President Obama will proclaim this Thursday to be a day of thanksgiving, following a tradition established by America’s first president. Many American community traditions are built around this single meal. A holiday that now includes family gatherings, charitable feasts, televised parades, and college football must have had a significant beginning. Some in-depth investigation proves that Thanksgiving Day marks the most intriguing saga in the history of America.
President George Washington first proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789 in response to a request by both Houses of Congress, “Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be--That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation.”
While most United States Presidents since George Washington have officially recognized a day of thanksgiving, we owe the establishment of a national holiday to the tenacious author of Mary Had a Little Lamb, Sarah Josepha Hale. In response to her 30-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day "of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father." Lincoln's proclamation, dated October 3, 1863, found many reasons for being thankful, even “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity.”
For the following 75 years, governors across the country followed each president's lead with state proclamations for celebrating Thanksgiving on the 4th Thursday in November. This tradition was upset in 1939 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed the recognition to be observed on the 3rd Thursday of November as a way of extending the holiday shopping period by one week. Twenty-three states observed Thanksgiving Day on November 23rd that year, FDR’s "Democratic" Thanksgiving. Twenty-three other states celebrated on November 30th, Lincoln's "Republican" Thanksgiving. Colorado and Texas accommodated by declaring both Thursdays to be holidays. Two years later, in 1941, Congress settled the matter by setting aside the 4th Thursday in November as the national legal holiday, Thanksgiving Day.
For 70 years, we have practiced a relatively politics-free Thanksgiving tradition. So, before the politically-correct crowd transforms the American Thanksgiving Day into yet another unremarkable day off of work, let’s remember the astonishing story behind the recognition. Because, amidst all of the date-placement hubbub, an historical turkey dinner is simply not a sufficient reason to establish a national holiday. Even a peaceful gathering of pilgrims and American “Indians” does not warrant the recognition of governors, presidents, and hundreds of millions of American citizens throughout the generations. The events that lead up to that milestone feast are indeed worthy of our remembering today, some 390 years later.
Nearly 100 years after Columbus completed his first voyage to the North American Continent, a new member of the Wampanoag community was born, in a village of about two thousand inhabitants known as Patuxet on present-day Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts. His parents named him Tisquantum, or “Squanto.”
As Squanto entered adulthood, European explorers began frequenting Patuxet and adjacent shores in search of trade, sites for settlements, and a passageway to the Pacific. The Patuxets began producing surpluses of maize and furs for exchange with friendly visitors while warding off those who were hostile.
An English ship under the command of Thomas Hunt ended its visit to Plymouth Bay in 1614 by luring Squanto and about twenty other Patuxets on board. Hunt kidnapped the Wampanoags and then seized about seven other Native Americans at Cape Cod before sailing for Málaga, Spain where he began selling his captives as slaves. A group of Spanish priests, motivated by religious charity, purchased the remaining captives in order to set them free, in the tradition of Christian redemption. While Squanto and his fellow North Americans were undoubtedly better off in their freedom, they were an ocean away from their home.
Over the next three years, Squanto somehow made his way to London, immersed in the English language and culture. His ambitions of returning home seemed plausible when he was hired as a guide on an expedition ship to Newfoundland, some 1,000 miles north of Plymouth Bay. Venturing south was not in the captain’s plans, so Squanto’s 1618 voyage to North America ended in what must have been an exasperating return trip to England.
During the voyage, Squanto became reacquainted with Thomas Dermer, who was an officer of the sister ship that had shanghaied him four years earlier. Dermer found a connection between Squanto’s plight and his own ambitions for America. Dermer persuaded New England colonizer Ferdinando Gorges to trust him with a ship to Plymouth Bay, using Squanto's knowledge of the region and his people. With Dermer at the helm, Squanto finally sailed for home in the spring of 1619.
