The first Thanksgiving was celebrated about 400 years ago in Plymouth, right? It turns out there are actually some competing claims for when it comes to where the first Thanksgiving was and who held it. Edgar B. Herwick III from GBH's Curiosity Desk discussed the competing claims with GBH News' All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: The classic version that was, as Linus told us, that that Thanksgiving doesn't may not be the one.
Edgar B. Herwick III: There are some competing claims out there. And one of the joys of the modern world that we live in is that you have access, just with a computer, to local news from all over the world. A lot of local sources have been springing up onto my radar this year. A few pieces have been written in the Virginia area, claiming that the real first Thanksgiving here in America was December 4th, 1619. That's two years prior to the events that we commemorate in Plymouth. They say it happened in a place called Berkely Hundred Virginia, this is just a little bit northeast of Jamestown. And the deal there is that settlers arrived from England, a new settlement, and when they debarked from there from their vessel, they held a celebration of Thanksgiving. Their captain, John Wood Leaf, declared that they would mark that date, December 4th "yearly and perpetually, keep it as a holy day of Thanksgiving to almighty God." And they did apparently do that for two years, which is as long as the settlement lasted.
Now, not to be outdone, a local Fox station in Florida also had a piece this year saying, no, no, the first Thanksgiving in America was actually in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. This is when the Spanish there who settled St. Augustine, Florida, held a massive Thanksgiving when they first arrived, inviting members of the local Native American community, the Seloy tribe of the Timucua Nation. They also had a feast, apparently, after this massive celebration. There are other claims out there, another one 1598, a different group of Spanish settlers in what is today El Paso apparently also held a Thanksgiving ceremony.
Rath: You have to give us some guidance how we judge the merit to these claims. Is it as simple as if you have a feast in the new world, that's a Thanksgiving? How does it work?
Herwick: Let's start with some context, which I think is especially important this year in some ways, because we see a lot of celebrating around the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower arrival, which is of course this year. There's an aspect of our current Thanksgiving celebration and mythology that has this sort of strain like it's the founding of a nation, that sort of vibe to it. And so I think we need to start by remembering that the history of this land does not, by any means, begin with European settlement. Native Americans lived here in what we call North America for at least 15,000 years. So think about that — we're talking about 400 years, they peopled this area for at least 15,000 years. So we're a small part of the story. And then when we think about European contact with Native Americans here, that predates 1620 as well by at least around 100 years. There were permanent settlements in other places of what is today the United States of America. Before we had Plymouth, the French were in Canada and Louisiana. The Spanish were in Florida and Texas. The English, of course, were also here in Jamestown, in Virginia, a decade before Plymouth. So there's that piece of it.
And then we also have to think about the context of the idea of celebrating a day of Thanksgiving. This makes perfect sense that this would have happened in these places, because it was common practice at the time. Now, these celebrations had more of a religious flavor to them. It was especially common from the 1500's in Protestantism, especially English Protestantism, where church leaders or sometimes civil leaders would declare a day of Thanksgiving for some occasion. And it was all kinds of occasions that they would do this for. For example, there was a day of Thanksgiving called in England in 1588 after they defeated the Spanish Armada. And this is a tradition that was carried here by many of the settlers, the European settlers, who came to the new world. In their day to day lives, it was common when they would do something like debark from a ship after a long journey to have a day of Thanksgiving. So that's one ingredient of what becomes our Thanksgiving as we know it today, those days of Thanksgiving. They're sort of one piece of the pie of what eventually becomes Thanksgiving as we know it.
Rath: A lot of stuff like the Patriots win the Super Bowl, day of Thanksgiving.
Herwick: In our modern world, that's kind of how it would have been. A big event happened and then you declared a day of Thanksgiving. But again, they had sort of a religious bent to them.
Rath: How did this all kind of coalesce into the whole Thanksgiving as we know it?
