S1E12: The Real Story
Today, we are discovering the Real Stories how we have come to celebrate our day of Thanksgiving…
S1E12: The Real Story
Released: November 2020
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Bag of Bones Podcast
Season One- Episode 12
The Real Story
History is all about change. Things change. Ideas change. People change. We grow and new ideas replace the old. If- as we look back- the changes led to brilliant advances the whole world gets to know. But sometimes… sometimes the most interesting stories are the ones that were swept under the rug. These are the ones that I go in search of. Curiosity mainly. I like to know where I came from. How my country was built from one generation to the next. One curiosity on top of the next…
Today, we are discovering the Real Stories how we have come to celebrate our day of Thanksgiving…
See if this sounds familiar. Once upon a time, people of all ages would dress up in costumes, go to parties and be rowdy in the streets. And the children would plan out their costumes weeks in advance. Many were home made, but you could also purchase them from stores. Then, in their in costume, they would march in groups around the neighborhood asking adults for goodies.
This sounds like shadows of our Halloween celebrations, right. Not right. The former description is actually that of early Thanksgiving shenanigans.
Around 1817 in New York, Thanksgiving Masking became the national day of gratitude that our earliest forefathers instituted.
George Washington called for a day of Thanksgiving for the first time, issuing a proclamation after the end of the Revolutionary War and other presidents followed suit, by naming A date not necessarily the same date annually. With the exception of Thomas Jefferson who thought, quote: “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
I’m sure that when they called out for a day to be thankful it had nothing to do with children dressing up in frightening masks going door to door begging for sweets.
“Anything for Thanksgiving?” Would be heard about the streets in the 1890s and when they would sing a song or perform a dance or recite a poem, people would toss children candies or coins.
In an article from the LA Times of 1897 they wrote “Masks of prominent men and the foremost political leaders are made by some manufacturers, and large-sized false hands, feet, noses, ears, etc, are also new and amusing.” Parrots and other birds and animals, and ragamuffins were also popular. The ragamuffin trend was so popular in some areas that the holiday was referred to as Ragamuffin day. Children would dress up in tattered clothes and dirty up their face and hands (like hobos) and beg for home-baked goodies.
Recognizing the potential sales boon, candy stores did what they could to help the holiday along, by adding costumes and mask displays in their shops to cash in. Appleton’s Magazine of 1909 writes, “All toy shops carry a line of hideous and terrifying false faces or ‘dough faces’…”. And the Los Angeles Times of 1887 reports, “Thanksgiving was the busiest time of the year for manufacturers of and dealers in masks and false faces. The fantastical costume parades and the old custom of making and dressing up for amusement on Thanksgiving day keep up from year to year in many parts of the country, so the quantity of false faces sold at this season is enormous.”
Another form of revelry grew from this, more for the adults, but a group would walk down the main throuroughfaire while others lined the streets to watch the costumed parade go by with horns, rattles, shouting and singing. The NY Times adds “The throwing of confetti and even flour on pedestrians is an allowable pastime.”
The festivities grew and got a bit more rambunctious, the largest celebrations culminating in Cape Girardeau, MO, Montesano, WA, but most popular- New York City.
As fast as it grew, it soon got out of control. The cities finally got tired of the rowdy celebration.
A shift began to happen in the late 1920s and 30s but it was such a lucrative affair that the merchants did not want to see the holiday quashed.
And I’m sure you recognize the similarities we still celebrate today. I know that every Thanksgiving morning, I would wake up early to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, how about you? Where adults and children dress up in costumes and walk down the street singing and dancing and tossing out candy (not so much flour) to the cheering fans along the way.
And with the rise of All Saint’s Eve, the view was an attempt to curtail the large bonfires, dressing up as satan, devils or demons, vandalizing, and uh… small animal sacrifice trends that were spilling over from our English neighbors- the marketing experts put their spin on it. It became our Halloween. Just creepy enough that the parents could get on board but civil enough that it wouldn’t destroy the towns and most pets would come out alive the next day.
The shops promoted it more for children, who, not wanting to give up their Thanksgiving Masking and going door to door to getting candy or coins or a home-baked treat for a song, a rhyme or doing a card trick, it was an easy solution. Which is why the children say, “trick or treat”. Which technically means, give me some candy and I won’t destroy your home… basically.
In all fairness, however, when the whole rearranging and morphing of the fall holidays took place the saying was supposed to be “trick for a treat” which would allow them to still do their songs, or dances, or in my neck of the woods, tell a joke… in exchange for treats.
Now- before we move on to this particularly dark chapter in American History, I need to clarify one thing. But if you hadn’t heard whispers of this before, warning- it’s really going shake you up a bit. That being said, I want you to reflect back to Washington and our earliest presidents. He proclaimed a DAY of Thanksgiving. It could be a random day at any time of the year and it was a reminder to pause. Be grateful for … all the things. This tradition was brought over with them from England and it was common to pause to give thanks for a bountiful harvest, the birth of a child, and optimistic business outcome or many other things.