In the five years of Squanto's absence, the Wampanoag villages had suffered an attack like none before. The silent, invisible assault of disease had devastated the natives of the New England coast. Squanto had come home to an abandoned Patuxet village. Without his long-anticipated homecoming, Squanto continued in his work for Dermer as a negotiator with the volatile Wampanoags. Sometime during the expedition, Squanto’s employer and patron, Thomas Dermer, was mortally wounded in a Wampanoag attack.
In the year following Squanto’s return home, a small ship named Mayflower arrived at Massachusetts after a long and treacherous voyage from Europe. The Pilgrim leaders crafted a 200-word compact and asked everyone to sign their name to it before stepping off the ship and onto the new land. The Mayflower Compact was the first written plan for self-determining government in the new world. The fundamental tenet of American civil government was born onboard the ship and was escorted into the Wild West by the epitome of oppressed Europeans searching for separatist freedom.
As The Mayflower sailed out of view, the Pilgrims found themselves utterly alone, with little food left from the voyage. As William Bradford, Governor of Massachusetts described it, “...they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor. ... these savage barbarians, when they met with them were readier to fill their sides full of arrows than otherwise. And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent... If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.”
As an unwelcome curiosity, the Wampanoags responded to the presence of the Pilgrims with distant observation, theft of their tools, and an occasional harassing arrow. The keepers of the flame that later ignited the words, “Of the people, by the people, for the people,” barely survived the winter that began immediately after their arrival to North America in November of 1620.
William Bradford recounted the Pilgrims’ struggles; “But that which was most sad and lamentable was, that in 2 or 3 months’ time half of their company died, especially in January; and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases, which this long voyage and their inaccommodate condition had brought upon them; so as there died some times 2 or 3 of a day, in the foresaid time; that of 100 and odd persons, scarce 50 remained. And of these in the time of most distress, there was but 6 or 7 persons, who, to their great commendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them; in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren.”
The coming of Spring must have seemed an arduous relief for those whose quest for freedom was so buffeted by the hostilities of nature and man. In March of 1621, a bold and enterprising Wampanoag named Samaset brought Squanto to the Pilgrims. Squanto’s own personal journey had met with historical purpose. His understanding of the Pilgrim’s language and religious motivations was the bridge to survival for the new colonists.
Samaset facilitated a peaceful arrangement for the Pilgrims to live in the former Patuxet Village. The Wampanoags returned the stolen tools and persuaded their great Sachem to travel to the settlement for lending his authority to the friendship and the terms of their treaty.
The first Thanksgiving dinner was an expression of appreciation to God by the remaining Pilgrims for having survived through the tough winter and being blessed by the native inhabitants who would teach them. The Pilgrims began a feast that included the wild turkeys that they had caught. But, with 90 Wampanoags responding to the invitation, there was not enough food for them all. Quietly, several braves disappeared into the woods and returned shortly with several freshly harvested deer to contribute to the celebration feast, which lasted for four days.
“After these things [Samaset] returned to his place called Sowams, some 40 mile from this place, but Squanto continued with them and was their interpreter, and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died. He was a native of this place, and scarce any left alive besides himself.” – The first-hand recollection of William Bradford.
Squanto's epic and tragic life story prepared him for a mission like no other. He ended up relating more with the Pilgrims than the Wampanoags and lived with the separatists for 18 months until he himself succumbed to disease. Several accounts quote Squanto as saying to William Bradford on his deathbed, "Pray for me, Governor, that I might go to the Englishmen's God in heaven." Squanto breathed his last in November of 1622. He could not have known the essential role that he played in keeping the embers of freedom alive by ensuring the survival of the Mayflower Compact.
It has now been more than 150 years since Sarah Josepha Hale worked so diligently to maintain the memory of the important events that were already 200 years old. It is a worthy tradition to gather with those we love to share an enormous meal of turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, followed by pumpkin pie. This year, when we pause for giving thanks, let us remember the remarkable lives of the Pilgrims, the Spanish priests, and Tisquantum, whose endeavors so long ago planted the seeds of freedom that we still nurture today.