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The First Thanksgiving" by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930). It was not the first fall harvest feast for Native Americans, however, who have celebrated since their first teachings.

Pilgrims and Thanksgivings

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Pilgrims and Thanksgivings

By Walter Hesford

… and [they] confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth


Hebrews 11.13; Geneva Bible, 156

This biblical passage, cited by William Bradford (first governor and historian of Plymouth Plantation), gave the English Separatists who voyaged here the name that has lived on in history and myth. Bradford called them “pilgrims” to explain their willingness to endure hardship and death, since they had faith that their true country was heaven. On earth — whether in England, Holland, or New England — they were but wayfaring strangers. 

More than half of the original pilgrims died during their 1620 Mayflower voyage or shortly thereafter. Those that survived did so through the food supplies, advice, and generous help of local indigenous peoples, especially the Wampanoag.  After a successful harvest through the summer and early autumn of 1621, the pilgrims and Wampanoag gathered together for a three-day feast in October.   

This year is thus the 400th anniversary of what became heralded as the First Thanksgiving.

Of course other Spanish and English settlements claim that they had had earlier Thanksgivings. Of course Thanksgivings had been celebrated for centuries back in the settlers’ home countries. And of course indigenous people had since time immemorial been giving thanks on this continent.

Nonetheless, what happened in Plymouth, New England, in 1621 became our iconic Thanksgiving, foundational to our triumphant American myth. 

What actually happened in Plymouth colony within a couple of decades was, according to Bradford, a tragedy. As their numbers increased, pilgrims morphed into mere settlers and adventurers who wanted more independence, more land, and so spread out.  In short, they became American. This undermined the communal plantation and brought on violent conflict with local tribes, resulting in the almost total destruction of their communities.

No wonder that now in Plymouth, the United American Indian Tribes of New England hold a National Day of Mourning on America’s Thanksgiving Day. They try to bring attention to the genocide of native peoples and to the theft of their land, ironically celebrated in one of our national songs as “land of the Pilgrims’ Pride” (“America”).

I have ambivalent feelings about all this. In my New England youth I was fully indoctrinated into Pilgrim mythology. I made Pilgrim hats out of construction paper and colored in scenes of the friendly Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to fertilize mounds of squash, beans, and Indian corn with fish. I spent part of each summer in a cottage by a pond near Plymouth, surrounded by cranberry bogs. We went into Plymouth for buckets of clams and doses of history

We gathered together the eve before Thanksgiving for community worship.  We gathered together Thanksgiving morning for high school football. We gather together Thanksgiving afternoon and night with lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins for lots of food, featuring, of course, turkey, cranberry sauce, and a buffet of pies. Surely all these gatherings together were good for us, body and soul.

Out West some traditions have been sustained, others waned. Naturally there is not as much attention to those Pilgrims.  There is much attention to football, but on TV. We used to have a community Thanksgiving worship service in Moscow, but no more. Thanks to kind-hearted high school students we do have a community feast, free for all. I’m sure Spokane has some community feasts, and perhaps even an interfaith worship service.

On our Thanksgiving table you will find the usual, plus sometimes competing dressings (hold the oysters, please), super sweet Southern dishes (candied yams with marshmallows? oy vey!), or a spicy side dish to give the international students we invite some relief from the hopelessly bland hunks of turkey and globs of mashed potatoes. Around the table may also be sons and grandsons and their significant others, depending on who can make it “over the river and through the woods’—or rather the rolling hills of the Palouse. 

So what can be wrong with this?  Why my ambivalence? For one thing, our thankfulness seems to be overwhelmed by our consumption. Black Friday and Cyber Monday haven’t completely swallowed Thanksgiving Thursday but they loom over us with their pressure to keep buying more in our pursuit of happiness. There is little time to actually savor a holiday.

And I have to acknowledge my white guilt over the past and present disregard for the rights of native peoples. Reparations are clearly in order but the least we can do on Thanksgiving is acknowledge our debt and express our gratitude to our country’s first peoples. 

America should not be “land of the Pilgrims’ Pride,” but land of pilgrim humility. We are wayfaring strangers, in need of faith and mutual support.

About Walter Hesford

Walter Hesford, born and educated in New England, gradually made his way West. For many years he was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, save for stints teaching in China and France. At Idaho he taught American Literature, World Literature, and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow. He and his wife Elinor enjoy visiting with family and friends and hunting for wild flowers.

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