It didn’t become as an actual repeatable holiday with a specific meaning until Lincoln. He put the wheels in motion with the help of Sarah Hale who was an editor for a women’s magazine. She had been working tirelessly for some fifteen years to establish the holiday, with every one she wrote to- dismissing her.
It was finally locked down with the FDR administration. More on that a bit later.
But, now you know- I’ll proceed. Day of thanksgiving. Day.
We know that the Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower to settle the new lands. If you happened to catch Episode 10, it tells a bit more detail about the pilgrims that came on that ship’s landing.
But in a brief recap- the Mayflower docked and a group of men went to search out a location to start the building of their settlement. They found an abandoned Indian village, but for whatever reason they didn’t care for it, so they stole some corn and maybe an artifact or two from some of the Indian graves…. *clears throat* So the next time they went to shore, they found the perfect spot. It too, was an abandoned Indian village, but I guess they liked this one better. Plus, they were afraid of going back to the other one, knowing that they stole and desecrated…. (by the way, they did end up reimbursing the indians, eventually…) Anyway, having the land already cleared and wood cut it gave them a head start with winter on their heels, in getting the women and children shelter because most were still living on the boat.
When they got there, they were able to “move right in” and so they did. All this, you probably pretty much know. (Except maybe the stealing part, I don’t remember hearing that as a child.)
Here’s where the truth of the story starts coming to the surface. The truth was, that back in 1616, only a few years prior to the Mayflower, a vicious pandemic killed the inhabitants, which was varying tribes of the Wampanoag people destroying their villages. So they villages hadn’t been vacated because they moved elsewhere, they were empty because everyone was dead. The Native American were killed by an enemy they couldn’t see and it lasted long after the white skinned people left their lands.
Therefore, when the English arrived, they were not welcomed with open arms, they were distrusted. For hundreds of years, the English had been invading, slaving and slaughtering the indigenous people.
Even so, Massasoit-whose very name means “great leader” opted to help the weak and starving pilgrims.
They held back and watched for a time, weighing out strategies and it wasn’t until February that they made contact with an English speaking ally named Samoset. He made it clear that there could be peace or the warriors could kill them all, the Indians were fine either way. Luckily for all the generations to come, an understanding came to pass, an alliance of sorts that the Wampanoag would help them, if they could assure the Indians that the settlement was intended to stay small and that the settlers would help protect them against their enemies.
And lo, the pilgrims were protected and assisted by the Wampanoag but when it came time for the feasting and celebrating of the union and the harvest, the Indian’s invitation got lost in the mail.
Massasoit and about 100 of his people showed up anyway and there was a breaking of bread, sharing of plunder and toasts to fortuitous tomorrows.
In a letter from signed “E.W.” (which was Edward Winslow) that was sent to a friend in England, he writes: “And God be praised, we had a good increase…. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together….” The letter continues, “These things I thought good to let you understand… that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favourably with us.”
In 1622, without his approval, Winslow’s letter was printed into a pamphlet and shared. This pamphlet which is referred to a Mourt’s Relation is where we get our first references of the “first” Thanksgiving, the meal and the attendants.
However that day…
That day of thanksgiving, the one that has been immortalized on canvas and ink and construction paper hats… that’s where the fellowship ended.
As soon as November of 1621- their three day feast had barely digested a new ship arrived bringing 37 new settlers but without many supplies throwing the colony into a strain to provide for everyone going into winter. In 1622, after two years of assistance from the Wampanoag, 3 ships arrive carrying over 60 men… And then in 1623, two more ships brought 96 new settlers- and some of these decided to spread out and begin a new settlement elsewhere.… there goes the neighborhood…
Trivia: the second ship in 1621 carried a settler by the name of Phillip De la Noye. The name transformed into Delano and descendants can be traced all the way up to… President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who as we mentioned was the very president that put Thanksgiving on the Holiday map.
After a few skirmishes between the expanding number of English and the Native Americans, mostly over trade and land settlement, a nasty little massacre in 1637 known as the Pequot (Pee- kwat) Massacre where the pilgrims annihilated some 700 women, children and elders when they raided their fort, shot, stabbed and the fort was set on fire, some being burned alive. The men of a second fort were taken as slaves or killed. Leaving less that twenty hearts still beating.
The Governor at the time William Bradford documented the massacre in his writings History of Plymouth by stating, “It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fryer and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent.” He continues, “But the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”
And the next day, he designated a “day of Thanksgiving”… thus our second reference to the history of our holiday.
Before the Plymouth Colony was merged with the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691, the pact they had made on their day of thanksgiving a mere decade ago, was all but a memory. More and more settlers came and took over Indian lands, disease that came with them wiped out a huge percentage of the people and others, like the surviving members of the Pequot massacre were taken as slaves and with the burning and ravaging of the villages and settlements, many native Americans starved. In three years, the Native American population diminished by 80%.
