Thanksgiving & Sarah Josepha Hale


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The story of how Thanksgiving began, moved into a national holiday, and exists today

Pictures are below, and at the very bottom is the transcript.

Google Earth Map showing how the Pilgrims progressed.

Sarah Josepha Hale  

Sarah Josepha Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin
By painted by James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889) - Richard's Free Library, Newport, New Hampshire <a rel="nofollow" class="external autonumber" href="">[1]</a> item provenance: Sarah Josepha Hale Award <a rel="nofollow" class="external autonumber" href="">[2]</a> image:<a rel="nofollow" class="external autonumber" href="">[3]</a>, Public Domain, Link

Map of the area around where they landed                                                

Cape cod bay.jpg
Public Domain, Link

 The Mayflower landing in America. 

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, by William Halsall


Hey everybody and welcome to this first of the holiday specials. I'd like to tell you this is purely because I'm in the holiday mood but truthfully I have had some delays on my interviews and so I don't have anything to post yet so we are doing a special Thanksgiving special! This will be a little different as we'll look at the 3 Thanksgivings. The original non-holiday holiday, the original official holiday, and then the modern version of the holiday. We'll talk about each of them and how they got to be. Now Thanksgiving is the most controversial of the big holidays in the USA nowadays. We'll get into why that is happening as part of this Holiday Episode. 

Before we get started I'd like to give a big shout-out to my first Patreon Patron Sally! She signed up for the Assistant Vice-President to the Founder tier which costs $5 per nation. She chose Australia to get an extra episode and for Ecuador to go out of order so those will be coming along during the course of the A nations. Alright so having said that let's get on with it!
Most of the info here is being drawn from the primary source "Of Plymouth Plantation" which is a first hand account from the long-time governor of the Plymouth Colony" with help from Encyclopedia Britannica for more background info than that provides. 

It's 1604 and a group, that we'll come to know as the Puritans, has brought petitions before the king to try to reform the Church of England. All of their petitions had been shot down except for getting an updated English Bible written. Who was that king? King James of course. So right off the bat these Puritans have helped rewrite history because this was the beginning of the King James Bible which is considered one of the major literary accomplishments of early modern English. At the time though they were focused on other issues and since all those were shut down they were quite upset.

By 1605 a group of Puritans in Nottinghamshire England decided that the Church of England was no longer a church they can put up with. They split off and officially became their own new church. Part of what lead them to split with the Church of England was their belief that the church was not so much meant to be a political entity run by and enforced by the government. The trouble with this was that there was a law in England that required all citizens to attend their local Church of England services or face increasingly strict punishments. 

Well this all went along without too much hubbub until the next year, 1606, when a new Archbishop took over the area and began zealously enforcing the laws on church.
Slowly but surely the Puritans moved from their homes into Holland, which was a more open nation at the time. Well eventually it proved to be too much cultural shock to get over. Two of the Puritans wrote that the problems were three-fold: The language was different and so jobs were difficult, the people were less conservative, and there was already an established church in Holland and they were interested in reaching unreached peoples. 

They then got some money together to hire two ships to take them to the New World, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. The Speedwell, you say? I've never heard of that! Well let's see why. The Speedwell was to bring down the group from Holland to rendezvous with the Mayflower which was picking up passengers in London. After meeting up they had planned to leave in July in order to arrive in the New World before it got too close to Winter. They tried to leave 3x only to have the Speedwell spring leaks soon after leaving port. Each time they had to return to land to fix the problem and on the third time they decided maybe that ship wasn't a great option for crossing the Atlantic Ocean so they abandoned it and took on some of the passengers with the rest sailing back to Holland. 

By this time they were over a month late and that presented two major problems:

  1. The sea: They had hoped to be nearing their destination before storm season got too bad in the Atlantic but now they would be sailing into the teeth of it. It got so bad that the ship was in danger of breaking apart as the main beam that held the ship together had to have emergency repairs done to it. But alas it was not meant to be game over for the pilgrims on the high seas.
  2. Supplies: Many of the passengers had fled England to go to Holland without their belongings and then had had trouble making a living in Holland; so they were in no shape to purchase extra supplies and so supplies were now a month less than planned.

Now we pick up a new primary source, which comes from the Plymouth Colony Archive Project, which has a free copy of a Mourt's Relation which is a first-hand account of the first few years in the new settlement written by one of the Pilgrim leaders. Pretty much all the details here are brought from that and the aforementioned Of Plymouth Plantation. While some help in analysis coming from the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Smithsonian Museum's interview with Dr. Silverman, a history professor who specializes in this time period.
When they finally arrived in the New World it was mid-November and both of the problems I just talked about, supplies and terrible weather, stopped them from going south to the relative safety of the infant colony of Virginia to at least last through the winter. So instead they were forced to hunker down and rely on the supplies, of which they had woefully little. Because of this, during that first winter over half of the colonists died. 

