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.
(from Karin Goldstein, Curator of Original Collections)