The wars and skirmishes continued and then escalated. Kidnapping, murder, raids, disease by 1675, the colonists and Wampanoag were embroiled in a war called King Phillip’s war. This is considered the bloodiest war history. Over 9,000 people were killed which equaled over 10% of the entire population. English and Native American included. King Phillip, his Wampanoag name was Metacome was actually the son of Massosoit and his legacy was fight to keep their lands, to save their families.
In the meantime, the Colonists wanted to keep their land but also move further west, and they just wanted the Indians out of their way. The war finally came to an end with the Indian tribes acknowledging that they were now outnumbered and didn’t have the same resources for warfare.
King Phllip was hunted down in a swamp and shot.
The son of the man who introduced the new white settlers to the land, helped sustain them through the harsh winters was beheaded and quartered then his head was mounted on a pike for twenty five years just outside of the Plymouth Colony as a warning for the tribes.
Thus, wiping out the Indians basically allowed the European settlers to expand and continue to move west with little to no opposition.
David J. Silverman, author of the book This Land is Their Land writes, “As Americans looked for an origin story that wasn’t soaked in the blood of Native Americans or built on the backs of slavery, the humble, bloodless story of the 102 Pilgrims forging a path in the New World in search of religious freedom was just what they needed. Regardless of whether it was rooted in historical fact, it became accepted as such.”
And if the stories thus far haven’t soured your taste for cranberry salad, this just might. Brace yourself.
Turkey, wasn’t mentioned as being on the first thanksgiving menu.
In fact, turkey was a common meat, so it might have just been assumed so need to write it down?. It was one of the first domesticated animals because, they’re not very bright, not too hard to catch since they can’t fly away and they are just so darn yummy, not to mention, it could feed a lot of people, as long as they didn’t all want the just white meat.
They did celebrate with the harvests of the time which at this time of year would have been pumpkins, squash, rutabaga, and yes cranberries and they would have, as Mister E. Winslow mentioned, fowl meaning goose and duck… and maybe even turkey.
That published description of the First Thanksgiving in Mourt’s Relation that was mentioned earlier was lost for a time. It was rediscovered in Philadelphia around 1820. Reverend Alexander Young included the entire text in his Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers from 1841. In the footnotes that accompanied Winslow’s letter, Young writes, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England. On this occasion they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison.”
And if you’re feeling guilty about celebrating the holiday that was based on lies, it really wasn’t. We can blame the advertisers for that blunder.
Silverman adds that quote, “The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear.
They hand off America to the white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny."
Advertisers needed an iconic image to link, thus the black clothing with the shiny brass buckles on their shoes …
The day of Thanksgiving of 1621 or even of 1637 or even Washington’s day of thanksgiving in 1789… was just a day, not what our holidays are truly based on.
In the proclamation that Lincoln issued in October 1863 made no mention of pilgrims or Indians, turkey or pumpkin pie. His idea of this annual day of thanksgiving was one of… being thankful.
The county was in the midst of the Civil War and moral was low. At the urging of Sarah Hale (who, for all of my trivia fans out there was also the creator of the nursery rhyme Mary had a Little Lamb) to make it have “national recognition and authoritative fixation to become permanently, an American custom and institution” in October of 1863, Lincoln did just that.
It reads in part following a long list of things we have to be thankful for in the midst of ongoing war, quote:
“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”
To heal the wounds of the nation.
And then in November 1941 only weeks before the bombing at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs Proclamation 2522. The Thanksgiving Day Proclamation states in part:
“We have not lost our faith in the spiritual dignity of man, our proud belief in the right of all people to live out their lives in freedom and with equal treatment. The love of democracy still burns brightly in our hearts…. On the day appointed for this purpose, let us reflect at our homes or places of worship on the goodness of God and, in giving thanks, let us pray for a speedy end to strife and the establishment on earth of freedom, brotherhood, and justice for enduring time.”
No Indians. No turkey. No green bean casserole, which was also not on the menu for any of the days of thanksgiving that we talked about.
That didn’t become a “thing” until 1955 when Campbell’s soup marketing department made it a must have for every holiday gathering.
There is, as of the mid 1970s an Unthanksgiving Day, also known as the Indigenous People’s Sunrise Ceremony and the National Day of Mourning celebrated on Alcatraz Island and at Plymouth, Massachusetts respectively. It was created by the International Indian Treaty Council to commemorate the struggles of the Native Americans and a platform to adjust the skew of American history. It allows the people the opportunity to share their heritage, honor their loved ones, inspire tradition and pass on their side of the story.
We cannot rewrite history. Today, I like to think that Thanksgiving is about stopping; taking pause from our busy lives and making time for those who matter to us.
Food brings people together. So if it’s turkey or shell fish, potatoes or squash. Whether you honor the Lincoln Proclamation or FDR’s or the Day of Mourning, let it be a day of thanksgiving.
Enjoy your holiday, my new Bag of Bones family and save me a piece of pumpkin pie.
Thank you for embracing this podcast! If you loved it, please invite others to listen and don’t forget to leave a review or a five star rating.
I be back next week with another episode.
If you have a suggestion for an episode, I’d love to hear about it. Please reach out by visiting my website at elizabethbourgeret.com