History professor reflects on meaning of Thanksgiving

Published: November 27, 2015



Everyone remembers Thanksgiving as a kid. In the days leading up to it, grade school teachers helped their students make hand turkeys and pilgrim hats with big yellow buckles out of construction paper. Children put on Thanksgiving plays, dressed as pilgrims and Native Americans.

Kids end up with the image of Native Americans and the pilgrims working together engrained in their minds, sitting down together over a turkey dinner. Even today, Thanksgiving is celebrated with parades, such as The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and people sit down for a yearly meal with those close to them.

Many people have fond memories of Thanksgiving, especially growing up. It comes with a break from classes and plenty of tasty food. However, it is hard not to wonder how accurate this story taught in grade school is.

David Dzurec, the chair of the history department at The University, helped to figure out if that view of Thanksgiving really is true.

The first thing Dzurec pointed out was the date Thanksgiving is held every year.

“We have this date set in late November but the original Thanksgiving was probably mid September to early November. We don’t have a definite date,” Dzurec said.

The staple food of Thanksgiving dishes is, of coarse, the turkey. The image of that stuffed, golden bird at the center of the table is an essential American image.

Dzurec said the dishes on the table for the first Thanksgiving may not look as familiar today.

“At that meal they probably did have wild turkey but venison probably would have been the main item. Probably some eel (too),” Dzurec said.

He mentioned that there would not be stuffing and that raw cranberries would likely have been served, as opposed to the cranberry sauce eaten today.

Dzurec said the main source of most of the current views of the holiday came from the work of a woman named Sarah Hale, who lived in the mid 19th century.

Hale had read some puritan accounts of that early Thanksgiving and lobbied five consecutive presidents, who mostly ignored her, until Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863.

“This idea that Thanksgiving has been there since (the) 17th century is probably the biggest misconception,” Dzurec said.

Drurec said days of thanks giving were more common in the time of the first Thanksgiving and were not limited to only once a year. These early thanksgivings were for settlers to thank God for His benevolence and mercy. These days of thanks were called when needed, in both good times and bad.

One of the main reasons the holiday was officially taken on was in an attempt to bring the country back together after the American Civil War. Before this, the holiday was recognized only on the state level, primarily only in New England.

“Here we are in the Civil War. Let’s find a holiday that we can say is an American thing, that brings us together and let’s just be who we are,” Dzurec said.

Hale was attempting to bring the nation back together after the splitting event that was the Civil War.

Hale published a woman’s magazine, which she used to push the importance of celebrating a national Thanksgiving. She introduced stuffing to the Thanksgiving dinner table by publishing a recipe.

“It was a real grassroots movement to give us the Thanksgiving we have today,” Dzurec said.

Dzurec said the relationship with Native Americans, primarily in New England, was a healthy and prosperous one at first. Until around the 1670s, the relationship between the Native Americans and the colonists remained good. The first Thanksgiving came from that positive relationship with the Wampanoag tribe.

A Native American named Squanto, who was abducted by English fisherman, facilitated the relationship. Due to his time in England, he was able to communicate with both the English and the Native Americans. He worked as the go-between for communication between both parties.

This type of cooperation was not just in New England, however, as settlers came to North America, they forged mostly good relationships with the Native Americans around them, often establishing trade with one another.

“As the colonies popped up, the settlers tended to pair up with the native tribes in the regions they settled,” Dzurec said.

The relationship broke down when, led by Native American leader whose name was Metacom (called King Philip by the English), Native Americans launched a war against the settlers in 1675. The fighting lasted until 1678.

Dzurec said the main source of the breakdown came with the increasing settler population pushing for more and more land from the Native Americans.

Dzurec said another common misconception about the Native Americans was the size and sophistication of their society in the Americas.

Dzurec said the populations of some tribes were originally massive but were decimated by plague and disease shortly before the settlers arrived in North America.

These diseases came to North America via trade routes with South American tribes. The South American tribes were exposed to European diseases that they had no immunity to via contact with Spanish conquistadors.

The lack of immunity the Native Americans had was due to the overhunting of large animals such as the giant ground sloth and the woolly bison by early settlers on the continent.

Due to this overhunting, the Native Americans had almost no immunity to diseases the European settlers had from being around domesticated animals such as pigs and sheep.

“By the time the Europeans arrived, they brought with them all of these nasty diseases from living in close proximity to animals like cows,” Dzurec said.

These diseases were deadly to the Native American population and caused a huge number of deaths on a large scale.

“Because they had no immunity, everyone (got) sick at the same time. Nobody would be able to take care of anyone so whole communities would die off at one time,” Dzurec said.

Dzurec said the settlers did not think twice about taking over. They saw the empty village and planted crops as a gift from God, placed there to benefit them. In reality however, it was illness that paved the way for the settlers to establish their colony.

“Squanto’s village was wiped out by the same diseases prior to their arrival. It was the perfect spot for (a) village so they moved right in there, even crops already planted,” Dzurec said.

With all of this in mind, why are these factors never mentioned? Why do we choose the story to teach to children when it is so far away from the truth?

Dzurec believes this may happen due to the fact that the ideas do not fit the narrative we built for ourselves as a nation.

“A lot of the early histories we look at today (are) written by New Englanders,” Dzurec said. “After King Phillips’ War, New Englanders began excluding Native Americans from the narrative because they didn’t want them there.”

Dzurec said this narrative was dominant until the 1950s when more diverse fields of history helped to start seeing a better, more full academic picture of the American story.

“It’s a story our parents and grandparents were told and then told us, so we just sort of keep perpetuating it,” Dzurec said.

Dzurec acknowledges that while some groups’ stories may be wrongly portrayed or marginalized in American history in some aspects, the importance of a common American narrative is present.

“We have to find a way for narratives of inclusion and historical narrative isn’t,” Dzurec said. “But what are we Americans without that narrative? We need something to bring us together.”

Dzurec feels that the common thread that ties the different people together in this country is the devotion all Americans have to liberty.

“If we make liberty the narrative … protestant struggles for liberty can get a common thread between us,” Dzurec said.

Dzurec believes the narrative children are taught may not be completely accurate, but believes the value lies in a message of inclusion and cooperation for the benefit of Americans as a whole.

“Don’t white wash it but make sure that we have some stories to aspire to as well,” Dzurec said.

Contact the writer: joseph.evans2@scranton.edu

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