Thanksgiving History

By Christopher Gillett

Thanksgiving is Nov. 24 this year and many students and faculty will be home celebrating with family. For many reasons, its popular history is often mythologized, debated or incomplete.

Marcelle Wilson, a history professor at Youngstown State University teaches select problems in European history, which focuses on Colonial American history. She explained the history of Thanksgiving, and why the pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

“[The first Thanksgiving] was in December of 1619 and that was actually a celebration to thank God for the fact that [the Pilgrims] had made a safe journey over to the New World,” Wilson said.

The Pilgrims were Puritans, a denomination of Protestant Christianity originating in England. Puritans believed the Protestant Reformation had not gone far enough in removing the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Christianity. They saw other Protestant denominations like Anglicanism and Lutheranism as too Catholic.

They played a major role in 1600s English politics and at one point England was governed by a Puritan dictator, Oliver Cromwell. The more moderate religious and political factions fought against the Puritans, which encouraged many of the Puritans to leave England. First, they went to the Netherlands, but were unsatisfied, so they headed for the Americas

Wilson said when the Puritans celebrated Thanksgiving, they lacked cuisine now associated with Thanksgiving dinner.

“They might have had turkey, but they probably would’ve also had venison and other wild animals that were available,” Wilson said. “It would’ve just been a bounty of simple foods that were available at the time and the pumpkin pie that we really relish today would not have been there.”

According to the Savannah Morning News, the pilgrims also did not wear the famous belt buckle hats at the first Thanksgiving. Much like the Viking horn helmet, the belt buckle hat is a chronological error. The fashion choice did not become prominent until the 1600s.

Another major myth revolves around the Puritan settlers’ interaction with the Indigenous population. The relationship between the Puritan settlers and Native Americans was not very cordial and is historically unlikely many Indigenous peoples attended the first Thanksgiving.

Two decades after the first Thanksgiving, the Puritan colonies launched a war against the Pequot people, which culminated in the Pilgrims massacring much of the Indigenous population, in what is known as the Mystic Massacre.

There were dissenters to the Puritan leaders who had better relations with the Indigenous people like Roger Williams, who was exiled from the Massachusetts Colony and founded the Rhode Island Colony.

As the narrative built up around the Pilgrims, the 13 Colonies evolved into the United States. George Washington was the first president to commemorate Thanksgiving nationally. Wilson said she believes the mythology around Thanksgiving developed because it kept the country united.

“The truth isn’t very palatable. Also, it’s something that brings the country together and unites us. We want to celebrate and have a positive experience,” Wilson said.

The university will be honoring Thanksgiving in a less traditional form with Friendsgiving on Nov. 17 from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Chestnut Room at Kilcawley Center. The event will host a food and item drive alongside a full Thanksgiving dinner. Students are encouraged to register on YSU’s website.