When we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, we think we know what we’re commemorating. But if an actual Pilgrim were to attend your Thanksgiving, chances are he’d be stunned by what he saw there. In this episode, historian James McWilliams discusses why the Puritans would have turned up their noses at our “traditional” Thanksgiving foods. Religion scholar Anne Blue Wills reveals the Victorian origins of our modern holiday, and one woman’s campaign to fix it on the national calendar. An archeologist at Colonial Williamsburg explains what garbage has to tell us about early American diets. And legendary NFL quarterback Roger Staubach describes what it was like to spend every turkey day on the football field.Give it a listen while you're taking your postprandial walk!
Audio Excerpt: "Historian James McWilliams tells 18th Century History Guy Peter Onuf why the Pilgrims and Indians would probably have been grossed out by each others’ contributions to the Thanksgiving table."
[From the show's transcript: New Englander Sarah Hale is determined to ram the holiday down the Nation's throat; Pilgrims and Indians have major animal husbandry/crop-growing culture clash.]
Ed: If it’s only about repetition, then New England’s claim on Thanksgiving Day is a little shaky, too. Because, as far as I understand, not being a historian of New England, it’s not like those Puritans in 1621 kicked off a tradition that their proud New England descendants, said “Yes, let’s honor the Puritans and the Indians doing lunch in an unbroken tradition year after year”. It wasn’t until 1863 that the fourth Thursday of the month was declared a day of National Thanksgiving by the then President.
Peter: That would be Abraham Lincoln.
Ed: T hat’s right, Peter. That’s a good command of my century. Up until then, the various states did have their own official days of Thanksgiving, but they were scattered around here and there, in the various fall months.
Peter: During the Revolution, certain days were set aside to thank God for guidance on the battlefield. George Washington even proclaimed days of Thanksgiving as President.
Ed: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re always trying to emphasize that other war was interesting. I’m talking about that other war, the Civil War. It was then that Americans started to celebrate Thanksgiving the way we do now: with pies, potatoes, turkey, and more pies, cranberry sauce, and more turkey, and more pies, and this kind of celebration, it’s largely the work of one woman, a magazine editor named Sarah Hale. She was a widow from New England. In 1820, she became the editor of Gody’s Ladies Book. Despite it’s title, which is pretty ugly, was a hugely popular magazine, and for more than 30 years, she wouldn’t let up. She published editorials, stories and letter writing campaigns, all to convince her readers in the great cause, that ultimately the government would declare Thanksgiving, as the holiday that this young nation needed the most.
Bowen: My name is Joanne Bowen, and I’m curator of zooarcheology. I identify all the bones that come out of the archeological sites throughout the historic area.
BRIAN: Joanne Bowen has been working with bones for decades, in Virginia as well as New England. She’s currently sorting through bones found out back of an 18th century coffee house, that was a popular haunt for members of Williamsburg’s elite. Our producer, Tony Field, found Bowen in her lab, surrounded by drawers filled with cow bones, pig bones, turtle bones, and yes, big, wild, bird bones.
Bowen: Most sites have one or two or more turkey bones in them…
BRIAN: That’s Joanne Bowen, curator of zooarcheology at Colonial Williamsburg, here in Virginia. You can see pictures of some of the bones in her lab at backstoryradio dot org.
PETER: Joanne’s theory that wild game was more a source of social status than of actual nutrition for colonial elites – well, it got us thinking about that original harvest festival back in 1621. The famous Massachusetts one, where the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians sat down and did lunch. Because for the Indians, wild game was an important source of nutrition. There’s a historian at Texas State University named Jimmy McWilliams, who thinks this difference is key to understanding what happened in the early years of settlement. He told me that the newcomers were totally cool with hunting as a leisure activity – game parks, after all, were a favorite haunt of the aristos back in England. But food for them was the product of careful cultivation – be it vegetables or meat.
