IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

All about T’giving, a uniquely American holiday

In this special book excerpt, find out why we gather together every last Thursday of November to celebrate family and tradition.
/ Source: TODAY

When we think about Thanksgiving we tend to think about family, eating turkey and watching football. But it's also a holiday about history. Edward Bleier, author of “The Thanksgiving Ceremony, was invited onto "Today" to explain the origins of this uniquely American event. Here's an excerpt from his book.

The history of Thanksgiving
What are the first words that leap to mind when you think of Thanksgiving?

Probably the Pilgrims, the Mayflower, Plymouth, turkey, the Indians, 1621, and football — though not necessarily in that order. Less likely are the Vikings; the Spanish; African slaves; 1526; French Protestants; St. Augustine, Florida; New Mexico; the Dutch; the London Company; and Jamestown, Virginia.

The latter all played a role, earlier than the Pilgrims, in the settlement of what was later to become the United States (not to mention 30,000 b.c., the estimated date of America’s earliest tribal harvest feasts, many millennia before Columbus stumbled on Western Hemisphere shores).

But traditions have a way of enduring, and the Thanksgiving story we’re most familiar with has its roots in the early days of Plymouth Rock, in 1620. To recount this story, we first must start out, as the Pilgrims did, on the other side of the Atlantic. Let’s revisit what was happening in England in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

A key conflict of the time converged on religious issues-between Rome and “reformers.” And given the paramount importance of faith in daily life, it was only natural that spiritual allegiance would inform the movement of people and ideas at this seminal juncture in European Colonialism.

So who were these Pilgrims and why did they leave their motherland in Great Britain? After the Protestant Reformation-the epic break from Roman Catholicism that produced the Church of England-protest over religious reforms continued. To some, the Anglican Church was a mirror image of the Vatican, and they called for its purification. These “Puritans” came in greater and lesser shades of zeal, but for the purest of the pure, nothing short of complete and strict fundamentalism was satisfactory.

They were intolerant of many things. For example, they abhorred the “excesses” of the alehouse and the Shakespearean stage. They called for a return to the simplicity of biblical days and an end to the robes and rituals of a “corrupt” clergy. But dissent was a risky business in England. The Separatist cult hardly endeared itself to the Crown, and was soon pushed into hiding or out of the country.

One splinter group had been charting reforms in the Midlands village of Scrooby. When they learned that King James I planned to “harry them from the land,” the Scrooby congregation found refuge by crossing the narrow North Sea that separates England from Holland, where they found greater religious tolerance among the Dutch. They fled Amsterdam in 1607-1608 and soon relocated to the coastal town of Leyden, also in the Netherlands. Yet in the gathering war with Catholic Spain, King James once again threatened. England forced its Dutch ally to suppress Separatist life. Taking stock of the growing dangers and hardships of exile in Holland-including the unorthodox pleasures luring Puritan children-a group of Pilgrims began to set their sights on America. They rallied the Virginia Company and London investors in support of their ocean voyage. In July 1620 the first group set sail from Leyden for Southhampton, from where they hoped to cross to the New World, and establish a community founded on their own austere religious beliefs.

Four maiden ships brought these “First Comers” to America. The best known, the Mayflower, set sail in September 1620. The Speedwell was forced to port after springing a leak and never completed its journey. At the English port of Plymouth, some of the Speedwell’s passengers were crammed aboard the Mayflower to join its original passengers for sixty-five days of seasickness in mostly rough seas. In November 1621 a vessel called the Fortune ferried thirty-five more people to American shores, and in July 1623 the wives and children joined other new colonists aboard the Anne and the Little James.

Aboard the Mayflower were such personalities as Plymouth Colony’s first governor, John Carver; William Bradford, its second; and William Brewster, whose Scrooby home had been an early crucible for the Pilgrims. One John Howland made history by cheating death. Plunged overboard in a storm, he held onto a rope until a sailor hauled him back on deck. His descendants include four American presidents: Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and George H. W. and George W. Bush.

But, of the 102 passengers onboard the Mayflower, only about half were Pilgrims, and they came to be known as the Saints. Their co-travelers, the so-called Strangers, were sundry fortune seekers, following earlier émigrés to the British tobacco settlement in Virginia.

Why the ship never made it to Virginia is hotly debated. Some historians believe that the Pilgrim Separatists saw New England as a safer haven from Anglican control because the Crown was already established in Virginia. Others argue that the Dutch, hoping to avoid English settlement in New Amsterdam, coaxed those guiding the Mayflower northward with bribes. Still others credit storms and navigational gaffes for the Provincetown Harbor landing. Adding to the suspense are historical rumors of a hijacking plot.

