1621: A Historian Looks Anew at Thanksgiving

“A Thanksgiving for plenty. O Most merciful Father, which of thy gracious goodness hast heard the devout prayers of thy church, and turned our dearth and scarcity into cheapnesse and plenty: we giue thee humble thankes for this thy special bounty, beseeching thee to continue this thy louing kindnes unto vs, that our land may yeild vs her fruits of increase, to thy glory and our comfort, through Iesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

This prayer of Thanksgiving was not used by the Pilgrims in 1621, but with these words we must begin, if we want to assess the claims that, “The 1621 gathering in Plymouth was not a religious gathering but most likely a harvest celebration much like those the English had known in farming communities back home,” [1] or that the Pilgrims’ rejoicing together in 1621 was a harvest home best described as a “secular event.” [2] The Pilgrims did not use that specific prayer of thanksgiving for a plenteous harvest for the reason that its words are found among those “stinted prayers” prescribed in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer and thereby required by state authority to be used by all Englishmen. Although the Pilgrims preferred extemporaneous prayer, these words from the Book of Common Prayer are exactly what “the English had known in farming communities back home,” repeating them year after year in celebrations where, by the combined authority of state and church, a harvest home simply was not a “secular event.”

Edward Winslow, in Mourt’s Relation, has given us a brief description of the colonists’ first harvest celebration. Wheat and Indian corn had grown well; barley he described as “indifferently good” [3]; but pease were “not worth the gathering.”[4] Winslow continues: “Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent foure men on fowling; so that we might after a more speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They foure in one day killed as much fowle as, with a little help besid, served the company almost a weeke. At which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deere, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not alwayes so plentifull, as it was at this time, with us, yet by goodnesse of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.”[5]

Governor William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation, reported that fishing had been good all summer, and, in the fall, “begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached […] And besides water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, etc.”[6] One would suppose that Bradford’s text justifies the assumption that turkey was included when the four Pilgrim hunters returned with “much fowle.” James Deetz, an archaeologist and anthropologist who enjoyed making iconoclastic pronouncements about Pilgrim history, opined, however, that , “As for turkeys, it is less than likely, though not impossible, that some may have been taken as well.” How does he arrive at “less than likely”? Deetz surmises that the plentiful presence of migrating waterfowl made shooting turkeys inefficient. (Forget Bradford!) Besides, writes Deetz, “Bradford distinguished between fowl/waterfowl and turkeys, and while turkeys are fowl, the fowl mentioned by Winslow were almost certainly ducks and geese, and, therefore, fall into Bradford’s fowl/waterfowl category.” Bradford’s text mentions fowl, then divides that general category into waterfowl, on the one hand, and land birds, on the other, specifically naming turkeys, “of which they took many.” Bradford does not place turkeys over against a “fowl/waterfowl category.” Ignoring the careful practice of categorization that characterizes much seventeenth-century thought (influenced by the philosopher Petrus Ramus) and is here in a simple form expressed by Bradford, Deetz stretches a quasi-analytical examination of Bradford’s use of vocabulary to reach a non-sensical conclusion, whose only purpose seems to be its denial that today’s Thanksgiving turkey dinner has even a remote origin in the festivities of 1621.

“The most remarkable thing about Winslow’s brief account is that it makes no mention of giving thanks,” writes Deetz, who is clearly the inspiration for Grace and Bruchac’s version, that, “The English never once used the word ‘thanksgiving’ in association with their 1621 harvest celebration.” How are we to understand this omission? Does it mean there was no Thanksgiving?

Despite the nearly total absence of any mention by the Pilgrims of witchcraft (a topic noticed explicitly only twice in all their colony’s court records – inconclusively and without any convictions), the Deetzes’ book devotes an entire chapter to the subject of witchcraft in Plymouth Colony. “There Be Witches Too Many” is the misleading title. Magical beliefs and superstition having been common in England and obviously present in other parts of New England, “It is not possible that the men, women, and children who settled in Plymouth Colony would have been free of such influences,” write the Deetzes; “[…] such beliefs would be taken for granted, part of a popular culture that did not need to be detailed.” Well and good — but how is it, then, that one must assume that the Pilgrims, whose history was called into existence by a shared religious conviction and vision, were “free of such influences” (religious influences) when it came to their harvest celebration?