Herwick: As many things are in America, it's complicated, and it's uniquely American. It's sort of a melting pot of things. So first and foremost, there's not like a through-line from whatever happened or didn't happen in Plymouth in 1621, as the story is told to us, and today. It's not like that happened and every year since we've celebrated. That's not it at all. We have this tradition of days of Thanksgiving being declared and, in New England over the years, through the 1600's, those days of Thanksgiving that get declared, sometimes occasionally it sort of becomes annually and they start to take on this flavor that is a little bit more like a harvest festival. They're declared in the fall by governors here, sort of state by state every year. Political leaders here, when we first become the United States of America, start declaring days of Thanksgiving for things like victory in becoming a nation. And a lot of those sort of start to happen around what was called Evacuation Day, November 25th, 1783. That's the date the English left New York after the Revolutionary War.
So you have this kind of all going on, and there's this woman, a New Englander, Sarah Josepha Hale. She was born in New Hampshire, she lived in Boston. She was a writer and an editor for influential women's magazines at the time. She also, by the way, helped to get the Bunker Hill monument finished with a huge fundraiser to get the money to finish that monument after it had been started. She was a big lover of the annual Thanksgivings that were declared in New England by the governors through her childhood in the 1800's. She sort of took it on herself to make it a campaign. She wanted this to be a true annual national holiday. She wrote editorials for years and she loved it as a day of Thanksgiving, with some of that religious flavor. But also she wrote about things like the turkey and the gravy and the cranberry sauce and Yankee pumpkin pie, things that we would recognize today. In1863, she decides she's not getting anywhere. She writes directly to Abraham Lincoln. We're of course in the middle of the Civil War, and this idea of declaring a national holiday, a national day of Thanksgiving where everybody in the nation would celebrate at the same time, really strikes a chord with Abraham Lincoln. He is the first one to declare it as a national holiday in 1863 in the midst of a civil war.
And then presidents after him did this by tradition annually. Finally, in 1941, FDR signed an act of Congress, which really set it as a federal holiday on the fourth Thursday every November, and that's kind of the holiday we have today. So we see elements of a religious holiday, harvest festivals, New England mythology and culinary tradition, a little bit of patriotism. It sort of all comes together now. Most notably, Lincoln's proclamation says nothing about the pilgrims, and that is a connection that gets retrofitted over the years, from the 1800's onward where we sort of look back to this meal in 1621, this moment between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims — by the way, written by the European settlers — and sort of attach that to this great melting pot of a holiday.
Rath: What's interesting about that whole melting pot stew that you just laid out, as complicated and messy as it is, is that we have these conversations now about Thanksgiving being kind of problematic in its history, but even in the more modern version of how it came together, it's wrapped up in nationalism and religion and politics. It just kind of reminds us about how all these stories are complicated and problematic.
Herwick: There's nothing in America that's not complicated, really. And it is important to remember that this year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the National Day of Mourning. For many Native Americans, that connection between whatever happened in 1621 and our Thanksgiving that we celebrate today for them marks the beginning of an occupation. There are atrocities and horror and death and displacement, and we need to remember that.
And so the National Day of Mourning, of course, is celebrated here annually and has been every year since 1970. It began when a local Wampanoag leader Wamsutta Frank James was asked to speak at a celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower. He put a speech together, which the organizers of that event took a look at — they wanted to see it before he gave it — and they said no, this is hugely problematic. He was pointing out some very honest things about what happened to Native Americans when the Europeans arrived here. They said, you can give a different speech, but you can't give this one. And he said, well, I'm going to give this one.
He gave this speech at Cole's Hill in Plymouth, and that was the birth of the National Day of Mourning. So organizers today describe that as a solemn, spiritual and highly political day. It's an important day for Native Americans here in Massachusetts, in America, and all over. Not just to mark atrocities that happened to them in the past, but also it's a moment of unity for indigenous peoples and a reminder that there are still challenges they're facing, including the fact that they don't have autonomy over their land today still in some places, and things like what are happening right now — the pandemic, which has had an outsized impact on Native American communities.