We may never satisfy our curiosity about the reasons, but we do know one thing: When it became clear that anchors would drop well north of Virginia Company turf, conflict broke out aboard the Mayflower. The Strangers declared themselves exempt from Pilgrim control. Fearing mutiny, the Pilgrim leaders then drafted an agreement of self-rule. A blueprint for autonomous government, the Mayflower Compact won the endorsement of nearly all the adult men.

Much has been made over this plan for a “civil Body Politick,” and justly so. What the Mayflower passengers were creating was the precursor for subsequent American governance and constitutional agreements. Every year, it stipulated, the Pilgrims would convene a “General Court to elect the governor and assistants, enact laws, and levy taxes.” The Framers of the Constitution clearly took heed and established formal days for elections.

So where did the Pilgrims finally land that November-and what did they know about their destination? This much seems clear: They made landfall at Cape Cod and had maps and guidebooks of New England marking “Plimouth.” They were aware of the rich fishing around Cape Cod and had intelligence about the indigenous population who had been ravaged and decimated by diseases borne by earlier visitors from Europe. A number of historians trace the source of information to a Wampanoag Native called Tisquantum, or Squanto.

The Wampanoag belonged to a large confederacy of Algonquin-speaking tribes called the League of the Delaware. For roughly a century these farmers, hunters, and fishermen encountered European explorers whose intentions and power were cause for concern. The traditional custom of the Native tribes was to offer help and hospitality to those in need, yet a growing mistrust of the white intruders-particularly slave merchants who raided indigenous communities and left illness in their wake-discouraged the Natives from their traditional practices. By 1620, the Wampanoag nation had dwindled to fewer than two thousand from some twelve thousand only two decades before.

A pivotal character in the unfolding colonial drama, Squanto possessed vital skills, including fluency in English, that secured his place in history. The historic speculation is that in 1605, fifteen years before the arrival of the Pilgrims, Squanto journeyed to and from England with a British explorer, Captain John Weymouth, who all but adopted him as a son. Squanto was later taken captive by a British slaver and spirited off to the Caribbean Islands.

Squanto’s odyssey is the stuff of legends. Highlights include escaping Spain and finding his way back to England and Captain Weymouth, who then paid for his voyage back to America. Among his various Atlantic crossings, possibly totaling six, Squanto docked at what was to become Maine, Newfoundland, and his native Massachusetts.

From his final landing in Massachusetts, he reportedly trekked by foot to his boyhood village of Patuxet, where he found skeletons strewn everywhere. As in so many other Indian communities, disease had ravaged the village. Squanto and a sachem, or chief, named Samoset-another English speaker who had joined him on the return voyage from England-went to live with a neighboring Wampanoag tribe at Pokanoket, home of the nation’s Grand Sachem, Massasoit. Empty Patuxet was up for grabs.

When the Pilgrims arrived there, they found the site ready to inhabit: cleared fields, planted corn, a fresh-water brook, and a harbor. Their search for a home in the New World was over. They gave their new habitat a new name: Plymouth. The newcomers not only benefited from the village’s stocked provisions but they also enjoyed the assistance of its sole survivor, Squanto, who was dispatched by the great king Massasoit as translator, scout, and go-between.

With Squanto’s help, the colonists learned where to fish and find goods as well as how to plant corn, pumpkins, and squash. Without Squanto’s expertise and generosity, they may never have weathered the first New England winter. In his famous journal, Governor Bradford referred to this ordeal as the “Starving Time.” The wheat the Europeans had brought with them would not take to the rocky coastal soil, and their earth-covered shelters were no match for the cold.

During Squanto’s several months as Bradford’s houseguest, he taught the Pilgrims how to build round-roofed houses, or wigwams, from birch bark and elm. Squanto also shared with the Pilgrims medicinal plants plus venison and beaver skins to keep them warm. He showed them how to tap trees for maple sugar, turn fish into fertilizer, and dig and cook clams.

Squanto would stay in Plymouth Colony until succumbing to Indian fever in 1622. He embraced the Pilgrims as the brethren of his beloved English friend, John Weymouth, though his motives may not have been purely altruistic. His power intrigues, including a scheme to topple Massasoit, eventually branded him as traitor to the Wampanoag incumbent. Indeed, Squanto became a source of friction between the two cultures. Yet having made himself indispensable to the Pilgrims, he had powerful friends and protectors.

Bradford regarded Squanto as a divine emissary sent to show the Pilgrims their way in the wilderness. To the Puritans, the Indians were heathens, and as such, Satan’s children. But Squanto was different. As the only baptized Wampanoag (and an educated Christian to boot), he stood as proof that God was on the side of the Pilgrims, His Chosen People.

