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The True Story Of The First Thanksgiving

The Blue State Conservative

[Millions of school children have been taught the revisionist history that the first Thanksgiving was about the Pilgrims giving thanks to their Indian neighbors for saving them from starvation. Around this time of year, an historically accurate account of the first Thanksgiving was told on national radio. A few years ago, I compiled a lightly-edited transcript of that account, which appears below. Please enjoy and share “The True Story of the First Thanksgiving,” as it was narrated each November by the late nationally-syndicated radio host, Rush Limbaugh.]

The story of the Pilgrims began in the early part of the seventeenth century. The Church of England under King James I was persecuting anyone who did not recognize its absolute authority. Those who demanded freedom of worship were hunted down, imprisoned, and sometimes executed for their beliefs. A small group of separatists fled to Holland, where they established an outpost.

A decade later, about forty of the separatists decided to embark on a perilous journey to the New World, where they could live and worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience. On August 1, 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England carrying a total of 102 passengers, including forty Pilgrims led by William Bradford. On the journey, Bradford set up a contract that established laws that would govern the new settlement. The values and principles set forth in the Mayflower Compact were derived from the Bible.

Because of an unshakable belief in Divine Providence, the Pilgrims never doubted that their bold experiment would succeed. But their journey to the New World was long and arduous. When they landed in America, they found, according to Bradford’s detailed journal, a cold and desolate wilderness. There were no friends to greet them, he wrote, or houses to shelter them. There were no inns where they could find temporary lodging and no trading posts where they could buy food and other necessities. The numerous hardships they would encounter in the name of religious freedom were just beginning.

During the first winter, half of the Pilgrims, including Bradford’s wife, perished from starvation, sickness or exposure. When spring came, Indians taught the settlers how to plant corn, fish for cod and skin beavers for coats. Life improved on the margins, but the colony was still a long way from assured survival.

The original contract the Pilgrims entered into with their merchant sponsors in London called for everything they produced to go into a common store, with each member of the settlement entitled to one common share. All land they cleared and all houses they built belonged to the community. The plan was to distribute everything equally. No colony member owned anything beyond a proportionate share of the common output. Under this communal living arrangement, the colony’s most industrious members lacked incentive to produce as much as they could.

Soon, it became obvious that the collectivist system was not yielding enough food. Faced with mass starvation, Bradford decided on bold action, and assigned each family its own plot of land. With private property rights and personal incentive in play, food production began to soar. The Pilgrims scrapped the collectivist system that almost led to their demise. What Bradford wrote about the colony’s near-disastrous experiment in communal living should be taught to every child in America:

“…. this community was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and to retard much employment that would otherwise have been to its benefit and comfort. Young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine [complain] that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without compensation.” 

Under the new arrangement, every family was permitted to sell its excess crops and other products. The result? “This had very good success,” wrote Bradford, “for it made all hands industrious, so more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.”

With an abundance of food at hand, the Pilgrims set up trading posts and began to exchange goods with the Indians. The profits they earned enabled them to pay off their debts to their sponsors. News of the settlement’s prosperity attracted other Europeans, and precipitated what came to be known as The Great Puritan Migration.

Many of America’s schools incorrectly teach that the first Thanksgiving was an occasion where grateful Pilgrims thanked the Indians for saving them from starvation. But the true story of Thanksgiving is that of William Bradford giving thanks not to the Indians, but to God for the guidance and inspiration to establish a thriving colony, one that enabled the Pilgrims to generously share their plentiful bounty with their Indian neighbors at that first Thanksgiving.

Omitted in many classrooms is the historical fact that it was not Indians who saved the Pilgrims. Rather, it was free enterprise capitalism and Scripture, the latter of which was acknowledged on October 3, 1789 by America’s first president in his Thanksgiving Proclamation, a short historical document that every school child should read.

Image by GDJ at Pixabay.

Content syndicated from TheBlueStateConservative.com with permission.

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One Comment

  1. Reality & Myth regarding Thanksgiving / Marian T. Horvat. Ph.D.

    Thanksgiving as we know it today bears little resemblance to the supposed “first Thanksgiving” in 1621 at Plymouth. The festival with its deep Protestant roots is one shaped by myths, not real history, unlike Catholic feast days and Holy Days, firmly grounded in the events of the lives of Our Lord, Our Lady and the Saints.

    In fact, until the 19th century, Thanksgiving was strictly a Puritan event, without any influence on the rest of the American people, commemorated as a harvest day ‘fast and thanksgiving’ ceremony. Further, that “day” was celebrated spottily only in the New England States, in some regions and not others, and never on a fixed date.

    Some celebrated it as early as October, others as late as January. And some years in its earliest history, if the harvest was not good or the weather inclement, it was simply ignored. To fix an annual commemoratory feast, well, that would have just been too Catholic for Puritan tastes.

    Now, here is the really surprising data: Until the mid-19th century, the event of a feast shared by the first Puritans with the Wampanoag Indians in October of 1621 was completely unknown.

