Guest commentary: Thanksgiving 400 years ago

Mineral Daily News-Tribune
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Large round pumpkins, bursting corncribs and heaped hay mows have been associated with past Thanksgiving days. Have we thanked “little” and ate “much” of turkey, cranberry sauce, mince and pumpkin pie?

Turning our thoughts to the first celebration along the Massachusetts Bay, we are aware Thanksgiving Day has been observed since the Puritan fathers sought liberty on the shores of New England. The Preston County Journal of Kingwood in November 1893 printed background information about the 1621 Thanksgiving Celebration, 400 years ago.

Various customs using similar ideas have prevailed in different countries. In ancient times, Apollo received honors of a harvest festival. Ages old Egyptian sacrifices were offered of corn and wheat, to the mother of the sun. Wheat was considered sacred by the Egyptians.

In England harvest festivals were popular. Scottish reapers prepared “corn ladies” from corn, which they carried home and displayed in their houses.

The early settlers had memories of a day of thanksgiving before arriving on the North American shores. Those Puritan fathers, stern as they were, felt the need to be thankful for a bountiful harvest, having survived stressful and challenging experiences in the New World at the beginning.

Governor Bradford, after that first harvest of the Plymouth colony in New England, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving. The Governor sent out four men in search of game to enable those early settlers to observe a special meal. The four men returned to the settlement with several turkeys and other wild fowl.

About one year after their arrival in Cape Cod Bay, this celebration began with a solemn procession to their meeting house. The men marched three abreast with the sergeant in command. Governor Bradford followed the marching men and the Elder Brewster, clad in his preacher’s cloak, walked and carried his Bible.  Miles Standish, the warlike military chief, was there, clad in the dress code of f400 years ago.

This Thanksgiving dinner celebration was the largest family party of that era. Most of the game was cooked in the open air. Thrifty Puritan housewives concocted dishes of available edibles.  

Squanto had taught them to plant corn after the peas they tried to grow did not mature.

After dinner, psalms were sung but also favorite songs these early settlers had sung around English campfires.

In the midst of their celebration, an Indian shout was heard, causing a panic. Men grasped their weapons.  It was however, only about 100 friendly native Americans led by Chief Massasoit who had stopped to thank the white men for assistance rendered.

These visitors brought venison and while it was being prepared, the Indians gave an exhibition of their war dances—causing demure Puritan maidens to scream.

Captain Standish frightened the Indians when he put his troops through a military drill. The Indians were alarmed by the rattling of the muskets. That first Thanksgiving continued three days amid prayers, psalm singing and Indian dances. As the Indians departed, Captain Standish and his troops gave them a parting salute.

According to an old 1919 newspaper, Mrs. Sarah J. Hale could be called the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”  She was a patriotic editor of “Ladies Magazine and Godey’s Lady Book,” living in Philadelphia. She motivated George Washington to set Thursday, July 20, 1775, as a national Thanksgiving Day.  Later Abraham Lincoln aided in getting a specific Thursday.

The first national Thanksgiving Day was turkey-less and hot on July 20. However, the question why the turkey became the national bird for Thanksgiving has never been settled…mostly likely it is because this fowl is in prime order for killing at this time. The Continental Congress appointed committees to promote the idea of a special festive day of thanks.  For many years New England’s celebrations were at different times than Thanksgiving in New York.

According to the 1893 article, the first Thanksgiving Proclamation of George Washington as President of the United States was made in New York in October 1789, setting Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789 “apart to be devoted by the people of the states to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the Author of all the good that is, that was or that will be.”

Betty Bane Dzubba