As American as Pumpkin Pie

A November afternoon, 1910… Two immigrant factory workers are eating lunch. “Marcella,” says one woman to her friend, “why do we have this Thursday as a day off?” “I don’t know,” her friend replies. “Something about the chicken holiday.” This is how the mother of one Plymouth resident was introduced to Thanksgiving.1

This tradition of American culture must have seemed bewildering to newcomers. As reformers pondered how to teach new immigrants how to become good Americans, many looked to examples from the past. Since the early 20th century, the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving have been used to teach both new Americans and school children about American history and values. This is just one of many ways that people have looked at the holiday over time.

Prior to the mid-1800s, Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the 1621 harvest celebration, Pilgrims or Native People. Thanksgiving started as a traditional New England holiday that celebrated family and community. It descended from Puritan days of fasting and festive rejoicing. The governor of each colony or state declared a day of thanksgiving each autumn, to give thanks for general blessings. As New Englanders moved west in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they took their holiday with them. After the harvest, governors across the country proclaimed individual Thanksgivings, and families traveled back to their original homes for family reunions, church services and large meals.

The Pilgrims, Wampanoag and Thanksgiving were first linked together in 1841, when historian Alexander Young rediscovered Edward Winslow’s account of the 1621 harvest celebration. The account was part of the text of a letter to a friend in England, later published in Mourt’s Relation (1622). Young isolated the description of the harvest celebration, and identified it as the precedent for the New England Thanksgiving. At this point, Young’s claim had little impact on the popular concept of Thanksgiving, however.

In the 1800s, battles between pioneers and Native People trying to hold onto their land colored images of Thanksgiving. Images of Natives and colonists sharing a meal did not fit with contemporary scenes of violence between pioneers and Natives in the west. While there were a couple of images showing a “First Thanksgiving” with Pilgrims and Natives together, such scenes were not common until after the end of the “Indian Wars” in the 1890s. The association between Pilgrims, Natives and Thanksgiving became stronger after 1890, when the census revealed the western frontier to be closed, and the “Indian Wars” ended.

By the late 1800s, America was changing, and the image of the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving became useful history. Starting in the 1880s, immigration increased dramatically. The new immigrants came from Eastern and Southern Europe, with different languages, religions and customs than the old-stock Yankees. Combined with other dramatic changes like growing industry and movement to cities, the large numbers of immigrants began to pose a threat to many Americans’ way of life. How could these newcomers be taught how to become good Americans? As in any time of crisis, people looked to the past for answers. By the early 20th century, the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving became a tool to teach immigrants and schoolchildren about America.

One of the first private organizations to undertake “Americanizing” new immigrants was the Daughters of the American Revolution. As early as 1910, the group published a guide for new citizens. The 1913 revision included what they felt the immigrant “needs to know,” including history and civics.2 The Pilgrims’ contribution to American freedom was one of the many aspects of American history the DAR felt that immigrants should learn. While the DAR Manual for Citizenship didn’t specifically mention Thanksgiving, it set the stage for later efforts in education.

Industries like the Ford Motor Company conducted Americanization classes for their employees. These classes included information about the Pilgrims. At the closing ceremonies of Americanization classes at Plymouth Cordage Company, Plymouh, Massachusetts, employees reenacted scenes in American history, including the landing of the Pilgrims.3

Settlement houses also tried to help immigrants by showing them American ways. One woman settlement house worker described teaching Greek immigrants about the holiday. “On the night of last Thanksgiving I spent some time and zeal in a description of the Pilgrim Fathers, the motives which had driven them across the sea… illustrated by stereopticon slides and little dramatic scenes.” In this instance, her audience, “absorbed in their Greek background of philosophy and beauty,” was not impressed!4

Another way to teach newcomers was through their children. Education reformers at the turn of the century set out to design curricula to teach children to become good citizens. The Pilgrims, as early immigrants, became prototypes for newcomers. Unlike other historic figures or groups of the past, the Pilgrims had a holiday associated with them. November became the time to teach all children, both immigrant and native-born, about Pilgrims and the associated holiday of Thanksgiving.

Frances Johnston’s photograph, Thanksgiving Day at the Whittier (1899), shows a classroom of African-American children from Hampton, Virginia, learning about the Pilgrims.While the Pilgrims’ connection to Thanksgiving had been made as early as 1841, the children were not learning about the harvest celebration of 1621. Instead, they were studying about the Pilgrims in general—building log cabins (long thought to be early Pilgrim housing) and reciting Felicia Hemans’ famous poem about the Pilgrims’ landing, “The Breaking Waves Dashed High.”

Education magazines and books of plays contained Thanksgiving skits, with patterns for the stereotypical black and white costumes often associated with Pilgrims. In addition to Thanksgiving plays, children also learned through craft activities. Pearl Kazin, daughter of Jewish immigrants, described learning about Thanksgiving at New York’s P.S. 125: “We labored intently, fingers deeply stained and arms splotched to the elbows in brown paint, making the first Thanksgiving—the huge Pilgrim family, at an enormously long table…With crayons and paint we smeared a lavish feast.”5

Thanksgiving school plays, as well as images of a single long table from textbooks and art, have become part of our holiday traditions. From a tool used to teach school children and immigrants, this simplified view of Thanksgiving has become a familiar symbol in American culture, used in all sorts of media from cartoons to greeting cards. It is important to remember that this view is part of the history of the holiday, rather than historic fact.