The Europeans regarded the diseases that destroyed the native populations as further evidence of their chosen status-a divine intervention that proved their primacy in the land. During their first winter, half of the Pilgrims died of scurvy, pneumonia, and other diseases. But the indigenous population had no prior exposure to the likes of smallpox, chicken pox, plague, measles, and influenza, and therefore no immunity. Germs wiped out entire Indian villages. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, interpreted the pandemic as “miraculous.”

Had plague not destroyed the Wampanoag, Massasoit might have greeted the European settlers less openly. But he, like his tribesmen, saw the carnage as punishment from the angered gods and this sapped his will to resist. With his ranks so desperately thinned, he found reason to ally with the Pilgrims against the hostile Naragansett tribe to the West. Massasoit’s reputation as great friend of Plymouth Colony owed to his legendary courage, rectitude, and receptivity to colonial peace vows.

In the spirit of the coming together, Pilgrim leader Myles Standish (the Mayflower’s Stranger captain) and Massasoit made a peace and friendship agreement through which the Indians turned over the former Patuxet village land to the Pilgrims for their new Plymouth Plantation. Completed in March 1621, the accord pledged the two parties to not harm one another and to be allies in times of war.

Several months later Massasoit dispatched a second aide to Plymouth Plantation. His name was Hobomok. Hobomok advised the colony in establishing fur-trading posts throughout the Northeast. Thanks to profits from fur, Plymouth was able to meet its rising expenditures. Native know-how and willingness to share it were indispensable to the Pilgrims’ survival.

By the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims had cause for good cheer. Their corn had grown high, their food supply would last the winter, and their good health they blessed in both church and wigwam. To rejoice in their bounty, they decided to hold a “thanks-giving” celebration. Governor Bradford chose December 13 as the date.

Just as the Puritans had long practiced thanksgiving rituals in England, the Algonquin nation, too, observed thanksgiving feasts.

On behalf of the Pilgrims, Captain Standish invited Squanto, Massasoit, Samoset, and their families to attend the feast. The hosts were in for a surprise when ninety Wampanoag relatives showed up. Massasoit quickly set his men to work, and they returned with provisions that lasted well beyond the three days of feasting: deer, fish, beans, squash, corn soup, pumpkin, corn bread, berries, wild turkeys, ducks, geese, and swans.

Relations with the settlers were not without advantage to the natives. That the Pilgrims generally paid the former landowners for their new tracts may also have contributed to their initial welcome. But this begs the question, Did the natives and the Pilgrims agree on what land purchase meant? For the colonists, buying land bestowed ownership; for the Natives, however, it granted perpetual use of the terrain and resources. Ultimately, this discord would haunt settler-Indian relations for centuries to come.

As new waves of English settlers arrived, they pressed their advantages over the Native population, whose early assistance was soon forgotten. Just as the Puritans had been persecuted in Europe, they began disparaging and undermining Native religion and customs. Conversion of the indigenous “savages” to Christianity, a prime rationale for English colonization, predisposed the militant Puritans to disregard indigenous life.

After 1640, missionaries settled converts in small communities of “Praying Indians”-where the merest trace of their traditional ritual and faith resulted in expulsion, where Puritan attire and church attendance were mandatory, and where tribal culture and leadership were all but doomed to extinction.

Within a generation of the first Thanksgiving, whatever friendly feelings had existed between the Pilgrims and the natives gave way to sharp tensions. The balance of power had begun its inexorable shift in the settlers’ favor.

By 1642, as many as twenty thousand freedom seekers had fled King Charles I’s repressive England. Most were Anglican Puritans who were brought over by the joint stock venture known first as the Plymouth Colony and later as the Massachusetts Bay Company.

Conflicts also arose within the settler population. Bradford lamented the passing of the old “comfortable fellowship” as the church split into factions and Plymouthers departed for other parts of the continent seeking their “manifest destiny” of more land. On the Indian side, Massasoit’s death in 1660 marked the last of the Wampanoags who felt loyally bound to the Pilgrims. Only three years earlier, Governor Bradford had also died.

Plymouth’s city limits would bear Indian heads impaled on stakes as a totem of bicultural hostility. By 1675, New England witnessed the genocidal ravages known as King Philip’s War. King Philip was also known as Metacomet, son of Massasoit. Unlike his father, Philip presided over a radicalization of Native policies and pledged to contain European expansion.

As the fur and wampum economy gave way to fishing and diversified trade, the Europeans no longer depended on wilderness skills to survive. Yet without the Natives’ early generosity in sharing these skills, the forefathers may never have stood a chance on American shores.

Excerpted from “The Thanksgiving Ceremony: New Traditions for America’s Family Feast,” by Edward Bleier (Author). Copyright © 2003. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.