Welcome back to the 255! We would like to wish all of our students a happy Thanksgiving break. This week, we wanted to highlight the reality of the evolution of the holiday commonly known as Thanksgiving. A principle of our Division is to think critically and analytically about the ways in which we perceive things. It is our hope that after reading this post, you too will look at the celebration of Thanksgiving through a new and interesting historical lens! To learn more about the scholarship regarding Thanksgiving, we reached out to MMC’s Librarian, Mary Brown, who specializes in historical archives.
Thanksgiving scholarship is a rich topic. The concept of thanksgiving and the cultural artifact of sharing a meal are both so widespread that one branch of Thanksgiving scholarship is devoted to finding Thanksgivings that took place before the one that became famous, at Plymouth Plantation in 1621.1For some scholars, the first Thanksgiving doesn’t matter so much as how Americans have reshaped the holiday to suit their purposes; The American Presidency Project has a blog surveying presidential Thanksgiving proclamations from George Washington to Donald Trump, which together have reinforced an image of Thanksgiving as a celebration of peace and prosperity.2 Those who do focus on Plymouth in 1621 have scant primary sources on which to rely: William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Planation and Edward Winslow’s Mourt’s Relations: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622.3 . . . No Wampanoags left a written record.Mary Brown, MMC Librarian, Archivist, and Bibliographer
George Washington University professor David J. Silverman has tried to reconstruct the Wampanoags’ participation in that first Thanksgiving in This Land Was Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Planation, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving.4 . . . The English had demonstrated they were dangerous, appropriating stores of corn the Wampanoags had buried for themselves. And their small numbers did not make them look like powerful allies. On the other hand, their weakness meant they share Ousamequin’s interest in an alliance, and what they lacked in numbers they made up for in new military technology. Plus, given the division of opinion among the Wampanoag, it was important that Ousamequin exercise his role as leader. Accordingly, Ousamequin reached out to the Pilgrims, bringing his men to display his military capability as both tribute an a show of generosity.Mary Brown, MMC Librarian, Archivist, and Bibliographer
The Pilgrims knew they were a minority faith in their own land and one of many European groups scrabbling to establish themselves on the western Atlantic coast, and they could not afford to ignore Ousamequin’s offer. Their first winter had halved their numbers; the day the Pilgrims hosted Ousamequin and his ninety men there were fewer than fifty Pilgrims—men, women, and children. The first Thanksgiving may have set a precedent for many future ones in that it may not have been a stress-free gathering, but more like an opportunity for Wampanoags and Pilgrims to size each other up.Mary Brown, MMC Librarian, Archivist, and Bibliographer
Plymouth’s long-time governor William Bradford died in 1657, and Ousamequin between 1660 and 1662, the new leadership was not like the old, and it faced a new pressure: Puritans, a different group of English Protestants, were arriving en masse in what they called “New England.” Ousamequin’s son and successor, Wamsutta, alienated the Pilgrims by reaching out to this larger and more powerful group, and the Pilgrims turned on him . . . The history of the first Thanksgiving then became two histories. White Americans created a national memory of settlers peacefully enjoying the bounty of the land with “neighbors”. Wampanoag historians mourned the Pilgrims’ arrival as the start of the loss of everything dear to them.5Mary Brown, MMC Librarian, Archivist, and Bibliographer
Wampanoag historians rightly point to the great losses that can’t be restored, and to the need to work out a new equity for historically marginalized indigenous people in what’s become the United States. But a first step might be to work our way back in history to a first Thanksgiving when two very different groups of people met each other with respect, however wary, for what each brought to their table and started a working relationship that, however short a period of time it seems for us, was forty years for them.Mary Brown, MMC Librarian, Archivist, and Bibliographer
A special thanks to Mary Brown for enlightening us with this insight into the scholarship of Thanksgiving. Although the holiday’s history is quite controversial, it has become something central to the United States’ culture. In discussions with students, we inquired how they engage with Thanksgiving. The diversity in response reflects the wide variety of ideas, cultures, and traditions that lie within our school community. Some students stick to a pretty traditional U.S. Thanksgiving celebration, citing classic standbys like mashed potatoes, Mac and cheese, and cranberry sauce. Many students celebrate with food, gifts and music that reflect their family’s ethnic and/or immigrant heritage, and some students don’t celebrate the holiday in any form for cultural or religious reasons. We had some parade enthusiasts, but almost everyone is most excited to get some rest! These conversations highlight how MMC students embody the diversity that is a pillar of our community. Regardless of how you relate to the holiday, we wish everyone a wonderful break and look forward to seeing you all return for fall semester’s Final Stretch. As always, a gentle reminder to be kind, stay safe, and treat yourself to some rest and relaxation during your time off.