A more careful examination of Winslow’s vocabulary and of the specific cultural context in which he wrote will illuminate the implications of the words he did choose, indicating the assumptions of that culture “that did not need to be detailed.” Among many examples of the contextual meaning of Winslow’s words, his assertion that, “the Civill Magistrate is the Minister of God, a Revenger to execute wrath on him that doeth evil,” typifies the implications of his vocabulary. It also reveals Winslow’ expectations of his audience. He did not need to state in so many words that he was referring to Romans 13:4. St. Paul was commenting on “the powers that be [and that] are ordeined of God,” when he wrote in that verse that, “he is the minister of God for thy wealth: but if thou do evil, feare: for he beareth not the sworde for nought: for he is the minister of God to take vengeance on him that doeth evil.” The Pilgrims and others in the Puritan and Separatist tradition used the Geneva Bible translation of 1560, where a marginal note explains that, in the Greek text, the verse reads “a revenger with wrath.” Winslow obviously knew that, and he could presume that his readers knew it, too.
When Winslow described the Pilgrims’ intention, “after a more speciall manner [to] rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours,” he was alluding to John 4: 36 and to Psalm 33. The first is, “And he that reapeth, receiueth wages, & gathereth frute vnto life eternal, that bothe he that soweth, & he yt [that] reapeth, might reioyce together.”

Psalm 33, verses 1-5 and 18-22:

Reioyce in the Lord, ô ye righteous: for it becometh vpright men to be thankeful.
Praise ye [the] Lord with harpe: sing vnto him with viole & instrument of ten strings
Sing vnto him a new song: sing cheerfully with a loud voyce.
For the worde of the Lord is righteous and his workes are faithful.
He loueth righteousness & iudgement: the earth is ful of the goodness of ye Lord.
Beholde, the eye of the Lord is vpon them that feare him, & vpon them, that trust in his mercie,
To deliver their soules from death, and to preserue them in famine.
Our soule waiteth for the Lord: for he is our helpe and our shield.
Surely our heart shal reioyce in him, because we trusted in his holie Name.
Let they mercie, ô Lord, be upon vs, as we trust in thee.

The upright, whose souls will be delivered from death and who are preserved from present famine, are enjoined by the Psalmist to be thankful. The marginal interpretation in the Geneva Bible, however, explains that the specific form described is no longer literally required: “to sing on instruments was a parte of the ceremonial service of the Temple, which doeth no more apperteine.” What was appropriate, now? The established, traditional forms of Anglican liturgy, or of recurrent Catholic festivals – obviously not! Puritans had not yet become dominant in England and had not yet reformed England’s calendar of medieval superstition, so Calvinist days of thanksgiving or penitence had not yet taken shape there. Radical Protestants like the Pilgrims looked for Christian, biblical precedents. Games and feasting were biblical. Everyone was familiar with the rhymed version of Psalm 33, by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins. “Our soule in God hath ioy and game / reioycing in his might: For why? In his most holy Name / we hope and much delight.” “A day of feasting and ioye” was the biblical precedent provided by the celebration of Purim established in Esther 9: 18-22. {The Old Testament Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 16: 13-14) was a harvest festival lasting “seuen daies, when thou hast gathered in thy corne, and thy wine. And thou shalt reioyce in thy feast, thou, and they sonne, and thy daughter, and thy servant, and thy maid, and the Levite and the stranger, and the fatherles, and the widow, that are within thy gates.” The biblical injunction to include the “stranger” may have led to the Pilgrims’ inviting their Native neighbors to rejoice with them.}*

Their exile in Leiden, Holland, had provided the Pilgrims with an even more explicit pattern for how a Reformed people could express its thanks to God. “Every year throughout the city a General Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving [was] held and celebrated on the Third of October, to thank and praise God Almighty that he so mercifully had saved the city from her enemies,” wrote William Brewster’s friend, Leiden’s mayor, publisher, and historian, Jan Orlers, describing the celebration of the lifting of Leiden’s siege in 1574. In Leiden, bread and fish brought in to revive the city’s starving survivors (half the people had died) gave a parallel with the New Testament story of the feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14: 13-21; Mk. 6: 34-44; Jn. 6: 5-13). The celebration included feasting preceded by prayers of thanksgiving. Festivities lasted several days, with games, militia reviews, and general jollity, besides a free market fair. Leiden’s Thanksgiving on October 3 is not the only source (all agrarian communities have harvest thanksgivings), but it is one of the important sources for understanding how the Pilgrims chose to give form to their thankful rejoicing together in a more special manner. They thanked God for their preservation during their first year in Plymouth, where, as in Leiden’s siege, half the community had died, leaving the survivors to hope for and depend on divine protection and providence.