Finally though, the survivors made it to the spring and were able to start working on becoming able to support themselves. Of course this was not easy either as they were in a land entirely foreign to them and so it likely would have ended with death for all if not for a local tribe of Native Americans who made an alliance with the fledgling colony. The Wampanoag tribe had been decimated by disease brought by europeans in the years before the Colonists arrived and were in fear of being overtaken by inland tribes that had not been hit nearly as hard by the outbreak. The pilgrims desperately needed help to learn how to live in this new land. With both groups in need and able to help the other, the Indians providing sustenance, and the English agreeing to use their cannons and firearms to help defend the Wampanoag if they were attacked. Of course this also meant they didn't have to worry about being attacked by each other.

Well they did much better with the Wampanoag help and a full year to plant and harvest crops. After their first harvest the pilgrims planned a feast to celebrate and apparently did not invite the Native Americans. This shouldn't be as too much of a surprise as they had just fled all the places they had lived because they couldn't get along with people who were relatively similar to them so it's hard to imagine, even though they should have been grateful, that they would have likely considered the Wampanoag probably worse than those they had just fled from. So anyways to prepare for the feast they sent out some men to go "fowling" catch some birds to eat at the harvest and while they were blasting away with their firearms the Wampanoag thought a battle had begun and 90 warriors came running, probably unsure if they were going to be helping their allies or if their allies were turning on them.
Having arrived at the Pilgrim village they saw that instead there was a feast being prepared and seeing them there they were invited to join the feast. Food was a bit lacking since there were only about 50 colonists at this time and the 90 warriors would have tripled the number of people coming. So the warriors went and killed 5 deer to contribute as a gift to the pilgrims and so they ate. 

So there it is the first thanksgiving on what would later become US territory. Like many an American story it all started with our right to bear arms hah!
Now of course there is more to the story but it would be largely ignored until the modern version of Thanksgiving so we will get to that in a few minutes.

So it seems that "days of thanksgiving" were common place in English Christianity before and after the "first thanksgiving" so this was not an especially important day for a long while. There were little pushes here and there for a national day of thanksgiving, The Continental Congress proclaimed one when they signed the Constitution and George Washington proclaimed one as well. Then a bunch of New England states began pushing for it, as it was a holiday they saw as theirs. But if you know much about the US you know that the southern and northern states don't always get along and so the southerners thought this was a "yankee" idea. There's even a quote from the Governor of Virginia around the time who said Thanksgiving was a "theatrical national claptrap" (the irony here is that nowadays southerners consider themselves the kings of thanksgiving). And so this idea would not catch on outside the Northeast even though it had been proclaimed in the past.

This wouldn't change until Sarah Josepha Hale came along in the early 1800s. She is most known for writing the song Mary Had a Little Lamb. But what she really is, is the mother of Thanksgiving. Who was Ms. Hale? She was a famous writer and editor during her time who was the lead editor of a magazine called "Godey's Lady Book". During her time as editor she transformed the magazine into one of the most important of it's time. She was a convincing writer and advocated for many things such as women's right to be allowed into higher education as well as other things we think of as normal today like, Christmas trees, white wedding dresses, and Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving because she had grown up with it being a part of her family traditions as she was from New Hampshire, which is a state in New England. 

She wrote a book in 1827 called "Northwood" which spent an entire chapter discussing Thanksgiving and what made it Thanksgiving. She then began to write poems, short stories, and recipes on the topic of thanksgiving(roast turkey and sweet potato pie to name a few) and stick them in this now very high circulation magazine. She also spearheaded a letter writing campaign where people were encouraged to write their representatives telling them they needed a national holiday.By the 1850s almost every state had a state-wide national day of thanksgiving but there still wasn't a national holiday.

In the fall of 1863, well into her 70s, she was still writing letters and one of them went to a certain tall, soon to be famous, man named Abraham Lincoln. You can actually find this letter online as it was transcribed by the Lincoln Studies Center. In it she laid out her arguments for how it would help to unify the nation that was currently engaged in a terrible Civil War. Well if you know much about Lincoln you know that unifying the states was his highest priority. And so on October 3, 1863, only 5 days after the letter was written(about 2 weeks after the terrible Battle of Chickamauga that saw over 34,000 men die) he issued the Proclamation of Thanksgiving which should be held the last Thursday of November. 