    It was a New Hampshire Episcopalian woman, Sarah Hale, editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Magazine, who came across a Puritain diary revealing the existence of the gathering of Pilgrims and Indians in 1621. She thought to take advantage of that forgotten commemoration in order to shape it into an “American” feast day.

    In 1845, she launched her “crusade” to make a Thanksgiving national feast, stumping relentlessly for the festival in her popular and influential magazine and barnstorming politicians, preachers and presidents. In Godey’s pages, the Pilgrims with their buckled hats, the feathered-banded Indians, and the turkey and pumpkin made their first appearance, along with sentimental short stories trumpeting New England Protestant values of simplicity, economy and patriotism.

    Sarah Hale was finally successful when Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 as one means to help mend the broken North and South relationship. It would be a national holiday of food and family values whose central point would be a meal and not religious covenant.

    Instead of being turned toward heaven, in fact, the day’s focus became home, family and nation, that is, America in its “providential role” as republic builder, America as the melting pot that took in all peoples and integrated them into the democratic ideal. Hale envisioned Thanksgiving as one way to bring Americans together much the same way that Protestant women later promoted the Pledge of Allegiance to foster patriotism and national unity, which is another story.

    Lincoln also established its official date as the final Thursday in November. Needless to say, the South was loathe to adopt any law coming from the hated Lincoln, and it would take many years for the holiday to achieve its goal or begin to resemble the distinctly American secular holiday we know today.

    Immigrant Catholics, who still observed the Catholic feasts and holydays, were also reluctant to embrace this strictly secular feast, which they considered Protestant. It was Cardinal of Baltimore James Gibbons (1834-1921), the great champion of Americanism and religious liberty, who was the first Prelate to make public efforts to integrate Catholics into the Protestant festival.

    In 1888, he published in his archdiocesan paper a circular where he called on his priests to recite this ecumenical prayer at the close of Mass on Thanksgiving Day directing its observance: “The faithful of the Archdiocese having in common with our fellow citizens, deep cause for gratitude to the Giver of every good and perfect gift, will, we feel confident, be equally desirous of evincing their spirit of thanksgiving.”

    This won him points with the New York Herald, who praised him highly for the act, and with President Cleveland. But, if the Cardinal’s gesture won him admiration from Protestant quarters, it met with strong protest from many fellow Prelates, especially those in the South. Bishop Benjamin J. Keiley of Savannah (GA), complained publicly that Gibbons had “out-heroded Herod” by inducing Catholics to recognize “the damnably Puritanical substitute for Christmas.” (1)

    It would take many years – after the more generalized secularization and commercialization of Thanksgiving that occurred in the post World War I era – before Catholics as a body would accept the secular holiday. The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia makes this revealing remark: “Catholic recognition of the day by special religious features has only been of comparatively recent date and not as yet of official general custom.”

    So, what is the real history of the real “first thanksgiving”? Summarizing, it could hardly be more different from the story of Pilgrims and Indians meeting in ecumenical joy at a feast of fellowship, the fable we know today.

    The Plymouth Pilgrims followed their English counterparts who despised the many Catholic holydays and feast days. But they went a step further, thinking the Church of England beyond reform because it was still too Roman. According to them, all these Popish inventions involved too much ceremony, too much celebration and were unsupported by Scriptures.

    So, the Puritans reduced the holydays and feast days to one: the Sabbath. These first Pilgrims, who landed on American soil, hated holydays and festivity so much that they even abolished Christmas and Easter.

    A custom developed among the Pilgrims, however, that of declaring special days of thanksgiving in response to God’s providence. The day of thanksgiving was preceded by a day of fast. The majority of the second day was spent in their temple houses praying, singing and Scripture reading. Feasting played little and often no role in the early Pilgrim thanksgivings.

    The Massachusetts Pilgrims of Plymouth did not view the 1621 feast celebrated between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims as a “first Thanksgiving;” they certainly had no intention of inaugurating an annual holiday. This “fast and thanksgiving day” that Governor Bradford called to commemorate the year’s good harvest was, like all others, to note the passing of one providential moment, the good harvest of that particular autumn.

    When George Washington issued an ad hoc proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving, he did so in the Calvinist spirit. The Continental Congress proclaimed November 1, 1777, as a nationwide day for fasting, prayer and thanksgiving for the English defeat at Saratoga that ensured a French alliance with the newly born Republic. John Adams and James Madison issued similar proclamations for other “providential” events.

    The Thanksgiving we know today was invented and reinvented several times, but has little to do in fact with those original Pilgrims, Indians or turkey dinner.

    In my opinion, knowing the history of Thanksgiving strengthens the argument for celebrating the Catholic thanksgivings of St. Augustine, Florida and El Paso, Texas. It makes more sense for Catholics to honor the first Masses said on Catholic soil than the original Protestant fast and thanksgiving day that commemorated the Pilgrim’s “covenant with the Lord.”

    Still we can commemorate it on the fourth Thursday of November, or any other day, joining together with family and friends to thank God for our Catholic past and ask him to take up again the original plan for our Nation that it may rightly celebrate the Reign of Christ and Our Lady in all its festivals and actions.

    John Tracy Elliot, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, vol. II, pp. 5-6.

    Posted November 26, 2014

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