and the re-emergence of Catholicism and new religious wars threatened. Rumors of a New World across the Atlantic offered promise. A small band of Puritans left Leiden and returned to England and bought passage to Jamestown by indenturing themselves to the Virginia Company.
After a long a difficult voyage they landed outside the Virginia territory and the terms of their indenture. To replace their indenture contracts they wrote the Mayflower Compact. The first winter was grueling and only half survived. After the harvest of 1621, 53 survivors and 90 American Indians held a feast. It was described by William Bradford, and depicted in the Brownscombe painting.
In the next sixteen years later many more Pilgrims came to Massachusetts creating strife with the native Americans. The Pilgrims also brought Old World diseases that killed off much of the local Pequot Indian tribe. By 1636 the Pequot population had collapsed from an estimate 8,000 to just 1,500. Then strife broke into open warfare that ended in 1637 with the killing of 400 to 700 Pequot at the Mystic massacre. Afterwards a bounty of 20 shillings was put on every Indian scalp, and 40 shillings for every captured Indian. Hundreds more were captured and sold into slavery in the West Indies.
In 1637 the good Christian Governor of Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop proclaimed the first official “Thanksgiving.” For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Massachusetts’s Governor was proclaimed to honor this bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won. It read, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”
Yes, maybe the young and old should speak up at the Thanksgiving dinner table and remind people that nasty violent disagreements between races and religions are exactly the origins of Thanksgiving. Or maybe while being aware of the past, we should celebrate and give thanks for all that we have today and put to rest the human horrors from times past.