Thanksgiving myths? Say it ain’t so! Yet in History 117, students are reading a handful of short, insightful essays by Edward O’Donnell and Charles Mann that help situate the traditional story of Thanksgiving into a more complicated narrative borne in the shadows of the Columbian Exchange. Those with a particular interest in the Pilgrims might also appreciate this longer article by John Humins (available via JSTOR) on the complicated political and diplomatic intrigue behind the scenes of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. When Pilgrim separatists arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they thought they were settling in Northern Virginia. In some ways, they found a similar dynamic with Wampanoag Indians as John Smith and the Jamestown settlers had discovered several years earlier with the Powhatan Indians. In other words, as foreigners they were originally sized up as pawns in the political and imperial battles of the indigenous populations. Humins focuses his attention on the tensions between two Indians: Squanto and Massasoit.
In class, we also discussed ways to use the Thanksgiving story as an illustration of the evolving Puritan worldview. At first, Puritans held many days of prayer, fasting and thanksgiving, but they avoided celebrations of Christmas and Easter. Puritan settlements in New England expanded rapidly throughout much of the seventeenth century, offering the world a “city upon a hill,” as John Winthrop famously called it, but also soon demonstrated the tensions in applying the dictates of covenant theology to the realities of everyday life. The civil wars in England, as well as pressures from the Indians and mercantile trade, eventually conspired to shift the strict Calvinist dogma of the Puritan faithful into a more secular “Yankee” culture. Religious faith still mattered in Puritan (now Congregational) New England, but so did other values.