Thanksgiving Origins: More Than Just 'Turkey Day'

Thanksgiving today is very different from what it was, when first celebrated in 1621. Early Thanksgiving was similar to a fall festival of sorts, rather than an abundant sit-down turkey dinner. Host Allison Keyes speaks with Senior Historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, Jim Adams about the first Thanksgiving and the relationship between the colonists and Native Americans at the time.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Thanksgiving, of course, is a time to get together with family, but for many, dealing with rambunctious relatives is the most stressful part of the holiday.

We'll talk about how to deal with holiday stress and how the very idea of the American family is changing. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, Thanksgiving traditions. Some families watch football, others play cards, and many share their blessings at a table laden with food. But today's version of Thanksgiving is very different from what it was like back in the day.

To share that with us, senior historian Jim Adams of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian joins us. Thanks for being in our studios in Washington.

Mr. JIM ADAMS (Senior Historian National Museum of American Indian): Glad to be here.

KEYES: So paint a picture of the first Thanksgiving for us. It wasn't a table with fancy fixings and a turkey and some golden turret was it?

Mr. ADAMS: It was pretty rustic. It was more like I think an outside barbeque than a sit down dinner.

KEYES: Okay. So I guess in my head I picture the English sitting on one side of the table and the Native Americans sitting on the other side of the table and everyone breaking bread together, but not so much.

Mr. ADAMS: Well, for one thing there were twice as many Indians there as there English, as there were settlers, so maybe 90 tribesman that Massasoit brought with him and there were about 50 surviving Plymouth settlers out the hundred who arrived the year before.

And Massasoit, who was the chief of the Wampanoag Confederacy, actually dispatched two of his senior advisors to live with the settlers.

KEYES: Because they were having such a hard time?

Mr. ADAMS: Yes. These were tradesmen, people who carted wool in Leiden and Holland, and ministers and intellectuals, basically. The leadership were intellectuals who were out there trying to find a pioneering colony in a foreign land that they really understood very poorly.

KEYES: How were the Native Americans doing at that time? I mean, if they were teaching and helping the colonists, they must have been...

Mr. ADAMS: Well, they were in equally bad straits, even worse, because the initial contact - so there had been about 10, 20 years of previous contact with explorers, fishermen and so forth, and this had left behind infectious disease which the natives had no resistance against. And some very severe epidemics had really wiped out whole villages.

So when the Puritans arrived, the particular place they landed was literally a field of bones.

KEYES: The settlers kind of needed the Native Americans at that point, didnt they? Were they in kind of dire straits?

Mr. ADAMS: Oh, absolutely. They could not have survived if they hadn't had the wit to make an alliance with the Wampanoag Indians. Eventually, of course, it broke down, but for a while we can remember the good times.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes, and I'm speaking with Jim Adams, a senior historian with the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian about how Thanksgiving has evolved since it started in the 15th century.

Why did the relationship between the two parties turn bad, and when?

Mr. ADAMS: The treaty lasted for the lifetime of Massasoit and the lifetime of his oldest son. And when his younger son, known as Phillip, or Metacom, came into leadership of the tribe, the population of the English settlers had grown enormously, much more than any Indian could have foreseen back at the beginning.

And they were taking more and more land, they were encroaching more and more not only on the native lands, but on their sovereignty. And there were issues about who was going to try people who had committed crimes. Would the Indians be tried by the tribe or would the colonial government, the puritan government, arrest them and try them.

And that really led to the eruption of a very bitter war in 1676, King Philip's war, which has been called by historians as per capita the bloodiest war ever fought on the North American continent.

KEYES: So how did Thanksgiving become what it is today? Because at first it wasn't even a national holiday, right?

Mr. ADAMS: It was a melding of several currents. One was the traditional celebration of the harvest, which goes back to the English Medieval Harvest Home. And a lot of Native tribes, oh, I think almost Native tribes have that kind of celebration for their green corn festival and so forth.

There was the religious aspect of the day of Thanksgiving, which was more a day of prayer in church. And then there were local celebrations and state celebrations which kind of melded the two.

And in the mid-19th century in the buildup to the Civil War, there were people in the north who were very concerned about uniting the country through common holidays, common rituals, kind of a civic religion. And a lady named Sarah Josepha Hale, who was the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, at the time the largest circulation magazine in the country, made this her personal crusade for about 20 or 30 years, to have a national day of Thanksgiving on the same day -nationally celebrated on the same day.

KEYES: Every year you mean.

Mr. ADAMS: Every year, as a unifying holiday. And in the middle of the civil war, she persuaded Abraham Lincoln, who saw - understood civic religion very well, to declare the first national day of Thanksgiving.

KEYES: And ever since it's pretty much been what it is now? I mean, well, not necessarily with the parade and the balloons and all of that.

Mr. ADAMS: Well, that's probably a little bit later on. The start of the Christmas buying season, that may be a 20th century development, but the idea of having a feast, and even the traditional menu, I think codified in Lincoln's proclamation, and in Sarah Josepha Hale's Godey's Lady's Book which, you know, printed the first real recipes, things like that.

KEYES: Jim Adams is a senior historian at the National Museum of the American Indian. He joined us today in our NPR studios in Washington. Jim, thank you very much for your time, and happy Thanksgiving.

Mr. ADAMS: Thank you. Same to you.

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