Now of course running alongside all this happening was the Indian Wars which basically went from about 50 years after the Pilgrims arrived until the final battles of suppression took place in the 1920s. The 1920s! If you grew up in the states I'm sure you didn't think we were still fighting Native Americans in the 1900s, I sure didn't until I did my research on this episode. So there is definitely a counter-narrative going on here of the Native Americans not really being excited about Thanksgiving as it lead to them losing pretty much all their land. You can find loads of articles and podcasts today in America on that and I encourage you to study about it but for today we will not be going into that as, while it is a part of American history, it is too long of a story to go into in this 30 minute episode.

Now up to the modern Thanksgiving we go. We will talk about current Thanksgiving traditions and where they came from. I am not going to be using as many reference materials here as I am a local here to this so yeah.

One of the parts of modern Thanksgiving that is not a traditional part but is growing is the movement to de-romanticize Thanksgiving. To make sure to tell the whole story of what happened not just to the Pilgrims but to the Indians after that Thanksgiving. This is a hot topic today but overall I think a good one as it's always good to look at our history and see the whole story. America definitely did some terrible things to the Native Americans and it's not helpful to sweep those things under the rug. Does that mean we need to cancel Thanksgiving? Some people think so. I think that's probably a little too extreme but we should work to not be too bias in our presentation of the after-effects of Thanksgiving.

Now the main part of Thanksgiving, as far as my experiences and the experiences of others who I've talked to over the years is seemingly the re-enactment of hungry pilgrims that haven't eaten all winter and are getting their first harvest in. How do we re-enact that? Well we eat, and eat, and eat, until the majority of people are laying down half-asleep because of the feasting.
Before or after the big meal come some other big traditions. One of those is American Football on Thanksgiving. This is a fairly new sport having mutated from Rugby, it's official first college game was played in 1869 a few weeks before Thanksgiving and only a few weeks after that first game the first Thanksgiving football game was played. Because this holiday is kind of a unifying the country holiday so an American born game was just what people were looking for. This definitely sits at #2 on the priority list for people on Thanksgiving. 

The final big tradition is the Macy's Day Parade. People will tune in from all over the US to watch the ginormous balloons that are paraded around New York's strees. It is the second oldest Thanksgiving parade with the 6abc Dunkin Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade beating it by 4 years, starting in 1920. Did you know that ABC and Dunkin were around back then? Well they weren't they are just the current sponsors. The original parade was done by a Department Store named Gimbels in Philadelphia. It eventually went out of business as most of the department stores did. but Macy's has persevered. Why were these started? Well they were wonderful opportunities for companies to advertise! And that takes us into another new tradition, which may be just as big as Thanksgiving nowadays, Black Friday.

Black Friday got it's start sometime in the 50s but the name "Black Friday" didn't really become widespread in usage until the early 80s according to the Philadelphia Inquirer which is an actual newspaper unlike the National Inquirer. It's the day in which the Christmas Shopping season is supposed to really begin, the day after Thanksgiving. It's a day of huge sales all around the US and it's widely regarded as the day of the year that pushes companies into the black, meaning where they start to make a profit for the year. It has become so successful that it has spawned versions of itself in many other countries as well as spin-offs on the weekend after Thanksgiving with "Small Business Saturday" and "Cyber Monday"

A few traditions that are not quite as popular but still well known are the Turkey Trot and the Turkey Pardon. The Turkey Trot is a standard 5k race/walk that most cities do on Thanksgiving. It is a cause for playful debate in many circles where you can find many a funny meme about people not wanting to be friends with those who choose to exercise on our national day of feasting. 

The pardon of the Thanksgiving Turkey as a national thing really got it's start under George H.W. Bush, that's daddy Bush not the younger Bush(both of whom were president). According to the Whitehouse's official website; Turkeys had been sent to the president on Thanksgiving Day since the adoption of Thanksgiving as a holiday, so ever since the days of Abe Lincoln. And it seems he was the first one to give a Turkey a reprieve. The turkey was given to them but Abe's son apparently begged for the turkey to live and Abe granted the request. But this did not really catch on as a tradition until the elder Bush. The elder Bush made the ceremony official and also joked about a few of the controversies of his day. So this became the tradition. Pardon a turkey and then give a short funny speech on some controversies that are going on.
Of course there is a lot more you could look into for details on all these things and I encourage you to do that but that's all the time we have for today. I hope you enjoyed our diversion into the founding of this American holiday and I look forward to doing another one about another holiday when there's a break around another holiday.