Returning to the historical sources for a contextual understanding of Winslow’s words brings no shocking revelations. The Pilgrim leaders undeniably conceived of their lives in religious ways. A thankless or secular harvest festival was unthinkable.

The interpretive obtuseness indicated by the recent revised version of the 1621 Thanksgiving is not, however, isolated. “The colonists thought they had a right to help themselves to whatever they pleased,” we are told. Never mind that Winslow details the efforts, ultimately successful after several months, to locate and pay Native owners of corn removed from storage baskets – to provide compensation for what must have looked like theft. He repeatedly expressed the Pilgrims’ desire to make it clear that those particular colonists would neither practice nor condone theft from the Indians. Grace and Bruchac also proclaim to their audience of school children that the Pilgrims robbed Indian graves, despite Winslow’s explicit statement to the contrary. Obviously one must assume that the Pilgrims were self-serving liars. Winslow writes that coming on “a bow with rotted arrows” in a mound Pilgrim explorers were investigating, “we supposed there were many other things, but because we deemed them graves, we put in the bow again and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransack their sepulchres.” The Pilgrims later removed some objects from the grave of a European sailor but avoided disturbing what they recognized as Indian graves. Contrasting with the grossly insensitive, lying, thieving Pilgrims, the Indians are presented as neo-Romantic idealists who “considered themselves caretakers of this land […] owned by none, but held and used with respect by all.” (In point of fact, Native land tenure in the 17th century was personal and hereditary; see my book Indian Deeds, Land Transactions in Plymouth Colony, 1620-1691 (Boston: N.E.H.G.S., 2002). Communal use appears in the 19th century as a response then to new circumstances.) Sentimental photographs of high quality continue the maudlin iconography of Indians as last representatives of a fine and more noble pristine past, oppressed by crude invaders.

What is most remarkable is that the National Geographic could get it so wrong! (A few years ago The National Geographic Magazine repeated the fantasy that the so-called Mayflower Barn in England was built with timbers from the ship, even though that myth was expertly demolished more than eighty years ago.) Grace and Bruchac do not pretend to be professional historians and their reliance on the anonymous contribution represented by the phrase “with Plimoth Plantation” did not save them from repeating stereotypical myths that arose in the 19th century as a response to the dominant and equally unrealistic glorification of the Pilgrims as the embodiment of all virtue.

Our knowledge of the 1621 Thanksgiving comes from Winslow and Bradford. Winslow’s choice of words, understood by his contemporaries, implies to us that the Pilgrims gave thanks to God for their preservation and for the plenty that gave hope for the future. Winslow specifically tells us that the colonists sat down with their Native neighbors and enjoyed several days of peaceful rejoicing together. It is a history with potent symbolism, and it needs neither apology nor distortion.

*The sentence in brackets { }in paragraph 9, referring to the Feast of the Tabernacles, does not appear in the Mayflower Quarterly article, having been lost through computer problems.

[1] Quotation from “Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac, with Plimoth Plantation, Photographs by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson,” 1621, A New Look at Thanksgiving (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2001, p. 39.

[2] Quotation from James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Lives, Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (New York: W. H. Freeeman, 2000), p. 9.
[notes 3-6 as provided by the editors of Mayflower Quarterly]
[3] Mourt’s Relation, published in cooperation with Plimoth Plantation by Applewood Books, Bedford MA, Edited by Dwight B. Heath from the original text of 1622 and copyright 1963 by Dwight B. Heath, p. 82. ISBN: 0-918222-84-2.
[4] ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647 by William Bradford. A new edition by Samuel Eliot Morison; First published Sept. 19, 1952; 21st printing Jan. 2001, p. 90.

Jeremy Bangs (Ph.D. Leiden, 1976) writes about Dutch cultural history, the Pilgrims, and Plymouth Colony. Among his books are: Church Art and Architecture in the Low Countries before 1566 (1997), The Seventeenth-Century Town Records of Scituate, Massachusetts (3 vols., 1997, 1999, 2001), Indian Deeds, Land Transactions in Plymouth Colony, 1620-1699 (2002), and Pilgrim Edward Winslow, New England’s First International Diplomat (2004). He is the author of articles about the Dutch “Remonstrants” and the “Pilgrim Fathers” in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Protestantism (Hans Hillerbrand, ed.). Bangs’ many publications on Pilgrim topics began with articles in The Mayflower Quarterly.

from The Mayflower Quarterly, 70, nr. 3 (September, 2004), pp. 225-230

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