Jimmy McWilliams: The Puritans arrived in the New World with a set of very stringent cultural expectation; I mean, they wanted to the the city on the hill, the last thing they wanted to do was to “devolve” into “a savage state”. If you had to go out and actually hunt for your food, if you had to dive into the woods out of necessity, rather than for leisure purposes, this could easily be interpreted as a sign of cultural weakness or decline. I think these settlers, when they looked at the Wampanoags grabbing their arrows or grabbing their guns, and running off into the woods for most of the day, they thought, they’re incredibly lazy, the should be home tending crops instead of . . . it is their women who are working in the fields.
Peter: Let’s talk about corn for a little bit. Corn has got an enormous cultural significance.
Jimmy: When the Puritans arrived in New England, of course, we’re very familiar with corn, generally, it was feed for farm animals in England. The Puritans show up and, of course, they find the Native Americas are growing it as more or less one of their staple foods. That was jarring in and of itself. This is an observation on the part of the Puritans that we really need to pay attention to, because a lot of times as we try to explain the failure of Native Americans in English to create any sort of bi-racial society. A lot of times we just immediately look to race, but I think if you look at the example of corn, I think there’s a case to be made that it was agriculture practices in food that played a really important role in creating basic cultural differences, or at least the perception of basic cultural differences. There’s one more point to this: a connective point. It’s not only the corn itself that influenced the way the English looked at the Native Americans, but it was also the way that they grew the corn. Native Americans had this agricultural method where they would clear a plot of land by girdling trees and burning the soil. The trees would die and fall; the ash and the soil would sort of work itself deeper into the topsoil, and then they would just throw the seed in; they would throw corn seed, beans, squash, and these crops would grow up together, and it was a remarkable arrangement because the corn provided this natural bean pole, and the beans worm their way up the corn, and the corn leaves would provide shade for the squash, and it was a botanical orgy. The Indians, of course, this worked, it was incredibly productive, it was not particularly labor intensive; if weeds came in, they let the weeds come in, and here you have this sort of black charred land with trees all over the place, and these crops crawling all over each other, and the English looked at that and said what a disaster, where are the fences, where are the nice lined furrows, where is the land without weeds growing on it.
Peter: So the English as you just described them were incredibly anal. They practiced mono-culture; they separated things; they were great at distinctions, what’s a fence anyway, but a way of making a distinction; whereas, Indians seemed to be promiscuous and they mix things together, and how could they be a civilized people.
Jimmy: You’re right and that was the perception. Clearly, there was initially anyway that the Native Americans could be incorporated and assimilated into English society. Interestingly, one of of the basic ways that some of these Puritans began to assimilate these Native Americans was to give them cattle to domesticate, and I think that is an important reminder of just how culturally significant of the act of controlling animals was to the English. If they could just get the Indians to control their animals, well that’s half the battle.
Peter: And get the guys out of the woods and back into the fields doing the proper man’s work, which is having a miserable old time plowing up the earth and planting crops.
Jimmy: The advantage is huge of getting them out of the woods and suddenly, this land become available in some way. You can then acquire it, and you won’t have Native Americans hunting through.
Peter: That’s convenience, isn’t it. So when and how did bagging deer and other wildlife become something essential to our ruggedly individualistic way of life, and when did people overcome the notion that eating trash food was a bad thing to do.
Jimmy: Well, I think this sort of cultural emphasis on the frontier, and on hunting as being sign of self-sufficiency, I think that became a positive cultural image when the burden of trying to emulate the English was lifted, shorty after the American Revolution. The American Revolution really changed the dynamics fundamentally, I think, because it created this imperative that you have to redefine how your culture, we cannot emulate the English, of course, people did, but as the nation expanded West, as people moved to the frontier, there were these new expectations that could, instead of being looked upon, could now be praised and somehow pointed to as a source of American identities. So it’s a bit of an irony that the dependency on hunting that they criticized save in the 17th century in the early 19th century actually became an element of what it meant to be an American.
Peter: Homemade food, country cuisine. Jimmy, you’ve given us some fascinating insights into one of the key moments in American cultural calendar, Thanksgiving, and we’re grateful to you.
Jimmy: Oh, this was fun.
Peter: Thank you for being on the show. Jimmy McWilliams teaches American History at Texas State University, San Marcos. He’s the author of, A Revolution in Eating”, published by Columbia University Press in 2005.